Novak Djokovic of Serbia, right, shakes hands with Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, after Djokovic won their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championship, in Melbourne, Australia, early Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012.(Photo: AP)
The 30-year-old Hewitt rode the crowd's emotion at the packed Rod Laver Arena to poach a set off the world number one before going down fighting 6-1 6-3 4-6 6-3.
Defending champion Djokovic had not lost a set in the whole tournament and appeared to be cruising to victory at 3-0 up in the third set until the injury-prone Hewitt dug deep from his vast reservoir of grit to break the Serbian and take the match into a fourth.
Djokovic captured the decisive break at 3-2 and held off the scrambling Australian to set up a last-eight clash with another big-hearted grafter, Spaniard David Ferrer.
Djokovic paid tribute to Hewitt's fighting spirit but was less glowing about his own game, saying he had simply stopped moving during a fourth-set slump.
"I should have closed it out earlier. I should have held my serve at 3-1 because I was playing well, I was feeling well," the 24-year-old told reporters.
"Suddenly I stopped. I didn't move well anymore. He got back into the match.
"But look, you know, he had the crowd, he had the big support. It got intense. Especially the start of the fourth set we had some great rallies. You know, it's good to come out from this match as a winner."
With local teenager Bernard Tomic bundled out in straight sets by Roger Federer on Sunday, Hewitt was left to make Australia's last stand, but Djokovic was in no mood for sentiment as he motored through the first two sets.
Dressed in black and prowling panther-like along the baseline, Djokovic was coasting in the third set before an unusual break in play caused by a flock of seagulls swooping into the arena.
The interruption lasted only a minute or so but allowed former world number one Hewitt to marshall his forces and break back to 3-2.
Djokovic pushed a backhand into the net to concede another break to trail 5-4, sparking a huge roar from the stands, and an energised Hewitt served out the set on the fourth set point.
"Considering where I was a few months ago, it was a pretty good effort," said twice grand-slam champion Hewitt, who has pain-killing injections in his injured toe before matches.
"It's obviously disappointing anytime you lose. But I left it all on the court; that's all I could ask."
Djokovic grimaced in pain during a couple of points after rolling an ankle, but played down any fitness concerns.
"No. Actually, I don't (have any problems). It's just that I wasn't happy with my movement and my legs were not working.
"I'm not looking for excuses, but I'm saying, you know, it's obviously the first match that I've been tested," Djokovic added.
"It was against the player that I expected to be tested. Lleyton was playing in front of his crowd. Obviously he loves competing against, you know, the top guys on the big stage, and he proved it again."
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