Rafael Nadal watched most of Lleyton Hewitt’s famous victory over Juan Martin del Potro, admiring his sometime golf partner’s determination to continue, and still to excel, after so many operations and setbacks.

”I was happy for Lleyton,” said Nadal. ”He’s a great fighter after long time with a lot of injuries, [to] have the chance to be back. Still on the tour with motivation to keep playing, keep fighting, is something that I admire a lot [about] him.”

In the ESPN commentary box, the McEnroe brothers were on duty, and agreed on an observation made at the end of Hewitt’s exceptional fourth-set tiebreak. Although the 32-year-old could not be considered a potential grand slam champion these days, they said, the clever, dogged, inspired effort against the sixth-seeded del Potro was evidence of why he once was.

A winner not once, indeed, but twice – here at the US Open in 2001 and at 2002 Wimbledon, before Roger Federer’s reign began. Then came Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who have shared 33 of the past 34 majors. But, those four aside, Hewitt is the only other man with his name on the US singles trophy to reach the third round at Flushing Meadows; in that respect, the man who spent 80 weeks at No.1 is in fine company, still.

His five-set win over del Potro, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1, was one of his finest wins since even Hewitt – who forgets so little – could remember. A practical answer, too, to those pesky, unwanted questions about why he is still playing, and when he will retire, etc.

Davis Cup coach Josh Eagle said: ”It must be hard if you’re a player like that who’s achieved so much early in their career and are then continually asked, ‘When are you going to stop, when are you going to move on?’

”But all the indications that I’m getting are that he’s absolutely set on playing a full schedule next year, and just the fact that his body’s healthy and he’s able to train … he loves that part of it, he loves training, he trains as hard as anyone, and he just loves the game. So if that’s the case, why walk away when you’ve still got results and wins like that in you?”

And while he remains, too, an unteachable example of how to compete. Early in the del Potro match, one of the best hopes of the new generation, Nick Kyrgios, tweeted ”The Hewitt legacy isn’t finished yet”. On ESPN, McEnroe (John) said: ”Hopefully a lot of young tennis players watch that and learn something from Hewitt.”

Big weapons ain’t everything, clearly, when a well-executed game plan meets what the American great described as ”a pit bull-like effort”. Something to note for Bernard Tomic (an insipid second-round loser) and Marinko Matosevic (yet to win a singles match in 11 slams).

Interesting, too, was that when Hewitt was asked whether, as the only one of nine Australian singles starters to have reached the third round, there was any sense of deja vu or an extra buzz about still being the flag-carrier, he raised the subject of Tomic’s stumble against qualifier Dan Evans in the second round. ”Bernie, would have been nice if he won yesterday. He had a winnable section, I think, for him to do some damage there.”

Many believe that Tomic lacks a sense of urgency. Hewitt, though, has always been in a hurry – often with that intense gleam in his eye, and a variety of impatient idiosyncrasies – even as he tries to delay the inevitable end. He still craves a contest, and adores the chance to call upon the warrior within – on the big courts, especially, and against the current elite, above all.

So, can the former No.1 prove the McEnroes wrong and channel his inner Goran Ivanisevic, the impossible Wimbledon champion of 2001? Unlikely. ”Given the state of men’s tennis, it’s probably a bit unrealistic at this stage of his career,” Eagle said. ”But Lleyton never ceases to amaze me how he can continue to find something when you think he’s down and out.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.