It was not enough for Lleyton Hewitt to topple Juan Martin del Potro under the tennis world’s nostalgic, almost affectionate, gaze. There was no point stopping there.  Buoyant, vindicated but not yet satisfied, the former No.1 has advanced safely – if less spectacularly – into the fourth round, with the romantic possibility of going even deeper still.
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Hewitt defeated 102nd-ranked Evgeny Donskoy 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-1 to book a place in the last 16 for the eighth time in his long career, but the first since he reached the quarter-finals in 2006. Hewitt was still to learn the identity of his next opponent, but it promised to be an all-geriatric affair against either 35-year-old 12th seed Tommy Haas, or 31-year-old Mikhail Youhzny, the 21st seed.

“It’s always great coming back to the place where it all started for me, here at the US Open,” said Hewitt, the doubles champion in 2000, and 2001 singles winner at Flushing Meadows. “It’s a special place to come back and play and I have played some of my best tournaments here. I’ve always played well on the American hardcourts, for starters, but the atmosphere as well, it suits my personality.”

Having landed in the third round courtesy of a marvellous five-set night win on Arthur Ashe Stadium over sixth seeded del Potro, another former champion, this this was a much more low-key occasion on a muggy afternoon on the No.3 court. But there was plenty to play for, and no let-down, Hewitt breaking serve to love in the opening game – two forehand winners and a couple of errors from a nervous Donskoy set the tone for what was to follow – and a Donskoy double-fault gift-wrapped the set within the half-hour.

Hewitt, positively, was more willing to finish off points at the net – winning 24 of his 31 attempts – than an opponent whose comfort zone does not extend far beyond the baseline, but Donskoy settled into his potent groundstrokes, and damaging forehand in particular, as the match tightened up in the second set, with Hewitt forced to save three break chances in the 11-minute 11th game.

Hewitt had buried del Potro under a series of winners in conceding just two points in his previous tiebreak, and then successfully carried the momentum into the deciding fifth set. This was a less emphatic affair, but Hewitt produced a good first serve on his second chance to take the two-sets-to-love lead he had not quite managed two days before.

Donskoy is no delPo, but he started hitting out in the third, with seven aces among his 14 winners to Hewitt’s five, breaking serve for the first time in the eighth game, and serving out the set 6-3. Yet the experienced world No.66 soon regained control, taking the early lead in the fourth, and clinching the match in just under three hours, after fending off two further break points in the final game.

Hewitt had never seen Donskoy until the pair practised together before their opening round matches, although, interestingly, the Muscovite’s mentor is dual grand slam champion, now Russian politican, Marat Safin, the player who famously denied Hewitt his treasured Australian Open title in the 2005 final. Donskoy was making his US Open debut, and with a third round effort at the Australian Open his previous best grand slam result. It was also his first.

Hewitt is playing his 58th major, at the only place where he is a two-time finalist. He is in top seed Novak Djokovic’s quarter, but that prospective appointment is still another round away. Who, though, would have tipped that he would get even this far?

The same could not be said for fifth seed Tomas Berdych, who completed a 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 rout of Frenchman Julien Benneteau and will play Stanislas Wawrinka, who needed four sets to overcome Marcos Baghdatis. Unseeded Denis Istomin’s five-set defeat of Andrea Seppi places the Uzbek in the path of defending champion Andy Murray, a 7-6 (7-2), 6-2, 6-2 winner over Florian Mayer.

The major women’s upset was of tearful eighth seed Angelique Kerber, dumped 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) by Spanish No.18 Carla Suarez Navarro, while top seed Serena Williams won the much-hyped all-American affair against Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-1 on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Hewitt said he had done enough homework on Donskoy not to be surprised by anything he saw. “He’s obviously got a great forehand. Hits it well,” Hewitt said. “But I came out aggressive at the start and I played well right at the start to get up that early break. That was sort of the telling point for that first set really.

“I served a lot better today, as well; hit my spots well. Even my second serve, whenever I was under pressure, I didn’t give him too many chances to run around and take second cuts on my second serve, which was positive.

“I came in right from the start today. I felt his forehand was his biggest strength. His backhand, he was going to make a lot of balls and not make a lot of errors, but I felt like I could dictate play and come in on that side. That’s what I did right from the start, just to try to set the tone out there.”

Hewitt admitted the possibility of let-down had been on his mind.

“Yeah, absolutely. It was a matter of still staying focused and staying in the moment as much as possible. I still felt a little bit flat today going out there. Actually felt like I got better as the match went on. That was a good sign physically for me, as well.”

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