By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009
It was an hour and 20 minutes into Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and Andy Roddick had just reclaimed the momentum after a lapse earlier in the second set.
As the American blasted yet another serve past his opponent, Juan Martín del Potro, a lone voice screamed out from a capacity crowd that had been lulled into a stupor by the sweltering heat: "Let's GO, Andy! It's HOT!"
Roddick fell short in his ability to close the match in short order. And more than an hour later, he fell short in his ability to close it at all.
In the end, it was del Potro, the 6-foot-6 Argentine and the tournament's defending champion, who best-handled Washington's most miserable afternoon of the summer, outlasting the oppressive humidity, 97-degree temperature and Roddick's 21 aces to prevail, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6).
According to the sport's current rankings, del Potro's victory qualifies as a mild upset, with the Argentine ranked sixth in the world this week, and Roddick fifth.
But Roddick, a three-time Legg Mason champion, strode onto the Stadium Court at William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center as a heavy crowd favorite. And through the opening set, which Roddick romped through in 37 minutes, he seemed fully in charge, breaking del Potro in the sixth game and looking feisty doing so.
But as the 2-hour 30-minute match ground on, del Potro ramped up his aggression, as if determined to bring the contest to an end regardless of the outcome.
Of his 19 aces in the match, del Potro unleashed 12 in the third set -- five of those in the decisive tiebreak.
"I think he might have been feeling it more than I did," Roddick said of his opponent and the debilitating heat. "He didn't want to get into long points. He was kind of going for broke. He was rolling the dice, and he hit Yahtzee a couple of times."
Roddick won the statistical battle in several categories, finishing with more aces, a higher percentage of first serves (68 for Roddick; 55 for del Potro) and fewer unforced errors (20, to the Argentine's 32).
But this match, deadlocked at one set after nearly 89 minutes of play, was settled by high-risk tactics. And del Potro didn't hesitate to put his massive forehand and booming serve to the test.
"For me, it was very difficult to play against him," del Potro said afterward. "I beat him, but the difference was so close."
Temperatures were in the mid-90s when the first ball was tossed up shortly after 3 p.m. And Roddick smartly wore all whites for his first daytime match since the tournament began, having worn a black shirt for each of his night-session matches.
As the top American male in the sport for nearly a decade, Roddick would likely have been the crowd favorite regardless. But both on court and off, he is enjoying newfound support since his stirring effort in the Wimbledon final, where he fell to Roger Federer in a more-than-four-hour, five- set marathon.
Still, for long stretches of the match, it was hard to tell if the crowd of 7,500 had a rooting interest at all. Their hand-held paper fans flapped furiously in the leaden air, but summoning a cheer apparently was too taxing to consider -- particularly with Roddick on course to win his fourth Legg Mason title without anyone's help.
But del Potro pounced on an error-filled game by the American in the second set and broke his serve to take a 5-3 lead.
The Argentine had trouble converting the advantage, double-faulting on set point in the next game. But he quickly broke again, helped by a non-call on a groundstroke that appeared to drop well wide, and leveled at one set each.
Even though the match featured two of the top six players in the world, the prospect of sitting through a third set in the blazing sun seemed to deflate the crowd even more.
The stadium was all but silent as they played on, swapping breaks and toweling off between each point.
Roddick committed the first costly error of the tiebreak, over-hitting a backhand approach shot to hand del Potro an early edge.
Suddenly the Argentine's serve couldn't miss, and he took a 4-1 lead on a 136-mph serve down the center line.
That roused the crowd, and fans started cheering and whistling for Roddick to rally, chanting "An-DEE!" "An-DEE!"
But with del Potro blasting away with abandon, Roddick found himself staring down three match points. He fended off all three. But the Argentine's fourth opportunity proved good, as instant replay confirmed.
Del Potro had never looked quite this sharp in the matches leading up to Sunday's final. He nearly lost his opener and was forced to three sets in his second-round match as well.
But he had said during the week how much he'd like to see his name printed twice among the list of past Legg Mason champions that rings Stadium Court. Should he return in 2010, he will get that opportunity.
"They want to see Andy win the trophy," del Potro said, asked if the cheering for the American late in the match rattled him. "The crowd was so respectful. It was unbelievable."
The tournament, Roddick's first in four weeks, represented his first step back to the form he hopes will help him win the U.S. Open.
"I'm not far off where I was after Wimbledon," Roddick said. "I feel better about my game than I did when I got here."