Hewitt is up, way up, Down Under

Monday, November 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Lleyton Hewitt has a plan to mark his No. 1 ranking and Masters Cup title: a celebratory drink before settling down to concentrate on the Davis Cup final.

``I've got to put my head down and try and finish off the year with a Davis Cup win,'' he said. ``It would be a great way to finish off the year for me.''

Hewitt and Australia play France on Nov. 30-Dec. 2, and a probable rematch looms with Sebastien Grosjean.

On Sunday, Hewitt defeated Grosjean 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 in the season finale, winning the $3.7 million Masters Cup for his sixth title of the year. Only Gustavo Kuerten, whom he replaced at No. 1, won as many titles in 2001.

``I feel good in myself ... the way that I'm playing, the way I'm handling myself at the moment,'' Hewitt said.

Hewitt dropped to his knees and then flopped on his back behind the baseline after match point.

``It's been a dream two months,'' he said. ``Since winning the U.S. Open, it's been getting better and better.''

The 20-year-old Hewitt won the U.S. Open in September for his first Grand Slam title and is the youngest man ever to hold the No. 1 ranking. Jimmy Connors was 22 when he finished No. 1 in 1974, the year after computerized rankings were introduced, and Marat Safin was a month older than Hewitt when he briefly held the top spot late last year.

Hewitt had a 79-17 record, including a season-high 17-match winning streak. With the $1.52 million he earned for his undefeated run in Sydney, he pushed his 2001 prize money above $3.7 million.

Hewitt went into the Masters Cup trailing Kuerten, the defending champion, by 48 points in the Champions Race. The Aussie clinched the top ranking before the semifinals when he beat Patrick Rafter.

Kuerten lost all his matches in Sydney and failed to add to his 771 Champions Race points. He finished the year at No. 2, followed by Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

After dropping the opening set against Grosjean in a round-robin match last Monday, Hewitt didn't lose another set. He defeated Agassi, Rafter and then Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semis.

``It's given me confidence _ the players I've beaten this week and the way that I've done it,'' Hewitt said. ``When I settled in and started to play my own game, I played some of the best tennis that I can play.''

Hewitt strained his left hamstring earlier in the tournament. He needed overnight treatment after winning his semifinal, but said the injury didn't impede him in the final.

He raced to a 4-1 lead in the opening set, and that set the tone. He repeatedly sent Grosjean scrambling into the corners, forcing the Frenchman to come to the net or take low-percentage shots.

Grosjean fired 31 winners to Hewitt's 12, but also had 47 unforced errors to the Australian's 19.

``I am disappointed because I didn't hit the ball as well as I did in my other matches,'' said Grosjean, who finished the year at No. 6. ``I made too many mistakes and Lleyton just played better than me.''

After Hewitt's victory, streamers and confetti floated onto the purple court. He thanked his coach, Darren Cahill, and girlfriend, Kim Clijsters, who last week helped Belgium win the Fed Cup.

``It's been a tough road, but finally we got to the top,'' Hewitt said. ``I don't know where we go from here.''