Problem child Hewitt grows up to be a hero

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The Independent Online

The thaw is not complete, but the ice is definitely melting. As Lleyton Hewitt reflects on a momentous week that saw him crowned world No 1 at the Tennis Masters Cup in Sydney, there are signs that the public is finally learning to love the problem child of Australian sport.

Hewitt's precocious talent has never been in question, but his fiery, fist-pumping style alienated many spectators. If Pat Rafter – that most decent and self-effacing of blokes – was the archetypal Australian hero, the brash youngster from Adelaide was the antithesis. Now, as Rafter prepares to take an indefinite break, the latter is starting to win over his critics.

There were few histrionics this week as Hewitt methodically worked his way through the end-of-season tournament to reach today's final against France's Sebastien Grosjean. He was self-contained on court, mature and thoughtful in interviews. He politely declined to discuss his aspirations regarding the top ranking until it was safely within his grasp.

His victory in a round-robin match against Rafter on Friday, at the age of 20, made him the youngest end-of-year No 1 player. Yesterday's newspapers hailed "King Lleyton" and "the conquering hero". The crowds at Sydney's SuperDome have warmed to him. "Love you, Lleyton," called one female fan as he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-4 6-3 in the semi-finals.

If Hewitt has come of age, the turning point was the US Open. At Flushing Meadow, he not only won his first Grand Slam title but also became embroiled in his most damaging row yet, appearing to suggest a black linesman was favouring his African-American opponent, James Blake.

The ensuing outcry seems to have had a sobering effect on Hewitt, although he has lost none of the fire in his belly. Yesterday he outpaced the athletic Ferrero despite a strained hamstring that almost forced him to pull out of the match. He had injured himself against Andre Agassi on Wednesday, he said; no one watching had an inkling of a problem until he appeared with his leg strapped.

Hewitt has displayed the same guts and mental toughness since he burst on to the circuit at the age of 15 and went on to defeat Agassi on his way to winning his first title in Adelaide in 1998. Rafter called him, affectionately, "a stubborn little mongrel" on Friday.

His rise has been swift – he was 60th in the world at the beginning of last year – and rarely free of controversy. At this year's Australian Open, he was fined for swearing. At the French Open, he was forced to apologise after calling French umpires "spastics".

The low point in his frosty relationship with the Australian public came two years ago, when he accused home crowds of being "stupid" after he was barracked for questioning line calls in Adelaide.

Columnists called him the new superbrat of tennis, but those who know him well say that Hewitt is misunderstood. "He is a really nice young man, and he has exceptionally good manners," says his Davis Cup team-mate Todd Woodbridge. Jason Stoltenberg, another veteran Australian player, says: "Off the court he's quiet, he's a great little bloke and all the guys like him."

Hewitt may be starting to mellow, but he will never be a Rafter or an Ian Thorpe; it is not in his nature. Shane Warne is more his cup of tea. But friends say that his brittleness is deceptive. Like a naughty child who pushes away his parents, he wants to be loved.

His prodigious achievements are not in doubt. This year he has accumulated 78 wins and five titles, beating Pete Sampras on grass, Gustavo Kuerten on clay and Agassi on hardcourt.

Questions are already being asked about how long he can remain at No 1. He has been plagued by a breathing ailment, and his style of play means that burn-out is an obvious risk. For the moment, he is sustained by "an inner self-belief that I'm able to match it with any guy on any surface". For Hewitt, self-confidence has never been a problem.