Monday, January 25, 2010

Australian Open Day 8: Rusty

Curtain Call

Player: Lleyton Hewitt
Nation: Australia
Age: 28
Current Ranking: 22
Tour Page
Player Website
Today's Result: loss to Roger Federer (1st seed, Switzerland) in straight sets

Mr. Hewitt requires no introduction. He is one of but a handful of active players on the men's side who are recognizable by name and face to those with a peripheral interest in tennis. After struggling against him early in his career, Roger now owns Hewitt. This was Fed's 15th consecutive victory over Rusty, covering a six year span. Nonetheless, the fourth round result is a big improvement on Hewitt's first round exit last year.

This is technically Hewitt's home Slam but he is not exactly embraced by the Australian public. Though he has mellowed with age, Hewitt has a well-earned reputation for surliness. While the Aussie faithful would surely love for one of their own to win the title here (hasn't happenned since 1978 and won't happen this year as Sam Stosur is out of the women's draw as well) one expects they would probably prefer someone a bit more likeable. I don't think it's coincidental that Aussie fans seem far more eager to claim foreign players as their own than are fans at other Slams.

Fair or unfair, Hewitt's career will forever be linked with that of Marat Safin (Russia). They are close in age and, at least early on, their careers followed very similar paths. Each won his first Slam at the US Open against Pete Sampras in the final - in consecutive years, no less. Together, they seemed poised to take over the sport as the Sampras-Agassi axis declined. Little did they know that Federer and Nadal were coming up behind them. While Hewitt and Safin each took a turn at #1, Hewitt quite a long one, it was clear their era was over once Federer took up residence at the top. Both were dogged by less than stellar reputations - Hewitt for being obnoxious, Safin for being, well, crazy.

And yet, while Hewitt has been seen as the overachiever and Safin as the underachiever, Safin has always been more popular with the public. While facebook fan pages are an admittedly unscientific measure of mass appeal, it is not insignificant that Safin's is ten times the size of Hewitt's. It certainly doesn't hurt that Safin is better looking but there's a lot more to it than that. While Safin has been absolutely maddening for anyone who has chosen to follow his career, he has never antagonized the public as Hewitt has.

In a way, it does make one appreciate Rafael Nadal all the more. It is possible to play the indomitable warrior during the match and then become beautifully human as soon as it's over. That's how you get 2 million on your fan page.

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