C’mon don’t hate Lleyton, he’s a nice guy
I used to hate him too. Used to cringe when he yelled “c’mooooooon”. Wanted to strangle the little effer any time he argued with umps, Australian Open CEO Paul McNamee and anyone in his path.
Used to yell “put the frikkin’ sock puppet away, jerk brain” when he did the hand-pointing thing.
Suddenly, I am experiencing a strange new emotion.
Quite simply, Lleyton Hewitt is not annoying me anymore. I think – and I say this with my finger poised just above the delete button – I think I’m actually starting to like the guy.
Right from the top, I want to make it really clear that this has nothing to do with his unexpected charge at Wimbledon this week. It’s Lleyton the man I’ve warmed to, not just Lleyton the tennis player.
That’s right, Lleyton Hewitt the man.
At the age of 28, Little Lley Lley has finally gone and grown up. Marriage, and four months at home changing nappies during an injury-enforced break will do that to a bloke. So will living away from overbearing parents.
But you know what? Spousal and fatherly responsibilities aside, I’m not sure Lleyton has actually changed that much.
It’s messing with my brain to admit it, but I’m starting to think it’s me that’s changed.
That Lleyton has been a good guy all along. That for the bulk of his 12 year career, I’ve wrongly interpreted passion as anger, individuality as self-centredness, heart-on-sleeve as in-your-face.
Talk to anyone around Hewitt and you hear stories of a guy who’s courteous to a fault. His first coach, Peter Smith, once told me he’s the most polite kid he ever coached.
Talk to Hewitt himself and you uncover an athlete with a surprisingly humble streak.
In a 2008 interview with Alpha magazine, he described himself as “two different people on and off the court”.
“I’d really like people to know that off-court I’m a family man who tries to keep as quiet and private as possible, and pretty down to earth. It would be fantastic if everyone knew that, but it’s probably a lot easier said than done.”
Talk to Lleyton’s friends like the retired cricketer Adam Gilchrist and you get a similar story. If it was Warney sticking up for him, well, you’d take the endorsement with a grain of salt the size of a boulder, but Gilly’s not a bad form line in the good bloke stakes.
The truth is, the perceived image of Lleyton the lout is deeply rooted in recent Australian history.
From his first victory as a teenager in the 1998 Adelaide International, the heights of Lleyton’s career paralleled the Howard years. The years of kids overboard, of Hansonism, and much later, the Cronulla riots.
Years when our national day became overrun by ugly nationalism and the beaches of Gallipoli would be strewn with beer bottles.
Against this cultural backdrop, Hewitt rose to become World Number One, a Davis Cup winner and dual Grand Slam champ.
Those who didn’t like the public face of Australia projected its ugliest elements onto the Adelaide scrapper, all the while idolising that universal good guy, Pat Rafter.
But in hindsight, Hewitt and Rafter were never that different. And Hewitt himself was never that bad.
For every dodgy incident on- or off-court incident, there was an explanation we rejected which seems plausible now. For every flare-up, there were a hundred worse examples from other players.
Remember John McEnroe? The American was worshipped for his fiery outbursts, because let’s face it, they were bloody funny. Lleyton never had a comic’s timing or delivery and for that, he was declared a yob.
So enough already. Let’s appreciate the guy while we’ve still got him. Matter of fact, let’s idolise him the way Argentine World Number Five Juan Martin del Potro – who Hewitt beat this week – did when he was a kid.
Lleyton grew up wanting to win Wimbledon. Let’s celebrate the fact he achieved his goals, and hope we can get half as far, instead of sneering at the narrow road paved by his sport-mad parents.
And let’s put our love affair with Pat Rafter on hold until he shows something approaching sympathy for the sacked employees of Bonds – who pay him a rich endorsement fee for playing undies tennis with Michael Clarke.
Above all, let’s respect Lleyton for showing the one thing that unites all Aussies from the Sauv Blanc set to the Four’N Twenty eaters – his never say die attitude.
As you’re no doubt aware, New Idea magazine was recently hauled over legal coals for inventing a new man in Bec Hewitt’s life.
Turns out, they were half right. There is a new man, at least in the eyes of those Australians big enough to conceded they were brainwashed. His name’s Lleyton.
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