Sunday, March 1, 2009

The disappearance of Lleyton

My favorites were the 'Lleykis'. For the uninformed, Lleykis were those adolescent girls (and some boys) who idolized the relationship between Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters, spending hours online mooning over them and posting photo evidence of their love. When Lleyton and Kim broke up, some Lleykis probably had to be put on suicide watch.

There was a time when Lleyton Hewitt was all the topic of conversation. He seemed to have a knack for making himself the center of attention, both positive and negative. In one corner, you had hordes of Lleykis planning every detail of his anticipated wedding to Kim. In the next corner, you had his monstrous fights with the media (both American and Australian), and allegations of racism. (The words “look at him!“ have never been screamed with such venom or followed by such an ugly fallout.) Then there were his legal battles with the ATP over his refusal to do certain pre-match interviews. Not to mention his recent legal drama with his former management company. All this in between posing for the camera with his wife and children.

There was a time when you couldn’t open the sports page without reading some new development in the chaotic life of Lleyton Hewitt. His engagement to the soap star seemed to come out of the blue, occurring as it did mere six weeks after he broke the collective hearts of Lleykis everywhere by ending his relationship with Kim Clijsters. Or maybe she broke up with him. I never cared enough to ferret out the details of their story.

I always felt that the publicity around their relationship spoke volumes about the true nature of the man himself. He seemed to be the type of man who could only be involved in a relationship that was constantly being talked about.

Some men seem to choose their partners as much for love as they do for the publicity. Such men thrive in relationships that are constantly spotlighted. Some women do too. One gets the sense that women like Madonna and JLo would shrivel up and die the day the cameras stop following their every move. That was my sense of Lleyton Hewitt. I always felt that the cameras mattered more than the tennis, the publicity more than the form, the notoriety more than the commitment.

Which is not intended to imply that Lleyton Hewitt was ever anything other than committed to his tennis. What his detractors criticized as arrogance, his fans relabeled as passion. Where some saw him as boorish, spoilt, and rude, just as many saw him as feisty, aggressive, and committed. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Lleyton’s battles with Tennis Australia were the ones I found most fascinating. He argued that Tennis Australia was not doing everything within its power to help him win. He felt that they should have adjusted the surface used in the Australian Open to better suit his aggressive counterpunching style. He argued that similar adjustments had been made in other countries to help players have an advantage on their home surface. I remember thinking that his argument would have more weight if Tim Henman ever won Wimbledon. Fat chance.

But Lleyton seems to have disappeared. Not from the front pages of gossip rags where he remains a best-selling presence. He was even once accused by an Australian psychologist of exploiting his children. No, Tabloid Fodder Lleyton is alive and well. But Tennis Lleyton has been slowly fading. Once the youngest player to be ranked #1, now he barely scrapes into the top 100.

I mentioned to a friend recently that Lleyton's slow disappearance seems to have coincided with his decision to get married. My friend replied that it was the loss of testosterone. He believes that unmarried tennis players perform better because they remain pumped up by testosterone. He started checking off the number of players whose downslide seemed to start with their decision to get married and start a family. “Marriage is a passion killer”, he concluded. “It’s hard to continue to care. Who wants to be in a locker-room with other naked men belching and farting when you could stay home and cuddle your beautiful wife?” I found it hard to disagree with him.

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