Las Vegas in late winter conjures up Forrest Gump's mother's proverb that life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get. Howling winds, bright sun, high altitude, eye-straining shadows and chilly nights are just a few of the elements that can confound many a tennis player. Desert tennis is particularly daunting this time of year, when many pros have emerged from the cocoon of European and North American indoor events.
Says Lleyton Hewitt: Phooey to all that. Over the course of his 12-year-pro career, one of his specialties has been an aptitude for conquering the American Southwest. Hewitt's 26 ATP singles titles include a pair at the Pacific Life Open in the Palm Springs area, another two in Scottsdale, Arizona and, most recently, the 2007 Tennis Channel Open right here in Las Vegas. "I've always liked it in these conditions, always felt comfortable out there," Hewitt said.
Monday night Hewitt kicked off his title defense with what, on the surface, appeared a daunting matchup. Like Hewitt, his opponent, Marat Safin, has also won two Grand Slam singles titles, including an impressive win over Hewitt in the final of the 2005 Australian Open.
Coming into this match their rivalry stood at 6-6. Most recently, they'd met here in the semifinals last year, a battle won by Hewitt with a revealing score line: 7-5, 6-1.
If your belief is that talent is largely confined to ball-striking and size, then Safin represents an enchanting but puzzling package. When the planets are aligned, he's able to strike the ball with exceptional pace -- and considering he's 6-foot-4, the 28-year-old can move with supreme grace. Even though a viral infection and a torn ligament in Safin's right ankle had kept him off the tour since the Australian Open, his skills are always quite visible. "Marat is a tough player to play against," Hewitt said. He has a lot of firepower."
So expectations were high for this match that began just before 8 p.m.
At which point Hewitt took out his mortar and pestle and squashed Safin like a ladybug -- in precisely the way that makes him such a compelling champion.
Evaluate how Hewitt and Safin each hit the ball and you would wonder how the Russian could lose. But there is much more to tennis that that. "People forget that tenacity is also a talent," Billie Jean King once said.
While Safin's winners draw considerable applause and awe, Hewitt's genius is the art of the ordinary. Safin may hit his share of great shots, but his career has been marked by his wavering ability to consistently strike good shots.
Hewitt is quite the opposite. His unmatched concentration, superb footwork and foot speed, alert court-management prowess and love for the competitive arena make him able to mentally handle any kind of external adversity. "Watch how well he controls the ball, how long he keeps it on his strings," said Tennis Channel analyst Corina Morariu. "That's what helps him deal with things like this altitude, or wind, or anything else."
In 56 ruthless minutes, Hewitt took the air right of Safin, pummeling him 6-2, 6-1. There came a point late in the match when some of the disappointed crowd members urged Safin to try harder. It mattered little. "I tried to mix up my play, and I think he struggled a bit," Hewitt said. "Normally, he's going to make a lot of errors. But he's also going to come up with some big winners."
Last summer Hewitt hired his fellow Aussie, the legendary Tony Roche, as his coach. Since Roche doesn't prefer to travel too often, this week Hewitt has been under the care of his former coach, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, a Las Vegas resident by dint of his five-year association with Andre Agassi. Hewitt arrived in Las Vegas more than a week ago and has practiced with Agassi.
It's been more than three years since Hewitt reached a Grand Slam final. He's now 27 years old and ranked No. 24 coming into Las Vegas. In the spirit of such battlers as Jimmy Connors and Michael Chang, Hewitt is a warrior to the end. Predictions are far less important to him than the mere act of day-in, day-out competition.
When his career is over, Hewitt will bring his car in on empty. He will have explored every possible avenue, squeezed every drop out of his tennis experience. Supreme devotion might not always make the highlight reel, but surely it's yet another of Hewitt's many underrated talents.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.