Australian Open 2012: Novak Djokovic beats Lleyton Hewitt
World No1 Novak Djokovic battles past Lleyton Hewitt 6-1 6-3 4-6 6-3 to set up quarter-final against David Ferrer in Melbourne
Novak Djokovic and Lleyton Hewitt locked horns in this year’s Australian Open with 28 titles apiece but they were separated by a mile in so many other ways.
Djokovic, the best player in the world in 2012, is six years younger than the best player of 2002, Hewitt. He has played 350 fewer matches but won $14m more in prize money. He has played around half as many Grand Slams but won twice as many titles. And he stands a full 180 places above Hewitt in the rankings.
Despite their many years on the tour, these two contrasting players had met only four times since their first match at the US Open in 2006. On that occasion, Djokovic won just six games—but he had not lost to Hewitt since.
Despite a couple of tight tussles on Wimbledon’s lawns—including their most recent match in 2010—it had been one-way traffic to Serbia and, numerous operations and comebacks later, Hewitt’s chances against the ultra-fit Serb were always looking slim. And that was without the weight of their routes to the fourth round.
Djokovic, who has still not faced a man in the top 50, had conceded only 10 games. Hewitt, playing No15 Andy Roddick and then No23 Milos Raonic, had lost 51.
But none of these facts stopped the home crowd from filling the Rod Laver Arena in a still sweltering 82 degrees at 10 in the evening to support the hero of Melbourne, the only Australian left in the singles draws.
And they cheered Hewitt on even though he did not get on the board for the first four games. So when he converted a break point in the fifth, courtesy of an overlong backhand from Djokovic, he had the green and gold supporters on their feet.
Djokovic, however, calmly hit back as though his broken serve was part of a grander scheme—practising a few new moves, perhaps. Even as he served out the set, the Serb threw in a double fault amongst a couple of net attacks, but he sealed it with an ace, 6-1.
Set two opened the same: Hewitt was broken by his flowing opponent despite scurrying around the boundaries of the court to retrieve the clean, deep shot-making of Djokovic.
Hewitt’s tireless baseline work and some teasing sliced backhands won a break back to level at 1-1, but the court coverage of the long and rested limbs of Djokovic was more than a match for the hustling Hewitt. Without a big and consistent first serve, he was constantly under pressure and he suffered another break. At one point, he watched, helpless, as an astonishing lob from Djokovic, lifted from an extreme forehand reach, dropped near the sideline for a winner. When shots like that come off, it’s enough to break the spirit.
It didn’t break Hewitt’s spirit, though, and he stood toe-to-toe through their repeated cross-court exchanges to finally hold serve for the first time, but he still trailed 2-3. He managed to stay within touching distance until the ninth game when Djokovic broke again for a two-set lead, 6-3.
Still Hewitt played tough. He ran his man to the margins, sliced and lobbed, but the tennis of the world No1 is at a place where he can make outright winners from near-impossible places, and he did so time and again.
Djokovic looked impregnable and on his way to albeit his longest win of the tournament and Hewitt found himself again trying to fend off a break point on his opening service game. The Serb now edged past the 30-winners count, and a love hold of serve took his lead to 3-0.
But the flow of the No1 was brought to a temporary halt by a flock of seagulls swooping around the Rod Laver bowl, and in the space it took him to settle his concentration again, Hewitt had broken back. Suddenly, at midnight, it was 3-3.
Djokovic visibly tried to knuckle down, his bounce-rate increased as he prepared to serve, and he stemmed the flow to hold with an ace. But Hewitt was nowhere near done.
The Australian outhit and out-manoeuvred one of the quickest and most flexible men in tennis. Not only did he hold serve, he broke Djokovic again, peppering forehands to the right and left corners. What’s more, he resisted Djokovic through four deuces and a break point to serve out the set, 6-4.
So, on a court strewn with the remains of bugs and sweat, if not blood, the Aussie warrior stayed in the fight—and held his own at the start of the set for the first time in this match. He earned a break point in the third game that demanded the very best from Djokovic and the Serb responded.
With the 2-1 advantage, Djokovic pressured the Hewitt serve to deuce and although the Australian resisted once, Djokovic broke in the sixth game to lead 4-2 and did not let go of his grip on a bloodied opponent. He served out the match in flamboyant style, 6-3, to survive his first significant test of the tournament in four minutes less than three hours.
Yet the man of the hour, as far as the Melbourne crowd—who had already missed the last tram back to town—was concerned was Hewitt, the consummate fighter. Whether he will be back for another try in 2013—and it would be his 17th straight Australian Open—may depend on his battered body. One thing is certain: It won’t depend on his desire to play which appears undiminished.
In the end, Hewitt may have done Djokovic a favour in testing him so thoroughly ahead of his quarter-final, for the Serb now faces the 2012 equivalent of Hewitt. No5 seed David Ferrer is the supreme fighter, runner and retriever, and more recently with a lot more attacking bite, too. A semi-finalist last year, Ferrer beat No18 Richard Gasquet in a brisk hour and three-quarters and three sets.
The shock of the day came in the defeat of No6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by the fast-rising No24 seed, Kei Nishikori in five sets. It is the Japanese man’s third tough match in a row, which will only boost the hopes of supporters of Andy Murray.
The No4 seed only spent 50 minutes under the scorching Melbourne sun before his opponent, unseeded Mikhail Kukushkin, retired with a hip injury.