- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) - For a while late Tuesday afternoon, it looked like another classic Lleyton Hewitt comeback on the veteran’s favorite stage - Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open.

Down two sets to the 24th-seeded Italian Andreas Seppi, Hewitt clawed his way back, winning the next two sets to even the match.

With the sun setting and the temperature still over 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit), he battled back from an early break in the fifth set and took a 5-4 lead with a brilliant running forehand down the line that brought his serenading fans to their feet.

Hewitt finally earned a match point in the next game, after more than four hours on the court. But there would be no magical finish this time - Seppi saved it with an ace and quickly closed out the match, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 7-5.

Hewitt, who turns 33 next month, was in good form heading into his 18th Australian Open, winning a warm-up tournament in Brisbane at the start of the year with an impressive defeat of Roger Federer in the final.

Against Seppi, however, he struggled with his consistency and only landed about half his first serves.

“Every Grand Slam loss is tough,” Hewitt said. “There’s no easy ones. You know, obviously if you come close to winning, even though it’s a first-round match, it’s still frustrating.”

Before the Australian Open began, Hewitt reflected on his special connection with the tournament and Rod Laver Arena itself - the site of every one of his singles matches, except his first against Sergi Bruguera when he was 15 years old.

With 18 consecutive Australian Opens under his belt, he’s now closing in on Andre Agassi’s Grand Slam record of playing in 21 straight U.S. Opens.

“When I stop playing, it’s something I’ll be pretty proud of, wherever it stops, whatever number. Eighteen in a row, and in singles main draw, as well. I wouldn’t have dreamt of that as my first one in ‘97 as a 15 year old, that’s for sure. I didn’t think I’d be playing anywhere near 30.”


NEW YEAR, NEW GNOCCHI: When Sloane Stephens had her breakout run to the semifinals of last year’s Australian Open, beating her childhood idol Serena Williams on the way, she had a special ritual - eating pesto gnocchi nearly every night at the same restaurant, Pizza Napoli.

You could imagine her shock when she returned to Melbourne this year and Pizza Napoli had turned into a Vietnamese restaurant.

“I’m devastated about that,” the 13th-seeded Stephens said after her 7-6 (1), 6-3 win over Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova in the first round on Tuesday.

The closing of her favorite restaurant isn’t the only change from last year. Stephens announced earlier this month that she’s also hired a new coach: Paul Annacone, who worked with Roger Federer for 3½ years before parting ways in September.

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