The fireworks crackling in the night sky, marking the climax of Australia Day celebrations, were the last thing that Lleyton Hewitt wanted to hear as his hopes of excelling in his home Grand Slam turned to dust on Rod Laver Arena.
Nearly 16,000 patriotic Australians in the stands were willing him to win, but not even a rousing rendition of the national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair," could save him from a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4 defeat at the graceful hands of Roger Federer, the man many regard as the world's most talented player.
When the national day dawned, two Australians remained in the men's singles draw at Melbourne Park: Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis, the No 10 seed. By late afternoon, Philippoussis was history, confounded by the artistry of Hicham Arazi, the unseeded Moroccan.
The blood of his friend and Davis Cup team-mate was barely dry when Hewitt, the No 15 seed, followed him out on court, the weight of the nation's expectations on his shoulders. His prospects of overtaking Federer to reach his first Australian Open quarter-final seemed rosy, for he had won eight of their 10 previous encounters.
Most notably, on the same court last September, he had recovered from two sets and 5-3 down to record a stunning victory against Federer in Australia's Davis Cup semi-final against Switzerland. Hewitt, a member of the team that went on to beat Spain in the final, rated that match the finest of his career.
It was a feat, though, that was not to be repeated last night. "I played a guy who was too good on the night," the former Wimbledon and United States Open champion said. "I felt like I gave it a good chance. I was aggressive right from the start, I put the pressure on him, but he was too good. He came up with some pretty big points when he needed to."
Federer, the No 2 seed and the reigning Wimbledon champion, said: "I'm very happy to have taken my revenge on him, because it hurt me big-time, that match at Davis Cup. We always have great matches and this time I played better than him."
While Australians were disheartened by the demise of their last local hero, they were treated to two hours and 18 minutes of exquisite tennis, particularly off the Swiss player's racket. The rallies were long and thrilling. Federer's volleying made the heart flutter. He moved around court like a dancer, flicking one elegant backhand after another down the line.
When play started, the pair seemed evenly matched. Both were 22, both had Grand Slam titles to their name. Even their outfits were a mirror image of each other: the European in white shorts and red shirt, the Antipodean in red shorts and white shirt.
Federer made a slow start, dropping serve in the opening game and producing numerous errors. With the first set captured by Hewitt, it seemed the wishes of the flag-waving crowd might be granted. But the Swiss player broke in the sixth game of the second set, after a foot-fault had been controversially called when the Australian served an ace on game point.
With a set under his belt, Federer found his confidence. Now it was Hewitt who was making mistakes as his opponent - almost effortlessly, it seemed - outplayed him. He went to pieces in the third set, unable to win a single game. The fireworks that began when he was 0-5 down did not help. The players had been warned about them beforehand, but Hewitt seemed more affected. "It was a lot louder than I expected," he said.
The Australian came back fighting in the fourth set, but failed to exploit a couple of chinks in Federer's game and, frustrated, uttered an almost primal scream. He saved a match point on his serve, then another on Federer's, even had a break point which the Swiss man saved before finally sealing victory with an unreturnable serve. Hewitt hurried off court, too upset to sign autographs.
"I felt like I had a lot of chances out there tonight," Hewitt said. "I had a lot of love-30s, a lot of break points, especially early in the second set. I wasn't able to capitalise."
Federer said it was a significant victory. "This is very big for me and my career, because I'm chasing the No 1 [ranking] at this tournament. So this year I'm the bad guy who puts Lleyton out of the draw, but my goal is go further, and tomorrow I have to start all over again."
Federer plays David Nalbandian in the quarter-finals, after the Argentinian No 8 seed took just 1 hour 44min to overwhelm his countryman, Guillermo Canas, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. Canas was Tim Henman's nemesis in the third round. Arazi, meanwhile, will play Juan Carlos Ferrero, the No 3 seed, who beat Andrei Pavel 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.Reuse content