LONDON – Men’s number two seed Novak Djokovic struggled into the Olympic quarter-finals on Wednesday with a hardfought 4-6 7-5 6-1 win over world number 158 Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt.
World number one Roger Federer also faced a shaky moment against Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin, saving three break points at 5-5 in the first set before securing his spot in the final eight with a 7-5 6-3 win.
In the women’s, Serena Williams ploughed to a 6-1 6-0 win over Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, who left the court in tears after the 51 minute annihilation, soon to be joined by teammate Nadia Petrova after her 7-6 6-4 loss to Belarusian top seed Victoria Azarenka.
Returning to Centre Court after a half-hour rain delay, Beijing bronze medallist Djokovic gifted Hewitt a break at 4-4 in the first set after ploughing a backhand into the net at the end of a long baseline rally.
Hewitt, who won Wimbledon in 2002 but has since been plagued by injury, quickly wrapped up the set to take the lead against the Serbian five-times grand slam winner.
“Incredible match. He started off really well. I don’t think I have done anything wrong in the first set … It was very close and could have gone either way,” Djokovic told reporters.
A rattled Djokovic went 5-3 ahead in the second but, serving for the set, he was outsmarted by the 31-year-old, who planted two consecutive backhands down the line to claw back a break as the crowd erupted with a roar.
Centre Court rang out with cries of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi oi oi” as Beijing bronze medallist Djokovic was given a run for his money by Hewitt, who won Wimbledon in 2002 but has since been plagued by injury.
Having had the first set snatched from him, the rattled Serb went 5-3 ahead in the second. Although a valiant Hewitt levelled the score at 5-5, Djokovic broke again to force a decider.
Djokovic, who at one point entertained the lively crowd with a shot through the legs, found his stride in the third, breaking the 31-year-old twice to serve for the match at 5-1.
As Hewitt, who was given his place at the Games by the International Tennis Federation, hit a backhand into the net to hand Djokovic the victory, the 25-year-old pumped his fists in the air before letting out a big sigh of relief.
“Incredible match,” the five-times grand slam winner said.
“It’s never that easy against Lleyton, he’s one of the best returners ever to play the game. It was a great test… and I look forward to the next challenge.”
That challenge will be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who he will play for a place in the semi-finals after the Frenchman mustered enough energy to beat Spain’s Feliciano Lopez 7-6 6-4 less than 24 hours after his second-round win over Milos Raonic set the record for longest three-set match in Olympic tennis.
Britain’s Andy Murray also came from behind to claw back a 4-6 6-1 6-4 win over Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. Fourth seeded Spaniard David Ferrer did not manage the same feat in his clash against Japan’s world number 18 Kei Nishikori however, losing 6-0 3-6 6-4 in a match finished under the floodlights of Centre Court.
There was another record-breaking match on Wednesday, with fifth seeded Czechs Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek losing their second-round clash against Brazil’s Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares 1-6 6-4 24-22 in four hours, 21 minutes.
The 63-game match, which had been stopped at 18-18 in the final set as the light faded on Tuesday, was the longest three-set men’s doubles match and the third set the longest men’s doubles set in Olympic history.
Hewitt made up for his earlier singles exit with a win in the mixed doubles event, which returns to the games after an 88-year break. He and Sam Stosur beat fourth seeded Polish pair Agnieszka Radwanska and Marcin Matkowski 6-3 6-3.
In the women’s singles Serena Williams ploughed to a 6-1 6-0 win over Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, who left the court in tears after the 51-minute annihilation.
She was soon joined by team mate Nadia Petrova, who was beaten 7-6 6-4 by Belarusian top seed Victoria Azarenka.
Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, who plans to retire for the second time after September’s U.S. Open, enjoyed a 6-3 6-4 win over 11th seeded Serbian Ana Ivanovic.
“I feel like I’ve been playing some really good tennis in the first three matches here, it’s just a matter of trying to keep that up and before every match I need to refocus and stay on target,” Clijsters, playing at her first and last Olympics, told reporters.
“When things go tough, fight each shot and that’s all you can do… keep fighting and give it your all,” added the 29-year-old.