The shadows lengthened, the floodlights were switched on and Tim Henman stood one point away from serving for a straight-sets win over Guillermo Canas. Two hours later he was still on court, contemplating the unthinkable: defeat in five sets after his longest match, and one of his hardest-fought.
It was a prolonged, agonising night of the soul for Henman who, after letting a two-set lead slip through his fingers, found himself 4-1 up in the fifth, only to see victory evaporate once again. The third-round battle at the Australian Open began when the sun was still high; five hours later, when an ecstatic Canas threw himself to the ground, the last dying rays were turning the sky above Margaret Court Arena pink.
The statistics told the story of a tense, thrilling match, so close that it could have been settled by the toss of a coin. Canas won 211 points to secure his 6-7 5-7 7-6 7-5 9-7 triumph; the British No 1 won 209. Henman served nine aces and nine double-faults; the Argentinian player four and four. The outcome turned on a few crucial points; Henman won them early on, and Canas did so later.
Which of those points will haunt the No 11 seed as he leaves Melbourne Park, reflecting on yet another premature Grand Slam departure? The forehand volley error at 4-4 in the ninth game of the third set, which banished his chance of breaking serve and then, conceivably, serving out the match? His failure to capitalise on a 7-6, 0-30 lead on Canas's serve in the fifth set, when just two points separated him from nirvana? The double-fault on break point at 7-7, which sent him hurtling towards oblivion in the next game?
Henman could not answer that question; the wounds were too fresh. He described the 4hr 51min match, with customary understatement, as "a bitter pill to swallow" - all the more so because his own tennis had been so good. He hit 100 winners, to his opponent's 65. "That's a lot of winners to hit to lose," he said. He also made 74 errors, to Canas's 24.
The pair's previous meetings had also been tight. "These are the type of matches that you've got to find a way to get through," he said. "He did and I didn't. I came up just too short. So there are not a lot of constructive things to say at the moment. It's pretty disappointing."
There was no shortage of drama for the riotous capacity crowd, which was mostly behind Henman: two tie-breaks, an injury scare for Canas and several tantrums. As the match wore on, every point became a mini-duel that was fought to the death, ending in anguish or euphoria for the combatants.
The 29-year-old Briton won the first-set tie-break 7-5, with the crowd booing Canas as he disputed a series of line calls, spitting toward the umpire and whacking a ball across court, narrowly missing a ball-boy. Although rattled, he saved seven break points in the next set before Henman finally broke for a 7-6 lead.
The 26-year-old, who reached No 12 in 2002 but dropped to No 258 last year because of injury, broke Henman's serve in the third set, exploiting his first break point of the match. The Briton broke back straight away, but this time lost the tie-break 7-3.
Canas was treated for a twisted ankle in the fourth set, but suffered no lasting effects and equalised the score at two sets all after breaking Henman twice. But the pendulum swung back towards Henman, who broke for 4-1 in the fifth - only to have his opponent break back twice, sending the small knot of Argentinian fans delirious with excitement.
Canas, who sealed matters on his third match point, said: "We both played an unbelievable match. It was so close. Maybe I played the important points better."
He next meets his compatriot David Nalbandian, the No 8 seed, while Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis will play, respectively, Roger Federer and Hicham Arazi in the fourth round. The No 3 seed, Juan Carlos Ferrero, plays the Romanian Andre Pavel.Reuse content