The Marathon Man
Some of the game’s most famous five-set victories are woven into the rich legend of Lleyton Hewitt, who has contested more marathon matches than any other man in the Open Era.
It’s Sunday, 4:34 am.
Yawning dairy farmers are turning their kettles on and only the keenest of bleary-eyed nightclubbing revellers are still kicking on.
Most everyone else is fast asleep.
Everyone, that is, except the best part of a million television viewers nation-wide and the vocal leftovers of the 15,000 at Rod Laver Arena, who are upstanding as Lleyton Hewitt sinks to his knees and collapses flat onto his face, having survived a titanic third-round Australian Open 2008 epic.
After 285 gruelling minutes, Hewitt whirled an irretrievable forehand past the valiant Marcos Baghdatis to emerge victorious 4-6 7-5 7-5 6-7(4) 6-3 before sharing a mid-court embrace with the popular Cypriot, who laughed, then cried.
It was that sort of night – or morning.
“It was, in a lot of ways, not only a physical battle, but a mental battle for both of us,” Hewitt said.
“Obviously having a match point and serving for it a couple of times in the fourth set, but being able to bounce back as strong as I did and put that all behind me in the fifth, mentally this will go down as one of my best wins.”
Logically, Hewitt should have won in four, but somehow four sets, minus the mind-bending drama, chaos and nail-biting tension that invariably accompanies five-setters, just wouldn’t have cut it.
Especially for a man who has carved himself a well-fashioned reputation as tennis’ most tenacious, iron-willed marathon man.
No man in the Open Era has played more five-setters than Hewitt’s 57. Long-time world No.1 Ivan Lendl shares the lead, which Hewitt must be at least evens to grab outright during his Melbourne swansong this summer.
For most mortals, anything like the Baghdatis win would be career-defining. For Hewitt, it wasn’t even the longest match he’d played – on that court.
He was on the other side of the ledger three years later, ousted 7-9 by David Nalbandian in a first-round Australian Open floodlit cracker.
Hewitt held two match points at 6-5, the first of which Nalbandian saved with an audacious net charge and sublime half-volley putaway of Hewitt’s scorching return.
Rejuvenated, Nalbandian broke Hewitt in the 15th game of the pulsating 93-minute fifth set before finally, after 386 points (split at 193-apiece), five sets and almost five hours, finishing the Australian with an untouchable forehand lob.
Hewitt has played 13 five-set matches at Melbourne Park during his 19, soon to be 20, consecutive Australian Open appearances.
Only Lendl (36), Ilie Nastase (35) and Pete Sampras (33) have won more career five-setters than Hewitt (32), who is tied for fourth with Boris Becker.
For a guy with a reputation for thriving in tennis marathons, Hewitt’s early five-set dalliances were unspectacular.
When the former Immanuel College student first crashed his way into the ATP’s top 10 in early-2000, he had lost all his
Hewitt’s physical capabilities were not yet at one with his robust will.
The South Australian teen broke through against little-known German Markus Hantschk in 2000 and, spasmodically, showed glimpses of marathon capability.
On Barcelona’s red dirt, Hewitt stunned Spaniard Albert Costa in five in the opening rubber of the 2000 Davis Cup final, then in 2001 at Roland Garros, he won from 0-2 sets down for the first-ever time and saved 17 of 22 break points against Argentina’s claycourt specialist Guillermo Canas in four hours and 12 minutes.
Later that year, Hewitt overcame some strong American parochialism with a pair of thrilling five-set wins over local young guns James Blake and Andy Roddick en route to his breakthrough US Open success.
Still, Hewitt’s five-set record remained so-so when, after cruising effortlessly through the first week of Wimbledon in 2002, he hit the skids mid-way through his quarterfinal against good friend Sjeng Schalken.
After blowing four match points for a straight sets victory, Hewitt went off the boil after a pivotal overrule went against him in the third-set tiebreak.
Schalken would draw level and twice was up a break in the fifth, the finish line in sight when Hewitt double-faulted at 5-5 and deuce.
But the tall Dutchman couldn’t close it. “I hung in there and wasn’t prepared to give it away that easily,” Hewitt said.
That gutsy triumph over Schalken not only re-sharpened Hewitt, who raised the Wimbledon trophy three days later, it kick-started a phenomenal run of five-set prosperity.
For 1756 days from 2001-06, Hewitt enjoyed a peerless 14-1 record in five-setters, emerging as tennis’ ultimate, long-match competitor.
His streak comprised several generation-defining classics.
Tired and battling a viral illness, Hewitt hit the wall against Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2002 final of the end-of-year Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.
The South Australian skipped to a two-set lead but won just four of the next 16 games as Ferrero levelled, then twice went ahead a break in the fifth.
But it was Hewitt whose nerves held out, the pride of South Australia prevailing 6-4 with a delightful lob.
“I just had to dig deep and keep fighting,” Hewitt said. “There were times during the match I was struggling. I had a letdown and hit the wall out there.
“I just had to say to myself ‘dig deep’. (I) actually thought about the Schalken match a lot during that fifth set.”
Twelve months later, Hewitt set Australia up for Davis Cup glory when he again outlasted Ferrero in a five-set thriller, coming from 2-1 sets down in the opening rubber of the triumphant final against Spain on a temporary grasscourt at Rod Laver Arena.
Australia’s progression to the decider was thanks largely to Hewitt’s semifinal clinching, day-three victory over Swiss legend-in-the-making Federer at Melbourne Park.
Prevailing after trailing 5-7 2-6 3-5, it was undoubtedly Hewitt’s grandest five-set triumph and finest-ever fightback.
Appearing altogether outgunned and outclassed, Hewitt managed to scrap out the third set in a breaker before Federer left the court to get treatment on his back.
Believing he’d spotted a chink, physically and psychologically, Hewitt pounced.
When Federer emerged from the locker room, Hewitt bounded energetically, doing knee-to-chest tuck jumps.
Drawing on his childhood memories of countryman Pat Cash’s brave comeback from a two-set deficit against Swede Mikael Pernfors in the 1986 Davis Cup final at Kooyong, Hewitt claimed the fourth set 7-5, then obliterated Federer 6-1 in the fifth, in 22 minutes.
“The whole time when I was 0-2 sets down and (when) I ended up getting out of that third, I was just thinking about that (Cash-Pernfors) match,” Hewitt said.
At the same venue, Hewitt embarked on a fairytale charge to his sole Australian Open final in 2005.
It was anything but easy.
In his fourth-round encounter against unseeded 18-year-old Rafael Nadal, Hewitt trailed 2-1 sets and looked cooked as he received sideline treatment on his hip.
Roared on by the home crowd, Hewitt ignored the pain and steamrolled Nadal in sets four and five.
“It is up there for having to forget everything about my body out there and just tough it out more than anything … refuse to give in again,” he said.
“It’s amazing how many matches I’ve been able to win throughout my career by giving 100 per cent out there, that never-say-die attitude.
“Even if my leg fell off, I would have kept playing.”
Hewitt would have welcomed a softer quarterfinal two days later against Nalbandian.
And it looked so when the South Australian led 6-3 6-2. It wasn’t to be though as Nalbandian seized complete control in a spiteful battle of wills, wiles and words by romping in the next two sets as Hewitt started limping between points.
But the Australian refused to surrender and after four hours and five minutes of niggling, bruising tennis, Hewitt defied his hurting body to salute 10-8 in the fifth.
“I’ve spent about 15 hours on court,” Hewitt said post-match.
“I’m definitely giving the crowds their money’s worth and getting the TV ratings up for Channel 7.
“I’m doing all the right things for the tournament.
“I think I’m as mentally tough as anyone out there and I think I’ve won a lot of matches in the past because of that.”
Mental formidability enabled Hewitt to bravely mow down former champion Gaston Gaudio from 0-2 sets down in the 2007 French Open, a feat he repeated two years later at Roland Garros against Ivo Karlovic, despite the Croatian skyscraper pounding a world record 55 aces.
A month later, in fourth round action at Wimbledon, Hewitt called for medical assistance on his ailing hip while trailing accomplished Czech grass-courter Radek Stepanek, 4-6 2-6.
Again, Hewitt ignored the pain and turned the match around, trouncing Stepanek in the next three, giving the Aussie warrior a lights-out 6-1 record in five-set affairs when he’d lost the first two sets.
In consecutive US Open campaigns, Hewitt dug his way out of 2-1 sets down holes, firstly defeating Gilles Muller in four hours and 35 minutes in 2012, then stunning 2009 champ and world No.6 Juan Martin del Potro in four hours and six minutes on Arthur Ashe in 2013.
Hewitt’s unquenchable taste for backs-to-the-wall battle is legendary.
He is tennis’ ultimate anti-frontrunner. In matches that have gone five sets, Hewitt has an 18-9 record when he loses the first set, compared to 14-16 when he takes the first set.
Advancing years and bouts of hip, knee and toe fusion surgery have taken their toll and Hewitt’s five-set record, statistically, has dulled in recent seasons.
But his ultra-marathon reputation remains unmarred. Even in five-set defeat, his courage and heart are never questioned.
At last year’s Australian Open, in scorching heat, Italian Andreas Seppi took four hours and 17 minutes to shake off Hewitt in five sets, while at Wimbledon in 2014, Hewitt almost tamed Polish giant Jerzy Janowicz.
Both times Hewitt forced a decider from 0-2 sets down.
Appropriately, Hewitt waved farewell to Wimbledon and the US Open in vintage five-setters, against fellow retiree Jarkko Nieminen in four hours at SW19 – “that pretty much sums up my career,” Hewitt said of the 11-9 fifth-set scoreline – then fellow Australian Bernard Tomic in a torch-passing insta-classic at Flushing Meadows.
The semi-retired Hewitt gave Tomic a two-set headstart before, unsurprisingly yet ever-inspiringly, hitting back against his younger countryman.
Hewitt had match point before Tomic eventually clinched the decider, 7-5.
“He obviously was well on top (early),” Hewitt said.
“I was able to somehow find a way. That’s what I’ve been renowned for in my career.”
It would be entirely appropriate for Hewitt to sign off in similar fashion in his last Australian Open.
Even if he finds himself down and seemingly out, Hewitt, possibly tennis history’s most dedicated, unyielding competitor, will be fighting, diving, lunging and unyielding right to the bitter end.
Get the kettle ready.