By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Lleyton Hewitt bade an emotional farewell under the Australian Open floodlights on Thursday as David Ferrer snuffed out any chance of fairytale final flourish from the local hero.
After world number two Andy Murray had trampled on home sensibilities by mauling Australian Sam Groth to reach the third round, the Rod Laver Arena crowd settled in to watch former world number one Hewitt try to extend his illustrious singles career for at least another two days.
Eighth-seeded Spaniard Ferrer played the villain to perfection, however, ending the two-times grand slam champion’s record 20th campaign at Melbourne Park with an emphatic 6-2 6-4 6-4 victory.
Not that renowned street-fighter Hewitt went with a whimper. He fought to the last even when defeat was inevitable.
“Every time I play out here at Rod Laver Arena, it’s like a second home,” the 34-year-old Adelaide native told the fans after a typically pugnacious display in which he cursed a line judge and mouthed off at the chair umpire.
“Playing for Australia has always been my biggest honour … I feel fortunate to finish here.”
The scandal over alleged match-fixing in tennis that has clouded the tournament’s opening days lingered on though with even Hewitt being quizzed about online speculation that some of his past matches had been implicated.
“Good luck taking me on with it,” he said angrily at the post-match media conference, his three children sitting beside him. “It’s disappointing. Throwing my name out there with it makes the whole thing a farce.”
Hewitt’s sentiments echoed those of world number one Novak Djokovic, who on Wednesday was moved to deny any wrongdoing after an Italian newspaper report said a 2007 match he lost at the Paris Masters was fixed.
There were no distractions for Murray though as he ruthlessly demolished big-serving Groth 6-0 6-4 6-1 as the top seeds sailed through on a day of bright sunshine.
The 2014 champion and fourth seed Stanislas Wawrinka swatted away Czech veteran Radek Stepanek in the twilight, while women’s third seed Garbine Muguruza and two-times champion Victoria Azarenka also charged into the third round.
Rafa Nadal’s first-round exit to Fernando Verdasco punched a hole in the bottom half of the draw, but four-times finalist Murray was not about to join the fallen Spaniard.
He disarmed Groth, the world’s fastest recorded server, with a clinical returning game, showing his guile by lobbing the 6-ft-4in (1.93m) Australian repeatedly when he lumbered forward in desperation.
Murray has trounced both his first round opponents and Portuguese 32nd seed Joao Sousa is next in the firing line.
Since her back-to-back titles at Melbourne Park in 2012-13, two injury-blighted years have kept Azarenka from claiming a third but the powerful Belarusian is looking dangerous.
The former world number one, seeded 14th here, hammered Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic 6-1 6-2 at Margaret Court Arena to set up a match with Naomi Osaka and offered some chilling words for the Japanese qualifier.
“I’m feeling in the best shape body-wise, you know, spirit-wise, everything-wise,” Azarenka told reporters.
She remains on course for a mouth-watering fourth-round clash with Spanish Wimbledon runner-up Muguruza, who crushed Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 6-4 6-2.
Wawrinka eased past 37-year-old qualifier Stepanek 6-2 6-3 6-4 in the Hisense Arena and the Swiss next faces another Czech in Lukas Rosol.
Thirteenth seed Milos Raonic continued to shape as a dark horse, beating Tommy Robredo 7-6(5) 7-6(5) 7-5.
Underlining the fickle nature of grand slams, Nadal’s first-round slayer and compatriot Fernando Verdasco exited after a hard-fought four-set loss to pint-sized Israeli Dudi Sela.
The on-court drama spilled into the stands early in the day at Rod Laver Arena, where a spectator was injured in a tumble down the stairs during former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic’s 6-3 6-3 win over Anastasija Sevastova.
She faces big-hitting American youngster Madison Keys next in a meaty third-round clash.
Teenager Osaka gave a bow to thrilled Japanese fans after dumping 18th seed Elina Svitolina 6-4 6-4, continuing her impressive main draw debut at a grand slam .
Born to a Haitian father and raised in the U.S, Osaka remains a curiosity in her mother’s country but a show-court appearance against Azarenka could change all that.
“I always think that they’re surprised that I’m Japanese,” the frizzy-haired 18-year-old shrugged with an American accent.
(Editing by Martyn Herman)