Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With tennis' hardcourt season set to get underway in Los Angeles next week, can anyone challenge Lleyton Hewitt for the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking?
Fresh off his first-ever title run at the world's premier tennis event (Wimbledon), the high-flying Hewitt has opened a comfortable 127-point lead over Russian Marat Safin atop the 2002 ATP Champions Race. The Aussie has piled up 524 points with a strong 39-7 record this year, including a tour- leading four titles.
The scalding-hot Adelaide native has won 14 straight and 17 of his last 18 matches overall, including a third straight title at the Queen's Club Wimbledon tune-up event last month.
The world No. 1 star is a brilliant 15-2 on hardcourts this season, including championship runs in San Jose (Andre Agassi) and Indian Wells (Tim Henman). He failed to capture a pair of hardcourt tournaments earlier in the year, as a bout with chicken pox slowed the fiery Aussie in January's Australian Open and talented Swiss Roger Federer upended the reigning U.S. Open champion in the semifinals at the "Fifth Slam" in Miami back in March.
Hewitt has won 14 straight and 17 of his last 18 matches overall.
The 21-year-old recently became the first baseliner in 10 years (Agassi) to title at Wimbledon, which typically presents its championship trophy to a serve-and-volley specialist, i.e. Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic, etc. But Hewitt turned the trick at the All England Club by unleashing his powerful groundstrokes from the back of the court and running down just about everything in sight with his blazing speed. His well- documented court coverage and return of serve are second to none in the game right now.
Two years ago, it was Safin who roared to victory at the U.S. Open and appeared to be the man to beat for years to come, but it's Hewitt who has seized the day by winning two of the last four Grand Slam events and a Masters Cup and holding down the No. 1 ranking since last fall.
Just like Safin did in 2000, Hewitt blasted the great Sampras in the 2001 U.S. Open final, but, unlike Safin, the Aussie has not looked back on his way to racquet supremacy. Hewitt went on to claim the Champions Race last year and currently rests atop both the Race and official men's world rankings, the Singles Entry System, where he also holds a large lead over Safin on that ledger.
Is there anyone around besides Hewitt with a realistic shot at year-end No. 1?
The inconsistent Safin has yet to win a title this year; Henman has had a solid '02 campaign, but is a dismal 0-3 against Hewitt this season; French Open champion Albert Costa should not be much of a factor off clay; and Agassi, who's currently fifth in the Race, is just too far off Hewitt's pace, 192 points back. Agassi should heat it up over the next couple of months, but a determined Hewitt's not goin' anywhere.
Did I forget to mention Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson? Of course not. The Swede hasn't done much of anything since going 7-0 in Melbourne nearly six months ago.
Safin and Henman will hang around, as both players are among the world's best hardcourt performers, but neither one is likely to overtake the surging Hewitt.
Maybe Serena Williams could pose a threat to the speedy Aussie if she played on the men's circuit? Just kidding. Let's not forget that as great as Serena is, she has lost to the likes of fellow women Meghann Shaughnessy, Patty Schnyder and Justine Henin this year. This is not a knock on Serena, it's just a writer putting things in perspective.
For my money, Hewitt is the best Aussie player since John Newcombe soared in the early- to mid-70's. Sorry, Pats (Rafter and Cash, that is). Hewitt is the first Aussie to own both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles at the same time since "Rocket" Rod Laver in 1969. He also gave Australia its first Wimbledon champ since Cash in 1987.
Hewitt, who has played on the tour for less than five years, will likely hoist several more trophies over the next five, including additional hardware at the U.S. Open later this summer. He may even be getting bored with whipping everyone's collective rear ends on the tennis court, so much so that he intends to play in a charity Australian Rules Football game in September.
Is it me, or is the 5-11, 150-pound Hewitt a bit small for Aussie Rules Football? I don't really follow the sport, but having said that, I wouldn't expect him to be much of a factor in that particular contest. Hewitt did play Aussie Rules ball until the age of 13, but I'm guessing he made the right call by ultimately pursuing tennis as a profession. His father Glynn was a former Aussie Rules player.
As far as tennis is concerned, however, the sub-six-foot Hewitt has shown that size doesn't matter...unless you're talking about his considerable heart.