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Transgressive tennis: Lleyton Hewitt and the politics of competition

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January 1, 2005 by Leanne McRae

Lleyton Hewitt is loud. He does not contain his enthusiasm for competition — particularly when he is on the tennis court. Over the past few weeks of the Australian Open there has been much debate about his on-court personae and its 'appropriateness'. I find it a startling and scintillating debate. He has been called a "walking raised finger". Commentators and public alike have pondered this animated and dynamic demonstration. Yet, it is precisely these qualities that make Hewitt a dogged and determined opponent. It seems we want Lleyton to win — just not to enjoy it very much.

We have a nostalgic notion of our national heroes in Australia. We prefer, especially when they are sports stars, to imagine them as battlers — humble, self-effacing and struggling against the odds. When an Australian claims their success, it is the ultimate cultural cringe. As a result, when Hewitt affirms his abilities on-court and off, we struggle to make him fit the dominant discourse of sporting culture and consciousness. We struggle in a similar manner with Shane Warne. His conflicting behaviour is hidden behind the heroic rhetoric motivated out of his ability to spin a cricket ball in devastatingly unpredictable ways. A genius on the field, we remain determinedly ignorant of his off-field failures.

We forgive our sporting heroes far too quickly and easily in this country. It seems if they have an ability to throw, kick, hit or spin a ball, they enter into a contradictory and complicit relationship with the public and the media. Warne and Hewitt demonstrate the complexity of sporting prowess and how often our lofty national ideologies are at odds with sporting players and their personalities. This is particularly the case with our male sports stars who are expected to embody a competent, controlling and powerful manhood, yet are often removed — by a culture of worship — from the same social regulations that encircle other gendered identities.

The debates about Hewitt's on-court behaviour are enmeshed within narratives about Australianness, masculinity and competition. We want our sports professionals to succeed. However, that triumph is often measured by the accompanying success of an aggressive and active masculinity that reifies physical and mental power and the ability to transgress social expectations of 'normal' behaviour. As sports fans we are complicit in this process by showering accolades on these winners and raising them into mythological status. Through this process, they remain disengaged from the consequences of success and the mental and physical traits that permit victory. These traits are encoded as 'naturally' masculine thereby legitimising bad behaviour and also marginalising women's place as competitors in sport — as strategy and aggression are not seen as instinctive for them.

I like Lleyton Hewitt. He is resilient and determined. He just will not give up. I admire that tenacity. However, he is also an important site for theorists, journalists and commentators to ponder the nature of sporting competition, Australianness and manhood. Hewitt prises apart our expectations of sporting heroes. He presents us with the gaps and absences in our ideologies of sport and what is accepted as appropriate competitive behaviour. As sporting fans, we need to understand the complexities of sporting success and failure, as well as the ideologies of masculinity that percolate through Australian sporting cultures.

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