Hewitt remains defiant in spite of dispiriting five-set defeat

Former champion rules out retirement after surrendering two-set lead against Soderling

It was difficult to resist a bittersweet, valedictory flavour in Lleyton Hewitt's defeat here yesterday. But whatever the future may hold, he certainly gave Centre Court something to remember him by.

In the old days, five sets over three hours and 54 minutes would have nearly guaranteed success for the 2002 champion. Instead, the Australian allowed Robin Soderling, the No 5 seed, back into the match after opening up a two-set lead. Worse, he lost each of the remaining sets by failing to level the score on his own serve.

Already, back home, the talk is increasingly about the emergence of a teenage heir. But while Bernard Tomic must first shed a reputation as being somewhat trying, he must surely recognise as Hewitt's bequest that God loves a trier.

At 30, decay is not merely a figurative prospect. With chronic damage to a bone in his foot, Hewitt has been playing on pain-killers and had to retire during his first-round match at Eastbourne. His high-energy, high-tension style is scarcely conducive to longevity, of course – and nor does it do a great deal for the life expectancy of his adoring supporters.

Even so, it seems incongruous to be treating him as some kind of elder statesman, with the trademark, brattish reversal of his baseball cap and the undiminished impudence in his game. He remains all bustle around the court, full of familiar tics and febrile endeavour.

The contrast in his opponent was as absolute as that dividing a gnarled old eucalyptus and some lofty Nordic conifer. Each represented a different dimension of virility. Soderling, a laconic figure who ambles lugubriously along the baseline between points, makes violent capital of his height and power – both in his service, and in his ground-strokes. At breaks, he disappears under his towel. Only rarely does he evince any emotion, through inscrutable mutterings and gestures.

Hewitt, meanwhile, embodies the more expressive masculinity that goes by the name of machismo – hunting down every lost cause, as though the whole tribe depended on him, and pumping his biceps whenever that ferocity is rewarded with a kill.

What made this such a classic was the way these contrasts cancelled each other out. Neither player could depend solely on pugnacity. Instead courage became more mental than physical, a test of wit and daring. And, in the end, Soderling won through by introducing something more delicate, more feminine even, to his game-plan.

Hewitt, of course, is one of those rare players whose excellence on this surface is not founded on some Neanderthal serve. He has always had to live on his flair and invention, harnessing the power of his opponent through reach and deftness. As such, his veteran status is not an unqualified hindrance. Certainly it took guile and experience to prise open an advantage through two cagey opening sets.

Hewitt edged a tense tie-break in the first, and then produced an astounding shot to turn the second in its eighth game. Soderling had apparently killed off the point with a routine volley across the net, but Hewitt flung himself full length in what was literally a leap of faith – blind faith, as he admitted afterwards. "I didn't see it," he said. "Actually when I hit it I thought it was going to the bottom of the net. I had no idea of the direction, if I made good contact, or whatever. It was only that the crowd started cheering. I didn't know [for certain] it was a winner until the umpire called the score."

It was vintage Hewitt, and the crowd went crazy. Moreover he would pull off a couple of other similar miracles before he was done. But it was now that Soderling disclosed his own blind inspiration, the fruit of his meditations under the towel. For the first half of the match he had dictated such an aggressive tempo that it was extremely rare for either player to enter the court. But now he started mixing up the pace and the angles, requiring Hewitt to introduce a spot of power himself – scarcely his strongest point. And perhaps that was how Hewitt, having left what you might call his discomfort zone, lost his nerve three times running.

He had lost 6-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4, and sounded devastated afterwards. But there is no danger of losing him just yet. "I love competing in these events," he said. "You know, you're a long time retired. As long as my body's close to 100 per cent, I want to go out there and compete. I still feel I can give these top guys as much trouble as anyone out there."

Brit watch

Andy Murray (world ranking: 4)

Second round: Beat T Kamke (Ger), (ranked 83) 6-3, 6-3, 7-5. Plays I Ljubicic (Cro), (ranked 33) in third round today

James Ward (ranking: 192)

First round: Lost to Michaël Llodra (Fr), (ranked 35) 6-3, 7-6, 6-3

Daniel Cox (ranking: 273)

First round: Lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky (Ukr), (ranked 46) 6-2, 6-4, 6-4

Daniel Evans (ranking: 301)

First round: Lost to Florian Mayer (Ger), (ranked 18) 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-4

Elena Baltacha (ranking: 68)

First round: Beat M Barthel (Ger), (rank 114) 6-2, 6-4. Plays S Peng (China), (ranked 20) today.

Heather Watson (ranking: 106)

First round: Lost to Mathilde Johansson (Fr), (ranked 70) 6-2, 4-6, 4-6

Anne Keothavong (ranking: 111)

Second round: Lost to Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic), (ranked 8) 6-2, 6-1

Naomi Broady (ranking: 213)

First round: Lost to Anne Keothavong (GB), (ranked 111) 6-2, 6-4

Katie O'Brien (ranking: 215)

First round: Lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm (Japan), (ranked 57)6-0, 7-5

Emily Webley-Smith (ranking: 244)

First round: Lost to Klara Zakopalova (Czech Rep), (ranked 35) 6-3, 5-7, 8-6

Laura Robson (ranking: 254)

First round: Beat A Kerber (Ger), (rank 77) 4-6, 7-6. 6-3. Plays M Sharapova (Rus), (rank 5) today.