This truly was a comeback, if, ultimately, an unsuccessful one. For Lleyton Hewitt, from a five-week retirement to the Davis Cup doubles court. For a scratch pair completed by impressive debutant John Peers from a two-sets-to-love deficit against US pair Bob and Mike Bryan to force a deciding, although slightly anti-climactic, fifth.
In the end, the Australians could not complete the fairytale doubles send-off – again – for a dusted-off, but far from rusty Hewitt, Australia's first playing captain since John Bromwich 67 years ago. The Bryans prevailed 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, to avoid what would have been a mighty upset, leaving Australia in the precarious position of needing to win both of Sunday's reverse singles to avoid elimination in the first round.
First-day hero Bernard Tomic will start against world No.11 John Isner to try to force a live fifth rubber between Jack Sock and either Hewitt or Sam Groth. The doubles tweak (Hewitt in, Groth out) was made on Friday night, for the intention had always been to share the workload. "We thought whatever pair we went with had an outside chance of going well, but that was probably the determining factor in the end," Hewitt said.
"Peersy played great. Handled the situation really well. It doesn't get much tougher than playing those guys in a live Davis Cup world group match, and to come back from two-sets-to-love down we started playing some really good tennis there for a couple of sets, we were all over them in the third and fourth sets. In Davis Cup doubles it's all about small momentum swings and in the end they're one of the best teams ever because they are able to dig out and find a way to get out of those situations."
So the most predictable result of the tie ended as expected, nominally, but only after an entertaining and high-quality affair that lasted almost two-and-a-half hours. The temporary grasscourt laid to give the hosts an advantage against Isner and Sock was never going to be so effective in nobbling the Bryans, who have won 16 majors, including three from seven finals at Wimbledon.
But both Peers and Hewitt, too, were at home on the green stuff – Peers quite literally, for the world No.8 is a long-time Kooyong member as well as a doubles runner-up last year at the All England Club. Hewitt, of course, was the men's champion at SW19 back in 2002, and it is arguable whether he would have put his retirement on hold if this tie was being played on anything else.
The Australians had never played together, and rarely even practised before, but the unfamiliarity rarely showed. And if the consensus was that Hewitt's serve – especially the second – was always going to be the Australian team's greatest vulnerability, the veteran was not broken over the last three sets. Indeed, the decisive blow was struck when Peers dropped serve to love in the second game of the fifth set, against the run of play. "That break was huge," Mike Bryan said. "We're good frontrunners, so we got out to a lead and we just held on."
Yet there was no detracting from Peers' performance, after a long wait to get his chance. "It's something I'll never forget and hopefully I can do it many more times to come," he said, having cherished the chance to partner Hewitt, who put on a returning masterclass during the third and fourth sets. "It was an amazing experience," Peers said. "We all get to see what he's done over the years and what he's done for not only tennis but Australian tennis and world tennis, and he's led the way for Davis Cup in Australia for many years and it was an honour playing with him, and to share the court and see how he handles it."
Hewitt was temporarily in a zone that he said he had no doubt he was capable of revisiting, and Peers proved himself a worthy selection, and one who former captain Wally Masur believes has gone a long way to establishing himself on the second court of Australia's doubles team for years to come.
"You've got to give him credit. He didn't look nervous," Mike Bryan said. "He stepped right in there with a legend right beside him, and that maybe helped calm his nerves having Rusty, such a competitor, right alongside, and I thought he was on par with all the guys out there and you've got to give him credit for stepping up in those third and fourth sets." It was, agreed captain Jim Courier, an "impressive debut," for the 27-year-old, despite finishing on the losing side.
But pairing him with Hewitt was a worthwhile gamble, and even during Saturday's warm-up, there was a noticeable buzz at an expectant Kooyong, where, mercifully, the conditions were more than 10 degrees cooler than the furnace that was Friday. Hewitt arrived wearing a different shade of gold shirt than his squadmates, probably from perhaps from a past collection, and the personalised green and gold shoes designed for his Melbourne Park farewell.
He was his usual perky, passionate, slightly manic self, freed from the the confines of the captain's bench to buzz around the court he last played an official match on a decade ago, do what he has always done. Except, for Australia's greatest Davis Cup player, not so successfully this time. The comeback, however gallant, remains tantalisingly incomplete.