Two-time Grand Slam winner Lleyton Hewitt of Australia passed on the torch to the next generation of tennis talent from his country on Thursday, losing his final US Open match to countryman Bernard Tomic in an emotional five-set thriller.
Rallying from two sets down to grab two match points in the fifth set, Hewitt could not convert and eventually fell to Tomic 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 after three hours and 27 minutes. "It was nice to be able to turn it into a decent match," Hewitt said.
"I left it all out there again. You go through the pain barrier out there on the court."
The first career meeting between the Australian Davis Cup teammates marked Hewitt's last match on the Flushing Meadows hardcourts, the 34-year-old from Adelaide having announced he will retire after next January's Australian Open. "It was awkward for both of us," Hewitt said. "I get along well with Bernie. Last couple of years I've gone out of my way to try to help him out a lot."
Hewitt won his first Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2001 and added the 2002 Wimbledon crown to his major trophy haul. "Great atmosphere," Hewitt said when asked what he will miss the most. "Night matches are really special at the Open."
In a Grandstand stadium itself set for the scrap heap after this year to make way for a bigger new venue, Tomic served for the match in the third set. But the tension of the moment against his boyhood idol proved too much for the 22-year-old to escape so easily. "It's so difficult playing him," Tomic said. "I was serving for the match and I was so nervous. When it turned around I was so nervous. It could have gone both ways.
"He's a huge legend for me. I always looked up to him. It was difficult to play him. It was very emotional for me. He's a great legend."
Hewitt added a final US chapter to his feats, swiping the third and fourth sets and grabbing two match points in the fifth before Tomic battled back and won. "I would have liked to have been able to enjoy it a bit more," Hewitt said. "But obviously when it's so tight, especially in the fifth set, you're just trying to find a way to obviously get across the line.
Tomic is a career-high 24th in the rankings. He reached the US Open third round for the first time after four second-round exits, booking a third-round date with French 12th seed Richard Gasquet even as Australian fans cheered against him. "If I was a spectator I'd be in the same position for sure," Tomic said.
Hewitt is likely to become a mentor to the new generation of Australian talent, including Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, as they try to emulate such Aussie greats as Pat Cash, Pat Rafter, John Newcombe and Rod Laver before them. "Tennis has given me this great life and that's the best thing," Hewitt said. "I will pass on stuff to the young guys. That's my next role is to help those boys out."
And one day, Hewitt's son Cruz, who watched him from the front row on Thursday, might be picking up a racquet himself. "He said I nearly won," Hewitt said with a laugh. "He gets along well with Bernie, too. It was good. He loves his tennis. I'm very proud that he could sit through five sets. Hopefully some of this rubs off and he wants to be out here someday."