Former world number one and major winner continues to spring surprises.
Eighteen months after undergoing radical foot surgery, Lleyton Hewitt admitted that he had surprised even himself with his five-set US Open win over 2009 champion Juan Martin Del Potro.
The 32-year-old’s 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-1 second-round victory against the Argentine sixth seed recalled his golden days, when the Australian was number one in the world and collected the 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimbledon titles.
“It’s an amazing feeling. For me, just going back in the locker room afterwards, I sort of had to pinch myself,” said Hewitt, now down at 66th in the world.
“Yeah, I keep going back to it, but a year and a half ago I got told I would probably wouldn’t play again with the surgery I had.”
That surgery in February 2012 meant undergoing a radical operation which required bone being cut from the big toe of his left foot and two screws and a metal plate permanently locked in.
“I must have seen seven, eight different surgeons worldwide. At least six of them told me to retire if you have it done. I’m very thankful that I found the guy that I believed in.
“We went in there and were optimistic about it. We thought I might be able to play doubles, but we weren’t 100% sure whether I would be able to come back and play singles.”
Friday’s triumph on the Arthur Ashe Stadium Court, where he beat Pete Sampras for the 2001 title, was his 32nd career five-set victory and gave him a third round match-up with Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy, the world number 102.
“It’s amazing. I was really pumped up after I won my first match because I knew I would have a chance to play on Ashe,” said Hewitt after his four-hour, three-minute win.
“I don’t know how many years I have left to play and I was hankering to get out on this court again and put on a show. This is why I play tennis, for moments like these.”
Hewitt, playing in his 13th US Open after having made his debut in 1999, hit 42 winners, one more than del Potro, who committed 70 unforced errors, a bleak statistic which eased the impact of the Australian only converting eight of 18 break point chances.
“Physically I feel fine out there. If I can take guys to five sets, I know it’s slightly in my favor sometimes,” added Hewitt.
“Especially against some of these bigger, stronger guys who can go out there and try and hit me off the court in three straight sets.”
“I felt comfortable going into the fifth. And, you know, the way my body has been, I’ve been able to do a lot more training and a lot of other stuff, which I couldn’t do a couple years ago because I was in too much pain.”
Hewitt, whose last prior win over a top-10 player at the US Open was the night he beat Sampras in 2001, broke in the second game of the opener on his way to the first set.
The former world number one then squandered two set points in the 10th game of the second, which would have piled the pressure on Del Potro, who has never come back from two sets to love down.
But the big Argentine held his nerve to level the tie before breezing through the third as Hewitt appeared to be wilting.
In a roller-coaster fourth set, the Australian, who had defeated Del Potro in their most recent meeting in the Queen’s quarter-finals in June, broke for 5-3 but then cracked when he served for the set in the ninth game.
Calling on that famed fighting spirit, he romped through the tie-breaker to take the match into a final-set decider.
In what was Hewitt’s 40th five-set match at the majors, he claimed breaks in the third and fifth games before Del Potro, who had needed over four hours to win his first-round match, surrendered with his eighth double fault.
“He’s a great champion and a great fighter,” said Del Potro, who said that his troublesome wrist was still causing problems.
“Lleyton has the chance to go far in the tournament and I wish him well. We have a good relationship.”