A mostly dominant Hewitt overcame an edgy second set to claim the victory 6-3 1-6 6-0 6-4 against the 24-year-old world No.187 in two hours and 20 minutes.
Despite facing limited action since last September, Hewitt showed few signs of early rust, taking a 5-3 lead on a Zhang double fault before serving out the set in 31 minutes.
The Hewitt-friendly audience were stunned into silence as things turned ugly for the former world No.1, who struggled with his serve in the second set and dropped the first five games while failing to capitalise on all three break point opportunities.
But the veteran managed to turn the tide quickly courtesy of some fantastic backhand returns. He didn’t lose a point stealing the first break to take a 2-0 lead while using a 0-16 unforced error count to wrap up a brisk third set 6-0.
A love game helped Hewitt land the first break of the fourth set en route to a three-game lead. Zhang finally found some form to break a nine-game drought and bring it back to four games apiece before Hewitt overcame some late action nerves to seal the result in front of a vocal Aussie contingent at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena.
“I’ve played (Zhang) twice before in Davis Cup over five sets so I pretty much knew what to expect out there: he’s a shot maker, he swings from the hip,” Hewitt said on-court after the victory.
“I knew I was going to have ups and downs during the match, but I had to try weather the storm,” he added. “The first set was really important and then he played too well in the second set so it was important to change momentum in third.”
Hewitt described the Zhang matchup as “tough” after having played in just two matches since last year’s US Open.
“It’s always tough. I think the first match of any Australian Open, you work so hard to come out here on the big night and in the end I just wanted to get the win.”
Hewitt will face German Benjamin Becker in the last 64 and takes a 2-0 career record against the fellow 33-year-old into the clash.
Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images.