Switzerland have defeated Australia for the first time in Davis Cup after Stanislas Wawrinka edged past Lleyton Hewitt 46 64 67(7) 64 63 in the decisive fifth rubber, which was suspended overnight at 5-3 in the fifth set to the Swiss.
The desperate four-hour battle of Sunday ended in three curt and cruel minutes for the Aussie on Monday. Hewitt hit two forehand winners to reach 30-0, then served two double-faults and erred on two forehands to concede the tie.
Wawrinka carried a leg injury into the tie and played on painkillers, but it was Hewitt who looked the wounded warrior, reappearing on court with new strapping around his right knee. From the first point it was apparent that he had no spring in his 30-year-old legs.
For Australia’s most successful Davis Cupper, it was a bitter loss in his first-ever live fifth rubber. This was the match Hewitt had been setting himself for all weekend and a mental battleground where he was thought to be infallible.
All weekend he’d defied his No. 199 ranking but in the end his lack of match play through an injury-ravaged 2011 - just 9-9 coming into the tie - took a toll. As did costly lapses, not least a netted forehand to drop the second set.
In the fourth, two gifted service breaks - the first coming after two double-faults, the next in the seventh game with another double-fault on breakpoint - robbed him of the momentum he’d laboured mightily for, taking a thriller third set after overcoming five set-points.
For a man whose favourite surface is ‘for sure’ not grass, Wawrinka landed some telling blows with big serves (while maintaining an impressive 66 percent first-serve percentage) and lights-out returns.
His single-handed backhand is a match-winner, as Hewitt was all too aware, having commentated on Wawrinka’s matches at the Australian Open and watched him ‘destroy’ the higher-seeded Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick without the loss of a set.
Switzerland returns to the World Group in 2012 after a one-year absence in Europe/Africa Group I. With Federer and Wawrinka in the team, the Swiss have now won seven of eight ties and surely have a shot at bringing the home the Davis Cup for the first time.
The sight of Federer courtside at the Royal Sydney Golf Club this weekend, jumping out of his chair and hollering his support for his teammate, left no doubt as to how much the 16-time Grand Slam winner covets the one major trophy missing from his awesome collection.
For the proud Aussies, 28-time champions, a fifth straight year in zonal competition is a stigma. Since their last appearance in the top tier back in 2007, Australia have lost World Group play-offs to Serbia, Chile, Belgium and now Switzerland - the latter two on home turf.
For rookie captain Patrick Rafter, it was a brutal loss in his first home tie. For the battered Hewitt, it will be no consolation that his performance again demonstrated the irrelevance of rankings when national pride is on the line.