It took five years and another five gruelling sets, but David Nalbandian finally got his own back against Lleyton Hewitt.
The 29-year-old Argentine ended the former No. 1-ranked Hewitt’s hopes for a comeback at his home Grand Slam in a first-round struggle that lasted 4 hours, 48 minutes at the Australian Open. The scoreline read 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 9-7. It went to five sets, as their quarterfinals marathon here in 2005, when Hewitt won en route to the final.
It also reversed the pair's only other Grand Slam meeting, when Hewitt took Nalbandian apart in three sets in the 2002 Wimbledon final.
Both players are looking more like workhorse veterans these days. Hewitt has struggled to regain the form that saw him top the rankings in 2001-02; Nalbandian has 11 career titles, though the Wimbledon final remains his highest Grand Slam achievement.
“I cannot talk, I’m too tired,” Nalbandian said courtside after the match, which began around dinner time Tuesday and ended shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday. “Every time we play it’s long matches, tough ones. He's a real fighter.”
Both players’ fortunes swung wildly during the match. Nalbandian was serving to win in the fourth set, though Hewitt rallied and had two break points before the momentum switched again and the Argentinian won in a tiebreaker.
Along the way, Nalbandian had muscle cramps in both the front and back of his legs. “It’s disappointing to come so close and fight for so long and not be able to quite get the win,” a clearly frustrated Hewitt said.
Hewitt showed flashes of the fiery temperament that marked his heyday, crashing in aces at key times in the fifth set and giving his signature salute. But he failed to capitalize on his opportunities: he converted only seven of 30 breakpoint chances. Hewitt, who turns 30 next month, is running out of chances to win his national championship.
He shares the record for 15 consecutive appearances at the tournament, and his final's appearance in 2005 is the nearest any Australian man has come to the title since Mark Edmondson won it in 1976.
Hip surgery last year saw Hewitt drop out of the top 50 rankings for the first time since 1999, though he had a positive start to 2011, winning two of his three Hopman Cup singles matches and the Kooyong Classic before coming to the open.