PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) -
With an apparent changing of the guard upon us in men's tennis, can the mighty Marat Safin be challenged in the near future by teenage Aussie Lleyton Hewitt?
The 20-year-old Safin appears to be the man to beat right now, with an ATP Tour-leading five titles this season, including the incredible straight-set dismantling of the legendary Pete Sampras in the U.S. Open final. But Hewitt, even younger than Safin at the tender age of 19, shows many of the same qualities as his Russian counterpart.
Safin possesses powerful strokes and great athleticism, but so does Hewitt, who opposed Sampras in the U.S. Open semifinals, engaging the big-hitting American in a hard-fought, 2-hour and 36-minute three-set slugfest. Hewitt, who also gave way to Pete in a semifinal match in Miami earlier this season, sent notice at the Open that he has arrived.
The spry Aussie paired with Belarusian Max Mirnyi to capture the U.S. Open men's doubles title after entering the competition as non- seeds. Hewitt and Mirnyi became the first-ever unseeded team to title at the Open.
Hewitt, who is listed a 5-foot-11 but appears to be shorter than that in person, fired a remarkable 23 aces at Sampras at the Open, something Sampras usually does to his opponents. The Aussie's fastest serve at the Flushing fortnight was clocked at 123 miles per hour, against Sampras.
Hewitt's cool, sage-like display of tennis that belies his 19 years allowed him to become the youngest U.S. Open semifinalist since Sampras turned the trick in 1990.
The lean, 145-pound Aussie star is tenacious on the tennis court, firing up himself and fans with a feisty fist-pumping spirit. An Australian Jimmy Connors, if you will, right on down to his return of serve expertise.
One of the most physically fit players on the circuit, Hewitt features great speed, as most players consider him to be the fastest man in tennis.
The Adelaide native is an aggressive baseliner with huge groundstrokes. Sampras called him "the future of men's tennis" after the Aussie subdued him in the championship match at the Stella Artois Wimbledon tune-up. Sampras would later refer to Safin as "the future of tennis" following his tattooing at the hands of the big Russian in the Big Apple.
Hewitt has yet to breakthrough in a Grand Slam, but keep in mind that he's still men's tennis' version of a puppy, at 19.
Since turning pro in 1998, Hewitt has made a steady climb up the ATP ladder. After ending 1998 as the No. 113 performer on the planet, Hewitt has soared to No. 7 (his current spot in the Singles Entry System), after entering the year as No. 22 in the world. The fiery all-courter is currently fifth in the new-for-2000 Champions Race, where Safin rests as No. 1.
Hewitt rushed out to a torrid start in 2000, rattling off three hardcourt titles, including two in his native land (Adelaide and Sydney), by mid-March. Combined with the grass-court Stella Artois crown, the young Aussie boasts four championships this season. Only Safin (5) has hoisted more hardware in the new millennium. The high- energy Hewitt is 52-14 in singles this year, including a solid 34-8 on hardcourts.
Hewitt and Safin have yet to meet this season -- a most entertaining one on the men's tour. The pair's only chance encounter came last year in Stuttgart (a former Super 9 and now Tennis Masters Series tournament), where Safin prevailed, 7-6 (9-7), 3-6, 6-2. Needless to say, it would be great for the sport if these two could start to lock horns on a regular basis.
Hewitt and Safin own the same amount of career titles (6), but the Russian has the edge with his U.S. Open plaudits.
Last year, Hewitt became the youngest man to finish in the Top 25 since Andrei Medvedev in 1992. Hewitt also helped his country to the Davis Cup title in 1999, and played a key role in helping the Aussies return to this year's Davis Cup final (vs. Spain in Barcelona in December).
Hewitt was supposed to be part of a strong Australian men's tennis contingent at the Summer Games in Sydney, but that didn't end up being the case. He was joined on the not-so-formidable squad by two-time U.S. Open champion and 2000 Wimbledon finalist Patrick Rafter, huge-serving Mark Philippoussis, the always colorful and exciting Andrew Ilie, and doubles legends Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, a.k.a. the "Woodies," who were stunned by Hewitt and Mirnyi in the second round at the U.S. Open. Mirnyi then shocked Hewitt in the opening round singles at the Olympics, where Safin was also stunned (by Frenchman Fabrice Santoro) in his first match Down Under.
Hewitt, a.k.a. "Dynamite Kid" and "Speedy," played Australian Rules Football until the age of 13 before deciding to pursue a tennis career. That was probably a good idea for the undersized footballer.
It's too early to tell if Hewitt will join the all-time great Aussies -- "Rocket" Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche, etc. -- but this rising star, he of the pony tail and signature backwards Nike baseball cap, is fun to watch and certainly is a breath of fresh air on the ATP Tour.