This match had promised a triumph of hope over experience. In the end, however, it became one of experience over hype.
To many of the game's cognoscenti, destiny had seemed to offer a pretty literal hint when Juan Martin del Potro was switched from the bottom half of the draw to fill the shoes of Rafael Nadal. But yesterday one of the absent champion's predecessors, Lleyton Hewitt, showed that the world No 5 still has a plenty to learn if he is to convert his sumptuous talent into Grand Slam success.
The 2002 champion produced a masterpiece 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 victory full of wit and dynamism, and a projected quarter-final clash with Andy Roddick will go a long way to compensate fans for Nadal's withdrawal. Del Potro, meanwhile, must go away and ponder how to redress a performance curiously lacking in dimension. He is still only 20, but had been able to stroll through his first game, with Arnaud Clement, before Hewitt caught him cold in the Centre Court sunshine.
The Australian had hip surgery last year, and is now 28, but here his movement and invention were at their pristine best. Nor did the demeanour of the two men divulge their relative seniority. Hewitt, in his familiar reversed cap, bustled round the court with all the jaunty impudence of his youth – whipping his whole body into the big shots, cocking a biceps as he roared himself to greater endeavour, flinging himself headlong across the turf he cherishes. On one occasion, he salvaged a winner even as Del Potro was marching back to the service line.
Del Potro, in contrast, has all the placidity of some sage veteran. For such a big man – he is 6ft 6in – he has a physical ease approaching languor, and exudes a corresponding calm even in moments of crisis. There were times, in fact, when you felt that his instincts of economy should instead borrow from the extravagant energies of his opponent.
After all, the game offers few more provoking challenges than Hewitt. The man is willpower incarnate. Some of the great champions of this arena, of course, have had a glacial temperament, but there is a critical margin between the carefree and the careless. The Argentine made increasingly clumsy decisions at key points, and it soon became apparent that he could not rely solely on the undoubted virility of his game. Hewitt could seldom match Del Potro's first serve for velocity, for instance, but variety proved another matter as he sent the ball spitting and snorting this way and that.
When Hewitt saved four break points in his third service game, it had seemed an obvious sign of vulnerability. In the event, however, it turned out that he had merely been summoning the obstinacy of old. He promptly broke Del Potro in the very next game, and when he came to serve for the set conjured three aces, much to the delight of his boisterous compatriots in the crowd.
Del Potro now summoned his trainer and had light strapping applied to his knee, but otherwise remained impassive. Both players found a profitable groove through the second set, serving securely, but the younger man seemed to lose his nerve at 5-5, following a double fault with two tame forehands into the net. And though he had a wobble of his own, Del Potro rasping a forehand on to the line to save a first set point, Hewitt eventually served out.
Now, surely, we would learn what kind of mettle governed the sinews of the big man. And before you knew it, he was 0-40 down. Though Del Potro clawed his way back to deuce, Hewitt stranded him with a lob for another break point and Del Potro responded with an insipid double-fault.
Only in the next game did a bass Hispanic howl of self-reproach finally permit the crowd some sense of the exasperation within. But whenever Hewitt managed to engage him from the baseline, initiative seemed to drift away. To his credit, Del Potro saved a match point in breaking to 5-5, but more characteristic was the way Hewitt roared straight back into a decisive lead.
They embraced warmly afterwards. "He's one of my idols," Del Potro admitted. "I said: 'You are in very good shape again! So I'm happy for you, and good luck!'" But he seemed somewhat in awe of the whole environment. "Lleyton has much more [grass] experience than me," he said. "So I need time to learn how to play on this surface."
Hewitt told him not to lose heart. "He's a future Grand Slam champion, possibly on any surface," he said. "But he's still a bit raw. I had to try and take advantage of that. I just played a really smart match. The body felt great as well. I felt I could actually go out there and compete 100 per cent, lay it all on the line. That's what I like to do. You know, I competed as well as I've ever competed. If the draw opens up, and I can execute that kind of tennis over five sets, there's no reason why I can't put a bit of pressure on those guys."
This leonine competitor, remember, is prowling the same half of the draw as Andy Murray. The Australians have already had a winner at Royal Ascot, and nothing would set them up for the Ashes better than to extinguish another of the mother country's grand delusions.