And so another brave Lleyton Hewitt tilt at Grand Slam glory comes up short — this time in a five-set epic against Argentina’s David Nalbandian that ended at 1am.

Having trained so hard for the Australian Open, and made it the focus of his training for months, the defeat was a bitter blow for Hewitt — and must have accounted for his quick and ungenerous exit from centre court then curt post-match press conference, behaviour which has been dissected and debated ad nauseam on Melbourne talkback radio yesterday morning.

Surely now, even the hyper-competitive little man from Adelaide — who has more than made up for his physical shortcomings in 14 years of Grand Slam tennis with an unparalleled strength of mind — must see the writing on the wall: his days of winning the biggest tournaments are over.

He’s playing a similar game to the one he was when top of the world in 2002 but the rest of the world has caught up and passed him. For all his admirable retrieving qualities and pure grit, he simply doesn’t have the power to match it with the world’s best over a fortnight (AAMI Classic win notwithstanding). And next month, he turns 30 — an age when most ATP tour regulars have packed up their racquets and headed off into the sunset.

It’s Hewitt’s second straight first-round exit in a Grand Slam, following last year’s US Open defeat to Paul-Henri Mathieu. Now, those glory days of 2005 — when he last made a Grand Slam semi-final — must seem an awfully long time ago.

What added to his frustration was the myriad chances he blew. Against the slightly flakey Argentine, Hewitt managed to win himself 30 break points through the five-hour match yet converted only seven of them. Nalbandian, by contrast, took virtually every opportunity that came his way.

At one stage, the Australian led by two sets to one and 3-1, 40-love on Nalbandian’s serve in the fourth set. The match was his for the taking. Yet, uncharacteristically, his famously steely nerve deserted him when he needed it most.

Then, after trailing for much of the final set, he bravely broke the Argentine’s serve to get back on level terms — and went on to win himself two match points in the 12th game. Once again, they went begging.

The doubts began to creep in and we started to see Hewitt not as player with superhuman mental powers but as an aging mortal with the same frailties as you and me.

His early exit begs an interesting question: will Australia be mourning his defeat?

For one of our best-performed international sportsmen, Hewitt has never garnered widespread national support. Certainly not in the way we warmed to Pat Rafter or Adam Gilchrist or Freddy Fittler or Chris Judd or even Greg Norman.

In fact, a lot of people think Hewitt is a chippy, spoilt, humourless, scowling, uncultured bogan. (And are left cold by the Rocky fist-pumping, C’mons and silly Mats Wilander Vicht thingy.)

There was evidence to support that theory again last night. Early in the third set last night, when Hewitt was trailing by a service break, a dispute arose over a ruling made by chair umpire, France’s Pascal Maria.

Maria ruled in Nalbandian’s favour, despite Hewitt’s fierce protestations. Realising he had no hope of changing the umpire’s mind, Hewitt stalked back to the baseline, muttering over his shoulder: ”That’s why you’re the worst umpire we have out here.”

Totally unnecessary, totally over the top, totally Lleyton.

For PR campaigning and image cultivation was never his thing. Spin was only useful if it helped one of his patented lobs land inside the baseline.

In 2003, he won the title of Most Popular South Australian. For all his admirable (and very Australian) qualities as a fighter, Hewitt will leave the sport sometime soon never having convinced much of the other nine-tenths of Australia that he was a sportsman to be loved, only grudgingly respected.

*Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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