The Australia v Belgium World Group play-off tie in Cairns is poised at 1-1 at the end of day one after the team’s No. 1s came through their matches unscathed. Lleyton Hewitt set the Aussies rolling with a 76(4) 72 26 64 victory over late stand-in Ruben Bemelmans, before Olivier Rochus dispatched of Carsten Ball in straight sets 64 64 76(5) to keep Belgium in the running.
Rochus, standing a foot smaller than his opponent, was simply the more experienced of the two and relied on his consistent serve throughout the match, in the face of 22 aces raining down from his 6’6” opponent.
The Belgian, a former Top 25 player, staved off just three break point opportunities on his serve during the first two sets, and it wasn’t until the eighth game of the third set that Ball could finally convert. Down a break, the Californian pulled level to 4-4 by throwing down a smash that missed Rochus’s body by millimetres. But it was a short-lived attack as Rochus maintained his firm grip on the match to take the tiebreak and dent Ball’s perfect record in Davis Cup.
“He was keeping me in the defensive position most of the time so it was pretty tough,” said a despondent Ball afterwards. “I felt I was right there with him. He played a really good tiebreak but I did feel like I was right in there and if I’d gotten through that I would have had a good chance.”
Unexpected win for Rochus
Rochus seemed surprised with his win, having not come into the tie with that many matches under his belt. “Beating him in three sets in Australia is great for me. We know it’s going to be very tough now but at 1-1 it still gives us hope,” said the Belgian.
Hewitt had a real contest on his hands in the opening match against the unrelenting Ruben Bemelmans, a No. 191-ranked player whose only previous experience of Davis Cup was a dead fifth rubber in 2008.
Bemelmans had been called up an hour before play began to replace Belgian No. 2 Steve Darcis, who pulled out with a torn rotator cuff. The 22-year-old admitted to being nervous at the start, dropping his opening service game, but as the match came to show, the lefthander’s all-round game and impressive physical condition in the 30 degree heat would niggle into Hewitt’s game.
“Obviously I had focused on playing Darcis for the past 24 hours so it was a tough match,” said Hewitt. “He [Bemelmans] served extremely well, he wanted to get the first hit in always and wanted to get me moving, and that’s tough on these courts where it’s a little bit quicker to try and defend on.”
Bemelmans makes it hard work for Hewitt
Bemelmans surprised the home favourite by grabbing four set points even before the opening set went into the tiebreak, and Hewitt had to time and again call on his serve to work his way out of trouble. The Aussie’s vein-popping reaction to securing the tiebreak 7-4 was testament to just how much pressure Bemelmans was applying.
Both players held serve until the 12th game of the second set, with Bemelmans barely breaking a sweat and Hewitt constantly relying on the ice towels at the change of ends. The Belgian seemed to be finding weapons in all areas of his game, using his huge forehand and big leftie serve in order to keep tabs on his opponent.
When Bemelmans took an early double break in the third set, it looked feasible that the match could go the distance. Hewitt began to show signs of fatigue, serving five double faults in the set to give the Belgian a way in. Captain Reginald Willems was constantly on his feet guiding his charge, although of anyone out on centre court, it was Bemelmans who was the most calm.
“I didn’t surprise myself, I knew I had the level. I played some Top 30 guys before and it was always close,” explained the Belgian.
With Hewitt leading two sets to one, it was clear he wanted to put this match to bed. He took an early break in the fourth game of the fourth set to go up 4-1, Bemelmans missing out on some golden opportunities, but the Belgian remained on his tail, breaking back to return the set on serve.
Hewitt equals record
Play was briefly suspended after a spectator fainted in the stands, but on return, Hewitt managed to close out the match after 3 hours 20 minutes, collapsing on court in sheer relief. The win gives Hewitt his 43rd Davis Cup match victory, which means he now joins Adrian Quist for most wins in Australian Davis Cup history.
With a pivotal doubles rubber scheduled for tomorrow, Aussie captain John Fitzgerald is likely to stick with his original nomination of Hewitt and US Open doubles quarterfinalist Paul Hanley. Belgian skipper Reginald Willems has intimated he will probably do the same provided Darcis can recover from his shoulder injury. Otherwise, Bemelmans is more than happy to extend his role this weekend.