Chants of “Here We Go Lleyton! Here We Go!” were echoing in his ears, his young son, baseball cap turned backward just like dad, was pumping his fist in encouragement and his younger opponent was shaking his head at the shots Lleyton Hewitt was striking on the full stretch.
The 34-year-old Aussie was too busy turning back time to notice the frenzy he incited on Grandstand Court tonight.
On a steamy night against an opponent he’s mentored, Hewitt laid it all on the line and nearly scraped out an improbable comeback win in his US Open farewell.
Bernard Tomic spoiled the storybook comeback with a determined stand of his own.
In a spirited all-Aussie clash, Tomic saved two match points and won four straight games to seal a draining 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 victory in Hewitt’s final US Open match.
“I left it all out there again,” said Hewitt, who will officially retire after the 2016 Australian Open. “Obviously you go through the pain barrier out there on the court. Everything happens so quickly. It was the same as Wimbledon. But it was a great atmosphere out there on that court. The crowd was really involved. It was nice to be able to turn it into a decent match.”
For two sets, Tomic was thoroughly outclassing Hewitt, who looked like he lacked the weapons to trouble the 22-year-old Australian No. 1.
The former US Open singles and doubles champion has never backed down from a baseline brawl and he didn’t give in tonight. His shirt soaked with sweat, a stubborn Hewitt clung to the baseline and took the fight to Tomic roaring back to level the match at two sets apiece.
Credit Tomic for unloading some heavy shots as he fought off successive match points to hold for 4-5 in the decider.
“He’s a huge legend for me; I always looked up to him,” Tomic said. “It was very difficult playing him tonight, very emotional. I’m sure a lot of people think he’s a great legend—not just myself—what a great privilege it was for me to play him.”
Serving for a spot in the second round at 5-4 in the fifth set, Hewitt could not find his first serve and could not close.
The man who decimated Pete Sampras’ serve capturing the 2001 US Open title, played a tight game slapping three forehands into net surrendering serve as Tomic broke back for 5-5.
Serving for the match, Hewitt’s forehand failed him. His desire never deserted him.
“He was kind of in the mood of just going for everything,” Hewitt said. “Couple of shots went in…I felt like I scrambled as much as I could have. He was sort of red lining on every shot.”
On the big stage next door, Roger Federer was routing Steve Darcis while Hewitt was scraping shots from all areas of Grandstand.
Federer paid tribute to his former rival and one-time doubles partner afterward.
“Obviously I wish he could have won today. But then again he goes out, like at Wimbledon, on his terms,” Federer said of Hewitt. “Five-set thriller again. Full stadium, I’m sure. Just the best atmosphere. He deserves it. He was smiling at the end from what I saw, so I’m happy for him. Hope he could have gone further in the draw. But, you know, for me he was a big challenge in my career, to understand how in the world can you be so tough physically and mentally at such a young age, it was for me the impossible thing to understand.
“So I think he really changed things around and showed me how it’s done. He made me, I guess, work harder in practice, get my act together on the court, play tough but fair. We even played doubles together. I look back at that and think I can’t believe we didn’t do it more often. We had a blast doing it at Wimbledon. We still talk about it when we see each other.”
In his prime, Hewitt’s elastic reach, unerring consistency and exceptional accuracy made him the game’s premier counter-puncher. In Federer’s eyes, Hewitt is a game-changing player and an example for rivals.
“I thought he changed the game to some extent,” Federer said. “I think he can be very proud of that because he was the player which just wouldn’t miss, best counter-puncher we’ve ever seen almost at that point. I think he really was. He would just grind you down. You would attack him and he would pass you. He would do it time and time and time and time again. It was just fascinating to see.”
In the end, Hewitt and Tomic came together and embraced. Tomic will take on 12th-seeded Richard Gasquet for a place in the fourth round.
Tears appeared to be forming in his eyes as he packed up his gear, but Hewitt did not weep as he acknowledged fans serenading him with a standing ovation. Then Hewitt slung his Yonex racquet bag, embedded with the words “Strength and Honor” in silver script, over his shoulder and walked off one last time.
“He did things that no other player’s ever achieved. He should be very proud,” Federer said. “I’m happy it’s not the end yet. We’ll still get to watch him some. I wish him the best at the Davis Cup and then of course at the Australian Open when it comes down to his last tournament.”