NEW YORK (Reuters) - Six doctors told former world number one Lleyton Hewitt he should retire. Thankfully he sought further opinion and is now looking forward to a third round clash at the U.S. Open.
Hewitt’s inspirational five-set triumph over Argentina’s sixth seed Juan Martin del Potro at Flushing Meadows on Friday was a crowning moment in his harrowing journey back from five rounds of surgery.
The 32-year-old Australian recovered from blowing a huge early lead to finally notch a 6-4 5-7 3-6 7-6(2) 6-1 second round win on Arthur Ashe Stadium that came two years after he was repeatedly told he should quit if he had major surgery on the big toe of his left foot.
“The foot surgery, I must have seen seven or eight different surgeons worldwide,” Hewitt said.
“At least six of them told me to retire if you have it done. I‘m very thankful that I found the guy that I believed in. We went in there and we were optimistic about it.”
In 2011, Hewitt’s toe was chronically arthritic and misshapen after years of digging into courts to launch his service action. Last year he had the toe reconstructed and irreversibly fused.
Cartilage was removed in 2012 and painful bone spurs were shaved off. A steel rod was inserted. The toe no longer moves, but nor does it give Hewitt grief.
”We thought I might be able to play doubles,“ he said. ”But we weren’t 100 percent sure whether I would be able to come back and play singles, even with doing all the hard work with rehab.
”In the back of your mind, you still have question marks, whether it’s going to be good enough to go out and compete on the centre stage against the top players again.
“When I first came back for the French Open and Wimbledon, I wasn’t in a good place in terms of the foot. I was still in a bit of pain after the surgery, but the last year has been pretty good.”
Hewitt double-faulted at set point in the second set. He proceeded to fall in a hole there seemed no escape from before producing a near perfect tiebreaker to ensure the match went the distance. Vintage ball striking and counter-punching had him raising his arms in victory after four hours and three minutes of toil.
“I don’t know how many years I have left in me so I was just hanging to get back on this court again,” he said in a courtside interview afterwards.
“It was a hell of a lot of fun. I cherish every match I get. This is why I still play, to have moments like this.”
Later, he added: “It was an unbelievable atmosphere. I just kept fighting and putting it out there. I kept coming at him the whole night. I was frustrated not closing it out when I had the chance. He was hitting the ball a lot bigger and I was on the defensive the whole time. I didn’t put a foot wrong in the tiebreaker.”
Twelve long years have passed since Hewitt beat the great Pete Sampras to win the U.S Open. He was subdued after toppling Del Potro to set up a clash against Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy, admitting he was vaguely stunned himself by the result.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said.
”For me, just going back in the locker room afterwards, I sort of had to pinch myself. I love being out in that atmosphere, sucking up every second of it.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy and I was trying to stay in my zone out there. Obviously over five sets there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs and momentum swings. I don’t know how many times I‘m going to play here in the future. I didn’t take it for granted tonight.”
Del Potro, also a former U.S. Open champion, paid tribute to Hewitt’s tenacity. The Argentinian, however, contributed to his own demise with 70 unforced errors. “He’s a great champion and a great fighter.”
Editing by Patrick Johnston