Lleyton Hewitt’s first match at Roland Garros was as a teenager 15 years ago, when the then world No.41 was beaten in a five-set opening round by veteran Martin Rodriguez. Hewitt's last appearance, perhaps, was Tuesday's 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 loss to another Argentinian claycourter, Carlos Berlocq.
It is Hewitt's third successive opening-round defeat at the French Open, the 33-year-old having made the final, at least, at every major but this one, where his best result from 14 attempts has been last-eight finishes in 2001 and 2004.
Lleyton Hewitt. Photo: Getty Images
Again this year, the enduring Australian No.1 was more optimistically eyeing the grasscourt season to follow, while still determined to extract the most from himself on the more challenging continental dirt. He finished the claycourt swing with a 1-5 record; count on the 2002 Wimbledon champion doing better on English turf.
The first set had been positive, with Hewitt striking the ball aggressively, finishing crisply at the net and seizing one of his three break point chances while Berlocq was none from four. But after being broken early in the second set and again when serving to stay in it at 2-5, the momentum had shifted firmly to the Argentinian, whose repertoire included a string of fine backhands down the line.
The third and fourth sets followed a similar early pattern, with Hewitt dropping his opening service game in both, and then trying grimly to catch-up/hang on. There was, as ever, no lack of effort, or desire, as he exhorted himself at times to "c'mon, fight, fight", "play on the edge, mate" and "c'mon mate, take it on''. There were also a few f-bombs, and some typically fruity self-criticisms, as Berlocq, who upset Tomas Berdych in the final of a claycourt tournament in Portugal last month, took what appeared to be firm control of the match.
But this is Hewitt: ageing, playing on his least preferred surface, but never beaten until the last point. After failing to convert three break back chances to fall behind 1-3 in the fourth set, the South Australian drew back on level terms two games later, bellowing two "c'mons'' in celebration, before holding for 4-3 against the baseliner ranked one place below him at 47th.
The joy, though, was temporary, with Hewitt double-faulting on game point at 4-4, then netting a backhand and hitting a forehand long to surrender one last service break. Still, even then, it was not quite over, a dramatic final game including four break points for Hewitt - he will rue the open forehand missed down the line, in particular, and a match conversion rate of 2/13 -and three match points for Berlocq, who converted the last with a wickedly spinning drop backhand dropshot.
Thus, in just over three hours, Hewitt followed compatriots, Nick Kyrgios, Ash Barty and James Duckworth out of the French Open singles draw, and will now head to Queen's Club, where he is a four-time champion, to prepare for what seems likely to be a farewell visit to the All England Club.
Meanwhile, Matthew Ebden was also dumped from the tournament in the first round, losing 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 to Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay.