WHAT A WIN, WHAT A MATCH, WHAT A CONTEST!
…And it was just a first round match
THE above was the headline I had planned to use in my coverage of the first round epic encounter between the unseeded former world number one Lleyton Hewitt of Australia and the 27th seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina.
Nothing on earth was going to change my emphasis and the pride of place the match deserved in the report of the first round matches. It was definitely the match of the round, and many observers, like me, were not sure whether it would not in the end emerge as the match of the two-week Grand Slam event. It was the kind of match which succeeded in forcing a self-retired veteran sports journalist out of his rocking chair to keep faith with the legion of his tennis readers in this country.
But hardly could I have realised the Hewitt-Nalbandian extravaganza was going to be quickly followed in the very next round by a match which would have resulted in one of the biggest shocks in the history of Grand Slam tennis, if not of the entire history of tennis.
My early emphasis was going to be the repeat of the 2002 Wimbledon Gentlemen's Singles final which the then world number one Australian won by spanking Nalbandian in three straight sets. The two had faced off again in the quarter-final of the 2005 edition of the Australian Open, which was also won by Hewitt, this time won by the slimmest of margins, with the Australian winning it 9-7 in a gripping fifth set, in easily the match of the entire tournament.
The announcement at the end of last Thursday's draw which again pitched now one time world number one against a one-time world number two before both were sidelined by injuries which had threatened early retirement of both from the professional tour, was greeted with wows and other expressions of excitement of a potential slugfest between two back-to-form players who are desperate to get back to where they once belonged - at the very top of the game.
As for Hewitt, the desperation was a determination to become the first indigenous winner of the Australian Open since John Alexander won the title in 1976, in a bid to add to his (Hewitt's) triumphs away at the 2002 Wimbledon and the 2001 US Open. For Nalbandian, the Argentine's consistency in being in the top ten since he broke into the elite group in 2003, and his surprising defeat of Roger Federer, the world number one and two times holder of the season-ending ATP Tennis Masters Cup (now ATP World Tour Finals at the 02 Arena, London), is not enough to compensate for his not having won a single Grand Slam title till date.
Up against Hewitt, who is generally regarded as the greatest fighter in the sport since becoming the youngest player (then at 14) to win a Grand Slam match, Nalbandian knew he had his hands full, and it was Hewitt who drew the first blood by winning the opening set 6-3 in 40 minutes.
Nalbandian evened matters by taking the second at 6-4 in 47 minutes, but Hewitt again seized control by edging his opponent after series of long and bruising rallies, as the Argentine's normally reliable forehand continued to fail him at crucial moments.
This trend continued in the fourth set and the Australian appeared to be running away with the match when he took a 3-1 lead, and was just one point away from being a double-break up for an impending 4-1 deficit.
Down 1-3 and 0-40 on his serve in the fifth game of that fourth set, Nalbandian needed to fend off as many as four break points before managing to win the 11 minutes game, thanks to two successive crushing and wickedly first serves, the first aimed at his opponent's body which choked the Australian, and the second a blistering ace wide to Hewitt's hopelessly lunging backhand.
Having thus escaped being broken for the second time in the set, Nalbandian staged a furious comeback to break Hewitt back as the set got back on serve, and even went ahead at 5-4 without another break of his opponent's serve.
Having now won four straight games to take an unlikely 5-4 lead, Nalbandian served for the set. But Hewitt stopped the bleeding when he broke the Argentine to level up at 5-5 for the fourth consecutive service break of the set. The set predictably went to a tie-break, which Nalbandian, now having found his range on his thunderous forehand, won easily at 7-1 with yet another glorious backhand down-the-line sizzling passing shot baseline-to-baseline.
It was virtually more of the same in the following fifth and deciding set when Nalbandian, having completed a sensational comeback, served for the match, leading 5-4. He was quickly down 0-30, and then faced two break points at 15-40, and Hewitt needed no further invitation to cash in on the first of his two break opportunities to draw level at 5-5.
As in the other Grand Slam tournaments (except the US Open which applies the tie-break in the fifth set), the two had to continue the slugfest after being at 6-6.
When both players stayed level at 7-7, and with four hours and 20 minutes gone, tennis historians began digging into Australian Open recent history to find out matches which compared favourably with the thriller they were watching and thoroughly enjoying.
Of course, the epic quarter-final in the 2005 Australian Open, between USA's Andy Roddick and Morocco's Younes El Aynoui which the American won 21-19 in the fifth set, came to mind.
More recently, in the 2009 edition, it was eventual champion, Rafael Nadal of Spain who was on the better side of an intriguing semi-final battle against fellow-Spaniard Fernando Verdasco which lasted five hours and 10 minutes, which till today remains the longest match ever played at the Australian Open.
At this stage, 7-7 in the fifth, anyone of the two battlers could win the match to proceed to the second round. The question was: who? And when?
Sadly for the Australian, who throughout the encounter understandably enjoyed a vociferous backing from the stands, suddenly fell behind 0-40 on his serve, and then threw in his fifth double-fault of the match to lose his serve to love, as the Argentine prepared to serve for the match with a precious 8-7 lead.
But everyone who had followed Hewitt's career just knew that the Australian would rather go down swinging if he must go down at all. It was 30-30, as Nalbandian unleashed another big serve for a service winner, before ending the four hours and 48 minutes proceedings with a back-breaking topspin lob as Hewitt approached the net with an unconvincing approach shot.
As an appreciation of the two battlers, the largely Australian crowd who had punctuated the exciting match with intermittent Mexican Waves at the end of numerous hard-won points, gave both players who had ended the match winning the same total number of points at 193-193 each, a long standing ovation.
Yet, it was just a first round match, and just as almost everyone was feeling that the quality seen in that encounter was unlikely to be matched for the rest of the tournament, in came into the same showpiece court - the Rod Laver Arena, the second seed, four times champion, and defending champion 29 year-old Roger Federer to feature in a tricky second round encounter against 24 year-old Frenchman Gilles Simon, an unseeded former world top 6 player (now ranked a lowly world number 34 due to long injury lay-off), but whom Federer had never beaten in their only two previous meetings.
Many tennis observers suspected a huge upset in the cards, largely because Simon is one of the extremely few players who succeed in getting under the skin of Federer because of his boring and uninteresting counter-punching style of play (the other is Great Britain's Andy Murray), both of whom enjoy a superior career head-to-head won/lost record over the Swiss.
In their two meetings which were both on hard courts (the same surface as one used in Melbourne), Simon had won. But, like Murray, he (Simon) had not beaten Federer in a Grand Slam match of five sets. They were meeting for the first time in a Grand Slam event.
Yesterday, Federer cruised to a comfortable two sets lead, having taken them 6-2, 6-3. But then, Federer's form dropped some, and Simon, perhaps saying to Federer 'thank you very much,' won the next two 6-4, 6-4.
It was not until the sixth game of the deciding fifth set that Federer regained his magic to secure the crucial break to take a 4-2 lead, before serving out the match to win the set 6-3 and the match, but not until he was taken to a fourth match point.
Federer next faces Belgium's red-hot Xavier Malisse, who lately is in the form of his life.
The tournament continues, with just a few upsets so far of Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, Frenchwoman Mario Bartoli, Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, and former world number one Ana Ivanovic of Serbia.