Playing hard pays off for Hewitt

Greg Garber and Howard Bryant discuss the five things they learned from Day 5 of the US Open.

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NEW YORK -- His colleagues from the previous generation have begun to fade away.

Lleyton Hewitt held his own against Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and Marat Safin back in the day. Hewitt, who finished No. 1 in the world in 2001-02 and won two majors, including this one, has seen Andy Roddick and James Blake retire and face a future without playing tennis.

The stubborn Aussie, now 32, has been slowed by every kind of injury you can imagine -- hands, feet, hips, back, knees, etc., and surgeries to correct them. And yet, although his ranking has slipped to No. 61, he is still out there swinging, hat backward, determined, red face taut with concentration. He is no longer speedy around the court and he never had any power to speak of. He was all touch and feel and his return of serve was once the best in the game. Some of his toes are fused together and he lives with aches that will never go away.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Lleyton Hewitt never caved against the hard-hitting del Potro.

All Hewitt ever did was try his hardest.

Lately, many have wondered why he bothers. He has a gorgeous family, an unimpeachable legacy and more money than he can count. Well, Friday night and the spectacle at Arthur Ashe Stadium provided your answer.

Hewitt, channeling another era, went straight at Juan Martin del Potro, in a tense meeting of two former US Open champions. And, beyond anything you or anyone could reasonably project, Hewitt won emphatically in the fifth set.

The astonishing score was 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1 and it required 4 hours, 3 minutes.

Twice in the last set, Hewitt threw himself across on the hard asphalt -- completely prone -- to try and come up with a shot.

Del Potro, who looked exhausted at the end, played another four-hour match in the first round against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez; his two outings here were the longest played by anyone. In truth, there were times when he looked defeated in the very first set.

Nevertheless, he wrapped his long arm around Hewitt's head at the net and offered sincere congratulations.

"A couple of years ago, when I had a couple of foot surgeries, I didn't know if I was going to play tennis anymore," Hewitt said in his on-court interview. "I cherish every match I get to play. This is why I play, for moments like this.

"It's a hell of a lot of fun."

The last point underlined the match's uneven quality -- the hyper, bouncing Hewitt and the weary, resigned del Potro. It was a double fault off the racket of the 24-year-old Argentine.

For what it was worth, del Potro was playing with a seriously sore right wrist, the same one that required surgery in 2010 and forced him to miss eight months. He finished with a startling 70 unforced errors and Hewitt actually hit more winners, 42-41.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Juan Martin del Potro not only lost, but says his surgically repaired wrist is aching again.

"Tonight was tough for both of us, but in the end he played better, was impressive," del Potro said afterward of the hero of his youth. "He's a great champion, a great fighter. For the second round, he's a really difficult player.

"He has a chance to go far in this tournament."

The wrist, he acknowledged, was bothering him.

"It's not an excuse," del Potro said. "I was trying to the end. Now I have a few days to rest and fix my wrist again. I go home tomorrow."

In some minds, del Potro has been playing well enough to win this thing a second time. He took No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic to the very brink in the semifinals at Wimbledon -- and probably had a huge hand in delivering the title there to Andy Murray. Only No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal had a better summer hard court -- only because he didn't lose a single match.

No one, perhaps even Hewitt, thought he had a chance to win to win two matches here. But when it was over and he was surveying the four sides of the stadium, he looked pretty comfortable holding his arms aloft. Like riding a bicycle, a champion never forgets.

A few days ago, Hewitt practiced against Russian Evgeny Donskoy, the No. 102-ranked player in the world. He had never seen him before and, frankly, he's not going to start worrying about that exceedingly winnable Sunday match until at least Saturday afternoon.

"I don't know how many years I have left in me, people keep asking me that question," Hewitt said, "but I'm happy out there, keep on putting on a good show."

This is why he can't go home to the Bahamas, not yet anyway.

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