Commentary

Last chapter for Hewitt in hometown?

With a five-set loss to Fernando Gonzalez, Lleyton Hewitt once again exits the Australian Open without the title he craves most.

Updated: January 21, 2009, 3:48 AM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Fernando GonzalezTorsten Blackwood-Pool/Getty ImagesDespite a recent spiral, Fernando Gonzalez displayed gumption in his five-set win.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's a measure of Lleyton Hewitt's Australian Open career that his 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Fernando Gonzalez in the first round of Melbourne on Tuesday fell toward the bottom of the drama scale.

He is adamant that this will not be the last chapter and that he intends to return next year for a 14th straight time to try to capture his home Grand Slam. But as he is nearing 28 and still getting back to fighting form after hip surgery, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Hewitt will ever win the title he craves the most.

While the names of others have been carved in the honor roll, he has written himself indelibly into the history of the tournament. As with Tim Henman at Wimbledon, all the unforgettable matches Hewitt has played here over the years have come to stand on their own.

He saved his most memorable run for the 100th anniversary of the tournament in 2005, reaching the final after a series of thrillers.

"I guess I wrote myself into the tournament when I lost in the final a couple years ago," Hewitt said, forcing his mind to think past the immediate disappointment of Tuesday's loss. "Nearly all seven matches that I played in 2005 … yeah, every match was a bit of a roller coaster out there."

Even an encapsulation of that eventful run becomes lengthy. There was the nail-biting fourth-set tiebreaker in the second round against James Blake, the spitting incident with Juan Ignacio Chela in the third and a five-setter against a young Rafael Nadal. Then came the loss of a two-set lead against David Nalbandian, salvaged by a 10-8 victory in the fifth set. And finally, what the local papers described as a "barrage of explosive serving" from Andy Roddick in the semifinal. Each encounter was heavily punctuated by fist pumps, "c'mons" and Hewitt's trademark "lawn-mower" celebration.

Little wonder that by the time he faced a top-form Marat Safin in the final, Hewitt did not have quite enough left. But by then, the Australian Open had broken all its attendance and national TV records, creating a momentum off which the tournament is still feeding. The final itself drew 4 million TV viewers, by far Australia's highest ratings for any TV program that year.

Next on Hewitt's personal highlight reel is "obviously the Baghdatis match last year."

He and 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis played a wild five-set encounter that carried on until 4:33 a.m., the latest finish in Grand Slam history. Once again, it put the tournament over the top as a cultural phenomenon in Australia.

Tuesday's loss against Gonzalez might not have hit such heights, but it managed to enthrall the partisan crowd in Rod Laver Arena for more than three hours.

The crowd was delighted as Hewitt scraped out a close first set while temperatures peaked at 104 degrees Fahrenheit for the day. But Gonzalez, a surprise finalist here in 2007, hit back in the second and third sets while Melbourne's variable weather proceeded to outdo itself: A breeze picked up, and the thermometer began to drift down to 81 degrees.

[+] EnlargeLleyton Hewitt
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesLleyton Hewitt lost in the Australian Open's first round for the first time since 2002.
In such strange conditions, the tennis was not of the highest quality -- both players had nearly twice as many unforced errors as winners -- but the competition remained close.

A loose serving game from Gonzalez at 3-4 in the fourth set allowed Hewitt to even the match, and then a back-and-forth battle saw Gonzalez take his chances in the fifth set, while Hewitt did not.

Two break points in a four-deuce game at 1-1 were the highest in Hewitt's list of regrets. "Yeah, he came up with a couple of big forehands on those points, but if I could have got that early break, it could have been a little bit different," he said.

He also admitted that an injury timeout from Gonzalez at 3-2 might have disrupted his rhythm, contributing to a break in the next game. "I wasn't quite serving as well as I had early in the match, though," Hewitt added.

The win took Gonzalez's fifth-set winning percentage to better than 50 percent (13-12) and dropped Hewitt's to less than 66 percent (22-12).

The Australian No. 1 was visibly upset by his first-round exit in Melbourne -- his first since a chicken-pox-induced defeat in 2002 -- but expects it will take another few months before he fully recovers from the effects of hip surgery in the fall.

With his fiery, uncompromising on-court persona, Hewitt has never been universally popular at home or abroad, but he has earned respect with his battling performances over the years.

"It's good for the tennis he's coming back," Gonzalez said. "[I've had] really good, tough battles with Lleyton in the past. We know each other since 10, 15 years ago. We always play long match."

"Me, I always love watching Lleyton play," Roger Federer said last week. "I'm always happy when he's playing, and he has come back from an injury, which is never easy, but he's definitely the type of guy who has got the best chance of making it right up in the rankings again, and I hope he's going to do really well. I really hope so."

Hewitt's counterpunching game is unlikely to yield a return to the upper reaches of today's game but, when healthy, he remains one of the tougher players to put away and believes a top-10 return is possible.

And as his performances at Melbourne Park over the years have shown, the attempt can sometimes be its own achievement.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.