Lleyton Hewitt bows out in marathon match
Expect Lleyton Hewitt to be back, for he is adamant he is not finished, but the 32-year-old has departed the Australian Open at the first-round stage for the second successive year. In brutal conditions, Hewitt held a match point, but lost 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 7-5 to Italian Andreas Seppi. Farewell. For now, anyway.
The late-afternoon slot on Rod Laver Arena has been Hewitt's haunt for so long that only on debut, as a 15-year-old, has he played anywhere else. The times have varied, but never the attitude of leaving it all out there, and so it was again. The 32-year-old trailed by two sets to love and a break in the third before gritting and sweating his way into a fifth, the 53rd match in his career to go that far. Six times before, he has won from 0-2 down, but not this one.
Starting and finishing in 40-plus degree temperatures, it did not end until long after the evening crew, and the next generation represented by Bernard Tomic, should have already moved in. That, though, should have come as no surprise, for the former world No.1 is fit and sound again, and as determined as he ever was to eke all that he can from whatever time is left.
Indeed, a measure of how far Lleyton Hewitt has come along the road back from the near-oblivion of five surgeries and a ranking that had ballooned into the 200s, is the fact that the world No.43 started as a warm favourite to beat the No.24. But warm was not the day's keyword; try brutal, scorching, cruel, even dangerous, according to some who succumbed, fainted, vomited, or just suffered.
The match was the longest of the first round, lasting four hours, 18 minutes, and chair umpire Pascal Maria was forced to search for a last can of balls before the seventh game of the deciding set. It was, indeed, almost decisive in another regard, for Hewitt broke back for 3-4, as Seppi started to tighten, push his serve in, struggled to get the job done.
At his 18th consecutive Open, extending a record run that started when he was a young punk with attitude and a seasoned opponent named Sergi Bruguera, the South Australian was forced to save one break point at 4-4, and Seppi conjured an ace when match point down in the 10th game.
Hewitt's own ace count - 23 - was a career-best, and free points meant plenty on a day when so much else came at a huge physical cost.
It was when Seppi was ahead that the 29-year-old struggled most. The biggest test, naturally, came when he served for the match at 6-5 in fifth set, but he passed it, with three good first serves, and then a final forehand error from Hewitt. How bitter that defeat must have tasted, after coming from such a long way back. Not that he was ever going to fade away.
''It was a really tough match,'' said Seppi, who is more, and probably better, than he seems, and was not able to overpower Hewitt, but playing a controlled, efficient game, mostly doing what he had to against an opponent who was unable to conjure quite the same inspiration that had carried him to the Brisbane International title 10 days earlier.
''I was struggling at the beginning of the third set. cramps. I don't know how I played two more hours. Against Lleyton, you have to do this. He's such a great fighter, especially here in Melbourne.
''I tried just to stay focused on my game, and fight until the end. I was a little bit lucky. You need a bit of luck.''
Hewitt is due to return to the court, Hisense Arena this time, for a later-afternoon collaboration on Wednesday with his Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter.
It will be ridiculously hot again, and even in doubles, Hewitt will be absurdly tenacious, and competitive, like he always is, with everything. Good-bye for the moment. Bravo, as well.