Hewitt's Grand ambition to challenge the Swiss supremacy

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The Independent Online

For someone with the fierce competitive juices of Lleyton Hewitt, second is never the place to be. Second, however, is where the 24-year-old Australian finds himself in the tennis rankings, toiling in the slipstream of Roger Federer, and he readily acknowledges that is where he belongs.

For someone who topped those rankings for 75 weeks, the youngest No 1 ever, Hewitt concedes that second-best "sticks in the throat a little bit," but insists, "Right now Roger is the No 1 player and there's no point in saying I am when I'm not." However, Hewitt wants to get one thing straight: "That doesn't mean I'm playing worse than when I was No 1. It's just that Roger has taken the game to a new level. You've got to try and keep working on your game, try to become a better player. When you look at [Andre] Agassi and see he has been in the top five, top 10, for so many years when the game keeps getting better and better, it is pretty amazing."

What is equally amazing is that reclaiming the No 1 ranking is no longer Hewitt's burning ambition. "Now, winning Grand Slam events means a lot more to me." Accordingly, his playing schedule is planned these days around the sport's four majors and the other competition so close to his heart, the Davis Cup and Australia's involvement in it.

It is Hewitt's love of Cup and country which saw his ranking slip to 17 two years ago, as he cut back on tournament commitments in a bid (a successful one) to see Australia win the grand old trophy again. The memory makes him smile. "A lot of people were writing about how bad I was playing, but I only played half as many tournaments as anyone else and was still able to beat people like Federer and [Juan Carlos] Ferrero in Davis Cup at the end of the year. So I wasn't struggling that much."

There have been struggles this year, though, against injury. Hewitt arrived in London a week ago not having played a competitive match since mid-March. He sustained toe damage at the Indian Wells Masters Series event, where he lost the final to Federer, and while in rehabilitation suffered a further bizarre accident at the new home in Sydney he shares with his bride-to-be, Australian soap actress Bec Cartwright, slipping while descending a polished staircase in stockinged feet and cracking two ribs.

So, having opted to take a month's break after the Australian Open in order to prepare for the Davis Cup tie against Austria and to finalise plans for his wedding this summer, Hewitt finds himself short of match practice after Friday's abrupt dismissal in the Stella Artois quarter-finals by Ivo Karlovic, his first-round nemesis at Wimbledon two years ago. But there is, he insists, no question mark against his fitness with Wimbledon a week away. "My fitness is something that's never going to let me down." Nor, he claims, will his concentration and discipline. "That's all part of my game, something I've always had. Mentally, I know the game as well as anyone. In big, tough situations I don't choose the wrong option that many times".

The tough matches of the past few days at the Stella (a tournament he won three straight years from 2000-02) have come in handy at what he claims is "one of my favourite times of the year" because of his growing affection for Wimbledon. "The more you go back the more you love it," he says. "The aura gets to you, seeing the names of all the past champions. People said I wasn't big enough to do well on grass, or that I should serve and volley more. I just said 'stuff it, I'm going to play my game and make it work'." This he did so well that Wimbledon capitulated to the Hewitt style in 2002.

Now, while admitting that Federer is favourite to clock up a third straight victory at the All England Club, he says: "I've got a pretty good chance of getting through to the second week and then anything can happen. That's the key at Wimbledon, trying to survive the first week. The guys I've lost to in my last few finals, Marat [Safin] in the Aussie Open and Roger in most of the others, have had to play some pretty scary tennis to beat me. In all those matches I've played good tennis.

"It's taken a hell of a player to beat me every time. I would like to get a little bit better by the time Wimbledon starts, but the longer I stay in it the better I'll get throughout the tournament. Come next Monday I'll be ready to go."

Next month Hewitt will marry Bec, otherwise Hayley Smith in the Australian programme Home and Away, and a baby is due in October. The whirlwind, showbiz nature of the romance following his abrupt termination of his engagement to Kim Clijsters last November startled the tennis world, but he is adamant that neither the comparison with the Beckhams nor fatherhood is likely to nudge him from his chosen path. "Tennis is my job and my attitude to the game won't change. In fact, in a lot of ways, marriage and a baby will put tennis in perspective more.

"Any time I step on court I'll be competitive, don't worry about that. That's just me and it's not going to change whether I'm a father or not. I'm not half-hearted at anything, it's just not me."