Hot day, centre court, down two sets to love – conditions tailor-made for one Lleyton Hewitt. But sadly for the Australian, he would fall agonisingly short of pulling off one of his patented back-from-the-dead wins.
Tuesday’s almost-expected miraculous come-from-behind win was cut short by Italian Andreas Seppi, who battled his own demons as well as Hewitt to eventually triumph 7-6(4) 6-3 5-7 5-7 7-5 in a match that lasted four hours and 18 minutes in 40 degree-plus temperatures on Rod Laver Arena.
The 24th seed here, Seppi is an accomplished player, but not exactly a household name. The tall Italian does most things well, but nothing spectacularly brilliant. There's no rocket-launcher serve or howling forehand to separate him from the pack.
And for Seppi, that lack of a weapon to mortally wound his opponent has proven to be his downfall in the past, particularly when playing members of the top 10, and it almost sabotaged his hopes of reaching the second round in Melbourne.
When Seppi needed to land the knockout blow in the third set, he couldn't find it. Leading two sets to love and with games on serve in the third set, Seppi had one foot over the line, but that's when Hewitt dragged him back.
You see, unlike the 24th seed, Hewitt does have a genuine world-class weapon. Heart.
And as the temperature at Melbourne Park topped 42.2 degrees at 5:45 pm, Hewitt was just warming up.
Breaking Seppi in the 12th game with a roar, Hewitt iced the set 7-5 to force the match to a fourth.
Up until this point, Seppi had been a picture of consistency. But that picture began to distort as Hewitt grew bolder and more confident the longer the match lasted.
The fourth set also went the Australian's way – another late break of serve in the 12th game a repeat of the third set.
And so began the fifth set arm-wrestle. It was the Italian who jumped out to an early lead, breaking the Hewitt serve in the first game. Crucial errors were beginning to creep into Hewitt's game, relieving the pressure that had built on Seppi who had relinquished such a commanding advantage.
Hewitt, however, didn't panic. Instead he kept pace with Seppi, approaching the net when he could as he searched for the opening he needed to break back. That opportunity came in the eighth game when two net cords both went Hewitt's way.
From here, the Australian was odds-on to close out the match – a 7-4 five-set record at the Australian Open proof that Hewitt knows how to win in this situation.
And he almost did. Leading 5-4, Hewitt brought up match point on Seppi’s serve. But after more than four hours on court with Hewitt, Seppi had picked up something from his opponent. Just as Hewitt had done earlier, Seppi kept his head, refusing to allow panic to consume him. Seppi saved the match point with an ace, then closed out the game with an ace to level at 5-5.
Keeping his cool paid off. In the eleventh game, some critical errors from the Hewitt racquet swung the balance back in Seppi's favour as he broke back. With the lead safely stashed in his pocket, Seppi confidently served his way into the second round, letting out a primal roar as a final forehand winner registered.
“It was really a tough match,” said a relieved Seppi. “Against Lleyton you have to do this because he's a great fighter, especially here in Melbourne.”
Next up Seppi will face American Donald Young for a place in the third round.