Lleyton Hewitt again crosses the line – and a foot fault judge!

I have a theory about last night’s Lleyton Hewitt roller coaster loss to Marat Safin when earlier he looked to be cruising towards a two sets to one lead and the momentum still going his way in the third.

If the first set 6-1 margin to Hewitt was an aberration as Safin battled to get himself remotely into the contest, so it also appeared a little bizarre how Safin came back to unconvincingly win the next 6-3. But then normal service was resumed and Hewitt raced to a 3-0 lead in the third set.

Until this point it had been a rather subdued Hewitt where even his first “C’mon” didn’t appear until the second set, and even then it was almost offered up as a polite entreaty. It was obvious Hewitt was out to win not only the championship, but to also if not win over his army of critics, at least give them as little amunition as possible to detract from the way he went about trying to win the final as the nation looked on.

But keeping his dark side under lock and key ultimately proved futile. There he was in the third set undeterred by the unexpected Safan second set 6-3 revival, as Lleyton broke back and raced to a 3-1 lead before Safin craftily put a spoke in the Hewitt wagon wheel by calling for treatment to buy himself some time to either get his head clear, or mess with Hewitt’s. It seemed to work when the Russian fought his way back into the contest to twice break Hewitt and ultimately win that vital third set 6-4 when it looked to be Hewitt’s for the taking. Safan then repeated the same scoreline in the deciding fourth set and ruin Hewitt’s championship bid. While there was no choke and he still went down with all guns blazing, he was then powerless to halt the rampaging Russian whose serve in the end became his “H bomb”.

But if you go back to when Hewitt was facing a break point and leading 4-2 in the third set, to Hewitt’s distress he was foot faulted, before he then won the point, only to then immediately round on the hapless foot fault judge as he gesticulated with pointed finger and made his disgust and disdain for their call visible. It was nasty, intimidating and exactly why when he oversteps the line he comes across as so offensive against officials who can do nothing but cop his abuse. There are no excuses for such excessive retaliation – let alone the judge was proven right! I doubt the warning for unsportsmanlike conduct mattered to him one jot as he feeds off such hostility which John Newcombe has the nerve to liken to a war!

But I couldn’t help thinking immediately after this appalling lapse that at the back of his mind there must still be a small voice telling him he had just “lost it” and given the media the very ammunition he promised himself he would stay away from. Now “the haters” would be all over him for his petulance, and that had to cause him a degree of mental confusion as he tried to ignore the guilt of knowing he had again transgressed. So taking careful note of that point in the game; was it sheer coincidence that this confrontation marked his decline? Or that maybe he also fired up Safin even more by making Safin feel compelled to complain to the umpire; where no doubt Safin voiced his concern that Hewitt’s outburst could influence the lines people to want to avoid risking the ire of Hewitt in a tight call.

What’s not beyond dispute is that Safin stormed back and while Hewitt bravely scrapped and chased for every point, Safin had too many weapons and despite how own odd lapse, managed to keep his cool enough to win the last two sets 6-4, 6-4.

Hewitt’s glare, words muttered and finger accusingly pointed at the foot fault judge in that third set was exactly the sort of ugly incident that he seems incapable of leaving in his kit bag for any length of time, despite some noticeable efforts to tone down such excesses in recent days. That incident again highlighted that when push comes to shove – it’s this bullying behaviour that has to be taken out on somebody; that so many of us find objectionable no matter how much we admire his talent for the game of tennis.

Sure his graciousness in defeat ultimately at the end of a hard fought four set championship that was no one-horse race, as he displayed obvious congratulations to Safin at the net and again in his losing speech, is the very admirable side of Hewitt we know. But that can’t excuse away his third set meltdown. It’s the very core of why a significant section of the Australian public can’t balance the ledger between his brattish excesses and what we all know makes him such a tennis talent.

For a man the Australian sporting public would love to take to their hearts for all the right reasons – Hewitt keeps coming up with reasons to stop us in our tracks and question the very notion of not only what makes a champion sportsman, but what is acceptable behaviour in becoming one?