MELBOURNE, Australia (AP)– It took five years and another five grueling sets, but David Nalbandian finally got there, defeating Lleyton Hewitt 3-6, 6-4, 3-6,7-6 and 9-7 in a nearly 5-hour match at the Australia Open.
The Argentine ended Hewitt’s hopes for a comeback at his home Grand Slam in a first-round struggle that lasted 4 hours, 48 minutes. The match went to five sets, as did their Australian Open quarterfinal 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 is trying to regain the form that took him to the top of 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 Argentine won in a tiebreaker. Along the way, Nalbandian had muscle cramps in 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,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt showed flashes of the fire that marked his heyday, crashing key aces in the fifth set and giving his signature salute. But he failed to capitalize, converting only seven of 30 breakpoint chances.
Hewitt turns 30 next month and is running out of chances to win his national championship. He shares the record for 15 consecutive appearances at the tournament, and his finals appearance in 2005 is the nearest any Australian man has come to the title since Mark Edmondson won in 1976.
Hewitt had hip surgery last year and dropped out of the top 50 for the first time since 1999. He did, however, have a positive start to 2011, winning two of his three Hopman Cup singles matches and the Kooyong Classic before coming to the Australian Open.