Lleyton Hewitt plays only for the big occasions these days and, in the twilight of his celebrated career, this one was momentous. The 32-year-old won the epic second-round battle of two former champions in prime-time on Arthur Ashe Stadium, upsetting sixth seed Juan Martin Del Potro 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1 in just over four hours.
It was a vintage Hewitt performance against a slightly wounded del Potro, whose recurring left wrist injury meant he was unable to come over his two-fisted backhand as often as he normally would. He was also fatigued after a four-hour, 13-minute opening round win against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and outlasted by one of the great five-set competitors of the modern era.
Not one in his prime, certainly, but the 66th-ranked Hewitt has maintained all along that he feels he can still match it with the best when his body allows it, and the man who endured five operations in four years is as fit and healthy as he has been in some time. What the 2001 winner has never lost is his appetite for a scrap, and as soon as he was able to push the match into a decider, the odds swung back in his favour.
Del Potro saw Andy Roddick off into the tennis sunset on the same court in the fourth round last year, and although Hewitt intends to play on for another full-season, he will also continue in this one, here and now, and into the third round, for the third time in his past four attempts. His next opponent: Russia’s world No.102 Evgeny Donskoy.
"It’s amazing,’’ Hewitt said, admitting he had been "pumped up" as soon as he knew he was playing the 2009 champion on the world’s biggest court. "I don’t know how many years I’ve got left in me - I keep getting asked the question, so I was hanging to get out and play on this court and try and put on a great show.
’’A couple of years ago, when I had a couple of foot surgeries, I didn’t know if I was going to play tennis again... This is why I play, to have moments like this.’’
A competitive contest was played in fine spirit, del Potro admitting before he walked on court that Hewitt had been one of his idols, Hewitt having already described the Argentine as someone he both likes and respects. Not since the 2001 final against Pete Sampras had Hewitt beat a player ranked in the top 10 at Flushing Meadows.
Pre-match, Hewitt could not initially recall when he had last played on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and it seemed for a time that he would be haunted by the service game at 6-4, 5-4, when the sixth seed was teetering, but the Australian double-faulted on both set point and then break point.
The Argentine admitted he had woken up tired from his four-plus-hour marathon against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and played for most of the first hour like he was still half-asleep. Late in the match, he looked like he needed another lie-down, and after a fourth set tiebreak that Hewitt said was among the best he had ever played, most of del Potro’s resistance had gone.
Thus, Hewitt equalled his third round result from last year, but surpassed almost every expectation, with the possible exception of his own. At his age and stage, he has endured multiple injuries, along with regular questions about retirement that irk him no end. And so he goes on, caring about his 66th ranking only because it means he must now rely on wildcard invitations to the bigger non-slam tournaments more often than he would like.
But nothing brings out the best in Hewitt more than an occasion like this one, the slams and Davis Cup the twin reasons why the father-of-three is still playing the game. He has never played Donsoky, but the pair practised earlier this week. "It was the first time I’d seen him,’’ Hewitt said. "At the moment, I’ll focus on this, and recovery, and think about it in a couple of days."