Shades of 2005 as Nalbandian beats Hewitt in five-set thriller
Wednesday, 19 January, 2011
By Alexandra Willis
Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian turned back time on Rod Laver Arena as they recreated their extraordinary Australian Open 2005 quarterfinal, this time in the first round of Australian Open 2011.
Six years and two hip replacements on from their epic five-set tussle, which finally ended in Hewitt's favour, his last victory against Nalbandian, the burly Argentine and feisty Australian once again stood toe to toe under Rod Laver Arena's open roof, and, as before, it proved to be anything but simple, Nalbandian eventually pulling off a phenomenal 9-7 fifth set victory.
There is no love lost between Hewitt and Nalbandian. The Australian leads the head-to-head 3-2, the most important of which was the Wimbledon 2002 final, in which Hewitt thumped Nalbandian in straight sets. The 2005 match was famous not only for its late finish, but also the animosity between the two players, as both chewed the other out in their post-match press conferences. But to their credit, the two 29-year-olds appeared to have let bygones be byones, and instead relished the chance to face each other once again.
Hewitt, fresh from winning the title at Kooyong last week, has made no secret of the fact that he considers himself to be far fitter than he has been for some time, and so it proved, as the father-of-two roared out of the blocks to take the first set with just one break of serve. Buzzing around the court in typical indomitable fashion, Hewitt was efficient on serve and strong from the baseline.
But any thoughts of a simple straight sets victory were dashed as Nalbandian, who has also enjoyed a recent burst of form, fought back, and despite Hewitt's superior movement, put himself back in contention, breaking the Hewitt serve, and clinging onto it to take the second set. As the green and gold supporters chanted and cheered, urging on the sell-out crowd, Hewitt yet again dug deep within reserves belying the years he has spent on the tour, and squeezed through the third set to keep his nose in front.
The Argentine's unforced error count climbed and climbed, and despite seeing over 20 break point opportunities pass him by, the former world No.1 broke to lead in the fourth set, and put himself within touching distance of a remarkably uncomplicated victory.
He touched too soon. As is his wont, Nalbandian fought back, shortening the points so as to keep the advantage, and racking up winner after winner. Having seen his lead evaporate like heat off Melbourne Park's courts, Hewitt found himself receiving to stay in the set. Typically, he broke back, and sent the set into a tie-break. He might as well not have bothered, as Nalbandian ripped through the breaker 7-1 to take the set after 68 minutes.
Into the inevitable fifth set that few had dared to predict against, Hewitt held an exhausting 12-minute opening game, only to hand his serve over after reeling off 10 unforced errors. With the Argentine leading 3-1, and then 4-2, there seemed to be no way back for Hewitt as he struggled to keep up with Nalbandian's heavy hitting. Never say never. As Nalbandian served for the match, leading 5-4 after 50 minutes of fifth-set fighting, Hewitt did the unthinkable. He broke back.
Facing two break points on serve, Hewitt clawed his way to a 6-5 hold. Ahead for the first time since the fourth game of the fourth set, the former world No.1 produced his umpteenth trademark 'C'mon,' before settling down to put the pressure right back on Nalbandian. 40-15, 40-30, Deuce it went, as the Hewitt camp could hardly bear to look. And as if by magic, Nalbandian's backhand drifted out, giving the Australian his first match point after 261 minutes.
Nalbandian produced the goods, plopping a drop shot just over the net, but Hewitt continued to toil and tussle, earning himself a second match point. But again his erstwhile rival denied him at the net. The momentum shifting quicker than the Sahara, the Adelaide native saved two break points at 6-6, only for Nalbandian to break the Hewitt serve on the first of three break points at 7-7.
Serving for the match a second time, this time there was no mistake from a resolute Nalbandian, as he staved off cramp to bring up his first match point. Converting with a pitch perfect lob, the Argentine completed a jaw-dropping 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(1), 9-7 victory.
"It was a very tough first round we both know it, every time we play it's long matches, tough ones, he's a real fighter," said Nalbandian afterwards. "He played unbelievable. It's amazing playing with him in a full stadium, here in Australia. We both had a lot of chances, I was serving for the match, it was that kind of match nobody can forget.Cramping was around all the time, he was too tired as well. I played the two match points, I play incredible, serve and volley, it was amazing, and then after that the match was for both. I can win, I can lose, the match was very close."
"I was one point to be two break points down in the fourth, so I play very good shots, I didn't care about it, I win my serve, and that's helped me, that helped me to win the match. I take that we both fight a lot all the time, it doesn't matter when we are tired we keep fighting. Today the match was for me, but he can win as well. I take the brave heart that I put today on court."
Nalbandian's next opponent will be young Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis. No doubt he will be praying for a day-time start.