Hewitt and Nalbandian a Hot One at Australian Open

Posted on January 25, 2005

By Richard Vach

Things will get hot Wednesday at the Australian Open, and we're not just talking about the temperatures, which are expected to climb into the 100s.

Lleyton Hewitt is looking to re-establish himself among the elite players and challenge Roger Federer in 2005. Part of Hewitt's plan is turning his personal volume level to 11, screaming at the top of his lungs upon winning big points (even if they consist of opponents' routine unforced errors), pumping his fist and glaring at opponents, or flipping the annoying "vicht" (pronounced like "fished" but with a "v") sign, which is Hewitt pointing at his own forehead with a backwards hand puppet.

Don't ask, the Swedes made it up.

Hewitt adopted the vicht, made popular by Mats Wilander in the 1980s, co-opting its original meaning. Wilander, and the Swedes who still employ it today such as Jonas Bjorkman, used the gesture as a personal celebration, with a rough translation "For sure." Hewitt uses it as another f-you message to opponents, much like Jimmy Connors turning away after a big point and grabbing his crotch.

So far during this Australian Open Hewitt has been mocked by James Blake, spat at by Juan Ignacio Chela, and barbecued by the Australian press, who long for an Aussie champ who doesn't come across an an arrogant prick. With Hewitt showing up in Melbourne so muscled-up after the short off-season, and with tennis' crack drug-testing oversight, it almost makes you wonder if Hewitt is suffering from 'roid rage.

As the Australian publication SMH wrote of the Hewitt-Blake match: "At 7-7, and having already saved a set point, Hewitt produced a superb volleyed lob that left Blake stranded at the net, a shot so perfectly executed the American could merely stand paralyzed and clap his hand on his racquet. And there Blake stayed, standing and clapping for what seemed like minutes, waiting for Hewitt to respond -- to put up a hand, flash a smile or simply acknowledge he was part of a great match with a worthy opponent. But Hewitt had already turned his back and was engaged in his traditional fist-waving, heart-thumping orgy of self-congratulation. He turned not to Blake but to the salivating Fanatics occupying the 14 seats Hewitt had provided for them. And so an instant when two athletes could have acknowledged each other's contribution to a special moment became another piece of cheap, jingoistic theatre."

A large section of the youth population has gotten behind Hewitt, whose brash antics endear him to the it's-all-about-me youngsters (and not so youngsters) who make up the Hewitt fan base. So good are the youngsters at imitating Hewitt that it's surprising they haven't introduced a new dance, "The Lleyton," into the clubs in Melbourne. You get down one one knee and jerk your arm back and forth like you can't start your lawnmower, strike your chest repeatedly with your other arm, then do a half-break spin, leaping to your feet with a vicht, then you wave your fist in your dance partners face and scream "C'mon! C'mmmooooooooooon!" Do The Lleyton.

The much-vaunted legend of Australian sportsmanship, embodied by greats Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche and recently Patrick Rafter among others, has left the building. Though the situation is an improvement from years back when Hewitt accused a black linesman of making calls in favor of Blake due to their similar racial make-up during their match at the US Open.

Nalbandian has already stated he will not be happy if Hewitt ups the antics during their match tonight.

"It's not easy when you have one guy behind the net doing that...it's not very good for the sport," Nalbandian said of Hewitt. "If he won a point that's fine but when you do a mistake or something like that, that's the worst thing, I think."

The pressure on Hewitt will be enormous Wednesday evening, especially since the Australian's game has been hanging by a thread during the event.

Blake was up a set and ready to make it 2-0 before he tightened up against the Aussie in the second round. Chela took the second set in their match-up before Lleyton's antics destroyed his mental capacity for keeping groundstrokes within the lines. And in the quarterfinals Hewitt was down 1-2 sets to unseeded Rafael "The Prodigy" Nadal before heat and cramping waylaid the Spaniard.

Hewitt, for his part, is suffering from a hip injury. Combine that with Nalbandian, sidelined last year for more than four months with ankle, abdominal and thigh injuries, and you'll be lucky to see a completed match.

Whether you enjoy or despise Hewitt's run this year at the Australian Open, like watching a car crash in slow motion, it's hard to take your eyes off it.

At this point the many proud fans of Australian tennis and its heritage have to be wondering -- a champion, but at what price?