London: Lleyton Hewitt's Wimbledon farewell ended in an agonising defeat as Finland's Jarkko Nieminen out-lasted the 2002 champion 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 11-9 in a thrilling first round clash on Monday.
Lleyton Hewitt. Pic/AFP
Hewitt is embarking on a prolonged goodbye tour before retiring after next year's Australian Open and he was hoping for one last hurrah on his 17th and final visit to the All England Club. But, despite saving three match points, the 34-year-old Australian eventually succumbed in exactly four hours of gruelling drama in the baking temperatures on Court Two.
Nieminen, also playing in his final Wimbledon, will face world number one and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the second round. "To beat him here when it's my last time here as well, it's tough to find the words," Nieminen said. "I know my time is now very limited here and I just tried to go for it. I was pretty confident going into the fifth set because I won the fourth 6-0.
"I told myself to play the way I like to play and not wait for his mistakes." Former world number one Hewitt, whose other Grand Slam triumph came in the 2001 US Open, has spent the latter part of his career battling to overcome a series of debilitating injuries, including having a metal plate inserted into the toe of his left foot.
His ranking has slipped down to 118 as a result and his dismal form coming into Wimbledon -- six defeats in his seven matches in 2015 -- suggested he was limping rather than sprinting towards his career finish line. His last Grand Slam quarter-final appearance came at Wimbledon in 2009 and he hadn't been beyond the second round in his last four visits.
But, granted a wildcard by nostalgic Wimbledon chiefs, Hewitt -- who made his All England Club debut in 1999 -- must have fancied his chances against world number 91 Nieminen, who had lost all five of his previous meetings with the Australian. - Tenacious fashion - He took the first set with ease and celebrated with his trademark roar of 'C'mon' to the delight of the yellow-clad Australian fans. Nieminen levelled the match in the second set, but Hewitt took the third in typically tenacious fashion.
At that point, Hewitt, unloading winners and fist pumps with equal ferocity, seemed set to coast home. However, Hewitt's ageing legs began to falter in the heat and the Finn, just a year younger than his opponent, blitzed through the fourth set without dropping a game. Hewitt called for a medical time-out before the final set for treatment on his right leg. In the 44th five-set match of his Grand Slam career, Hewitt was looking for one last push to drag his aching body to the finish line.
But Hewitt had lost nine of his last 11 five-setters and that poor record was destined to be extended. He had his chances, breaking twice for 3-2 and 4-3 leads, but each time he allowed Nieminen to hit back. Hewitt found himself facing the exit door when Nieminen earned three match points at 4-5. He clawed his way out of trouble in nerveless fashion, producing a gutsy serve on the first, then a crisp volley on the second before the Finn netted to complete Hewitt's escape.
Hewitt was still throwing himself about with reckless abandon and one brilliant diving volleyed winner drew a huge roar of approval. Although he was worn down and defeated in the end, that was the kind of thrilling moment Hewitt will be remembered for and the crowd rose for a standing ovation as he took his final curtain call.