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Lleyton Hewitt, a Brash Talent

January 17, 2001 GMT

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ Lleyton Hewitt is street tough, a tennis gladiator with a blonde ponytail whose grit and talent have invited comparisons to the greats of the sport.

``I like this Aussie kid,″ John McEnroe once wrote in a newspaper column. ``I’m keeping an eye on him. He’s got attitude, the kind you need if you’re going to go to the very top.″

Hewitt does not turn 20 until next month. So it’s way too early to rank him beside the likes of Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors or his idol and compatriot, Rod Laver.

But the credentials are piling up: No. 7 in the world, seven tournament titles and, last year, the youngest U.S. Open semifinalist since Pete Sampras in 1990.

He put on a vintage display _ replete with glares, expletives and barks of ``Come on!″ _ on center court at the Australian Open on Tuesday with a five-set, first round win over Sweden’s Jonas Bjorkman. The match ended well after midnight to a full, cheering house.

Hewitt has an arsenal of powerful groundstrokes and considers his topspin lob to be his best shot. Agassi once said he was like Michael Chang, the indefatigable 1989 French Open champion, only with a better serve.

But what distinguishes Hewitt, Davis Cup teammates and tennis experts say, is how he pushes himself to victory even when his game slips a notch or two.

``You’ve got to draw on something in your will, in your body,″ Hewitt said after defeating Bjorkman. ``You’ve got to stay positive out there. That’s the main thing. Once you start believing that you’re beaten, then you are beaten. You know, in any of my matches, I never believe that I’m beaten until, you know, you shake your hands at the net.″

On Thursday, he faces the Tommy Haas. The German, ranked No. 23, beat Hewitt a couple of weeks ago in a Grand Slam tuneup in his hometown of Adelaide.

Devoted to tennis since 13, Hewitt wears a baseball cap backward over his ponytail. He runs on sand dunes near his home and likes Sylvester Stallone’s ``Rocky″ movies. He pumps himself before matches by listening to high-octane rock songs such as ``Eye of the Tiger.″

For some players, though, Hewitt’s brashness is too much. Spain’s top player, Alex Corretja, last month criticized Hewitt’s behavior after beating the Australian in the Masters Cup in Portugal.

``Hewitt is an unfriendly guy and he thinks he’s a know-it-all when he’s on the court. He doesn’t have any respect for the opponent,″ said Corretja, widely considered one of the most amiable pros on the tour.

Australian Patrick Rafter, the No. 12 seed and two-time U.S. Open champion, said Hewitt is a player who needs to go his own way.

``Lleyton’s got to do what works for him,″ Rafter said. ``He’s one of these guys that if he knows it’s going to work for him, then he will do it. Regardless of what anyone thinks or says about him, he will just do what he has to do to win.″

Hewitt used to be prone to tactless remarks, once calling Australian crowds stupid. These days, he’s more careful. At a charity event last weekend, he politely hit a few balls with Laver on a new stadium court at Melbourne’s tennis center.

Loved or not, Hewitt is a welcome jolt to a sport where many players display little emotion. But Hewitt pumps his fist and thumps his chest. Against Bjorkman, he fed off the home crowd, and the fans adored him for it.

``There’s a lot of positive energy and vibes I could draw from out there,″ he said. ``They helped me get over the line.″

He even praised the raucous minority of Swedish fans.

``They’re always there with their faces painted and their bodies painted and yelling out each side to each other,″ he said. ``I think it’s good for tennis.″

John Fitzgerald, Australia’s new Davis Cup captain, likes what he sees in his protege.

``For anyone watching, he’s a real fighter,″ he said. ``They get more than their money’s worth when he’s on court. He’s a real entertainer. He gives 100 percent every time he goes on court and that’s extremely important. He never likes to give an inch.″