As Lleyton Hewitt hitched up his shirt to mop his brow, red spots were visible on his chest. Still weak from chicken-pox, the world No 1 had felt compelled to keep an appointment at his home Grand Slam. And so it came to pass that the top seed crashed out of the Australian Open in the first round yesterday, outplayed by a lowly ranked Spaniard, Alberto Martin.
It was a dramatic departure, but there was no dishonour attached to it, thanks to Hewitt's recent illness and lack of match practice. The same could not be said unreservedly of Martin's 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 win, which came after he halted the fourth-set tie-break when he was 5-4 ahead to call for a trainer to massage his legs. The break lasted for three minutes.
The Spanish baseliner said he had been assailed by violent cramps, but he was booed by spectators here at Melbourne Park and Hewitt – who had hoped to add the trophy to his US Open title – accused him of dubious tactics. "It's a shocker," he said. "It would definitely have made my chances a lot easier if he had played fair."
Not since Stefan Edberg's three-set defeat to Alexander Volkov, at the US Open in 1990, had a No 1 seed been knocked out of a Grand Slam in the opening round. For the Australian event, it was a first, and it came on a day that drew nearly 43,000 people, the largest attendance ever at a Grand Slam.
"Somebody has got to put their balls on the line, one of the refs or somebody, otherwise people are going to take advantage of it [the rule that allows players to call for a trainer] like he did," said Hewitt.
"I had asked for the trainer before [twice], but I told the umpire I would wait for the change of ends just because it's not the right thing to do at 30-30."
As the crowd struggled to digest the enormity of Hewitt's defeat, his girlfriend Kim Clijsters, the Belgian No 4 seed, displayed remarkable sang-froid, following him directly on to the same court and annihilating the Australian wild card Christine Wheeler 6-2, 6-1 in 52 minutes.
Who will win the men's title here is an increasingly absorbing question. The reigning champion, Andre Agassi, pulled out injured before a ball was hit. The No 2 seed, Gustavo Kuerten, lost in the first round. The most senior seed left after two days of play is the No 4, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Pete Sampras is looking good at No 8; so is Britain's Tim Henman, the 6th seed. Then there is a raft of young contenders including Marat Safin, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer.
Hewitt was favourite until chicken-pox forced him to retire from the Hopman Cup in Perth a fortnight ago. He appeared to make a swift recovery, but shunned the media in the run-up to Melbourne, his silence being interpreted as proof that the pressure of success was weighing heavily.
Yesterday the 20-year-old from Adelaide explained that he had not wished to advertise his lack of fitness. Had it been a regular Tour event, there was "no way" he would have played. "But I was pretty much going to walk out on the court no matter how bad I was feeling," he said.
"It's the Australian Open, it's the Grand Slam, one of the biggest tournaments of the year. Of course, I would have liked to have prepared better, but I was still going to give it a shot. It didn't turn out as well as I'd like, but there are three other Slams this year." Hewitt said he "hit a wall" and began to struggle after the first set, which he won with ease. Famously fast on his feet, he failed to reach balls and produced a rare numbers of errors. The Spaniard, the world No 39, dominated their baseline exchanges and broke serve twice to run off with the second set.
The 23-year-old from Barcelona also prevailed in the third, but the biggest battle of wills came during the 96-minute fourth set, which saw the South Australian receive courtside treatment for a blister and thigh cramps.
After alternate breaks of serve forced the set to a tie-break, Hewitt raced to a 3-0 lead. Martin fought back and went 5-4 up, then took his controversial break. When he returned, the No 1 seed sent one backhand long and another into the net, handing his opponent a historic victory.
Hewitt conceded that he could have lost the 3hr 33min match anyway. "I still had to win that set and then win another set," he said. "I'm not as disappointed as I have been in other matches because I know I wasn't 100 per cent. I went out there and did the best I could. I'm not Superman."
Martin, who had won only one match in four previous visits to Melbourne, defended his time-out. "I didn't do anything against the rules," he said. "If I was continuing, I was on the floor." He said it was unquestionably his best result to date. "Now I know I can beat anyone."Reuse content