Lleyton Hewitt’s storied 20-year, 878-match professional tennis career is over following a sapping second-round loss at the Australian Open in Melbourne.
Spanish party pooper David Ferrer ended an era in Australian sport with a 6-2 6-4 6-4 victory over the wounded warrior in a gripping encounter that ended in controversial fashion on Thursday night.
Rod Laver Arena was again packed with the Rafters, Pat and wife Lara, along with countless other tennis luminaries, celebrities and sports stars including triple world surfing champion Mick Fanning.
They’d been hoping to see the former world No.1 and dual grand slam champion wind back the clock at least one more time.
But with little care for the occasion, the eighth-seeded Ferrer showed his class to put away Hewitt – who battled a thigh strain throughout – in two hours and 32 minutes.
A part-time player for much of the past year since announcing after his second-round Open loss in 2015 that this would be his farewell to the sport, Hewitt still dared to dream after his first-round triumph over James Duckworth.
“I want six more,” the Hall of Famer said before Hunters and Collectors’ Holy Grail was belted out on the sound system during his warm-up on Thursday night.
In reality, there was never going to be a fairytale finish for the veteran dream believer.
In an unprecedented 20 straight Open appearance, the father of three’s best result will forever remain his epic run to the 2005 final that ended in a four-set defeat at the hands of Marat Safin.
He failed to venture beyond the fourth round any other year since becoming the youngest Open qualifier in history at just 15 in 1997.
Hewitt will nevertheless be remembered and ranked among the modern-day greats of Australian tennis, up there with fellow former world No.1s John Newcombe and Rafter and behind only the legend after which the arena where Hewitt made his last stand was named.
“He’s just been one of the greatest competitors I have ever seen in my life,” said world No.1 and five-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic.
“Tennis will definitely miss a great competitor, a great fighter.”
And after losing five straight games to drop the first set, and then needing treatment for a leg injury, Hewitt displayed all his trademark grit to conjure seven break-back chances in an epic game while trailing 4-3 in the second set.
Alas, there was no break back as Ferrer held on before serving out a two-sets-to-love lead.
A winner of 32 five-set encounters – behind only all-time greats Ivan Lendl (36), Ilie Nastase (35) and Pete Sampras (33) in the professional era – Hewitt was unable to conjure a famous comeback this time around.
But a fighter to the bitter end, Hewitt tried everything to drag himself back into the contest, including a career-first “tweener”, a second medical time-out and a venomous spray of chair umpire Pascal Maria after copping a series of untimely foot faults deep in the third set.
Hewitt branded the linesman a “moron” and demanded Maria “get rid of him”.
Ferrer, though, was not to be denied, staying cool amid the fury and steadying after dropping serve for the only time to break Hewitt once again and clinch victory.