Hewitt out but not down after earliest Open loss

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former world number one Lleyton Hewitt said he still has something to offer the game of tennis despite suffering his earliest ever exit at the U.S. Open on Monday.

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The Australian, champion at Flushing Meadows in 2001, was edged out 6-3 6-4 5-7 4-6 6-1 by Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round, ground down after three hours 39 minutes in front of an enthralled crowd inside Louis Armstrong Stadium.

The 29-year-old reached at least the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open every year between 2000 and 2006, but after fighting back from two sets down he was blown away in the final set by former world number 12 Mathieu, now ranked 109.

“I still believe I can improve as a player,” 32nd seed Hewitt told reporters. “When I play my best tennis, like in Halle (in June, when he beat Roger Federer and won the title), I still feel like I can match it with anyone.”

Hewitt said a calf injury had hampered his preparations for the year’s final grand-slam event.

“I didn’t really have a whole heap of expectations coming in because I didn’t feel like I had the time on court or hit the number of balls I’d like,” he said.

“I hung in there and gave it 100 percent but I didn’t feel like my ball-striking was really good enough to match it with the top players.”

Hewitt, who had a second bout of hip surgery in January, looked down and out when Mathieu won the first two sets with a sparkling array of winners.

But the Frenchman has a history of throwing away winning situations - in 2002 he lost the deciding rubber in the Davis Cup final from two sets ahead - and Hewitt began to battle back.

The Australian saved two break points in each of two consecutive service games midway through the third set, winning a Hawk-Eye challenge on one of them that would have allowed Mathieu to serve for the match at 5-3.

Mathieu, who has slipped outside the top 100 after a series of injuries, began to wobble and Hewitt snatched his chance, breaking to win the third set only to fall 4-2 down in the fourth.

Again Hewitt rallied and when he completed four games in a row to win the set and level the match, the crowd packed into the Louis Armstrong Stadium sensed a perfect comeback.

But against the odds, Mathieu steadied himself at the crucial time and broke twice to lead 4-0 before clinching victory with a third break when Hewitt double-faulted.

“At the start of the fifth set, he hit some incredible winners,” Hewitt said. “I didn’t feel like I served that badly but he had a purple patch and that was it.”

Editing by Frank Pingue