By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, August 10, 2009
In one of the most stunning upsets in tennis history, no one burst into flames during Sunday's Legg Mason final.
Neither Andy Roddick nor Juan Martín del Potro played at a pace that would cause self-immolation. Both slogged through listless periods in which they seemed almost to be playing underwater -- and I'm sure they wished they were -- but each was able to slap himself awake long enough to stave off elimination. Eventually someone won, by some score. Not sure of the outcome; I was changing my IV drip.
Just kidding. Del Potro successfully defended his title, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6), becoming the first player to win twice in a row here since Andre Agassi in 1998-99. "Now I should come here next year," he declared (he has a year to forget the humidity). Roddick has similar Legg credentials -- despite being familiar with Washington in August, he has come here often enough to win three titles. Roddick is ranked fifth in the world, del Potro sixth. They've met only twice -- del Potro is 2-0 -- but this could be the start of a beautiful, if gentle, Legg rivalry.
The match ended, appropriately enough, with both players chatting at the net. Roddick thought del Potro's final shot was out, and challenged the call. Del Potro told him he also thought it might have been out. "Imagine the disappointment when it wasn't," Roddick deadpanned in his damp but charming post-match news conference. The two conversed, hugged when the challenge was denied, then had to be pried apart by the chair umpire after their soaking wet bodies formed a vacuum seal. You could hear the resulting pop for miles.
With temperatures in the nineties, the 7,500-seat Dutch oven of a stadium was nearly full from the outset; one assumes (and hopes) the missing people were in the beer tent. The only sign of life from the crowd, however, was the fluttering of paper fans, which reminded me of Mass in our un-air conditioned church when I was a girl. In those days, the fans featured advertising for the local funeral parlor. I begin to understand why.
The gently nodding flags atop the stadium were the only hints that there was a breeze, or a God. I don't want to say it was hot, but I had to change my shirt so many times ESPN lost its G rating. As one of my, ah, television colleagues put it, we were all schvitzing like Airedales.
"Today was brutal," said Roddick, 26. "It was pretty hot and obviously the play -- 2 hours 20-plus [minutes] -- was tough. I think he might have been feeling it more than I did. He didn't want to get into long points and was kind of going for broke there at the end. I was rolling the dice and he hit Yahtzee a bunch of times. That's kind of the way it goes sometimes. I think he finished up with 10 first serves in a row and there certainly wasn't much being taken off of those so credit to him for winning the match."
Del Potro, 20, had complained after Saturday night's semifinal about the oppressive heat and humidity, so no one expected him to greet a 3 p.m. start on one of the hottest days of the summer with boundless enthusiasm. Indeed, he described Sunday's conditions this way: "If you run, you die."
So del Potro did what any right-thinking, heat-hating player would do: He served the heck out of the ball so he wouldn't, well, die. He's young, but not stupid.
In the third set, Roddick appeared to flag just as del Potro apparently decided enough was enough. Each broke the other, but del Potro in one stretch reeled off 11 straight points. During one of the changeovers the stadium speakers blared "Disco Inferno," which would have chafed the sweat-soaked fans if any of them had been conscious. Roddick won the final game of the set with bookend aces, a double fault and two unforced errors by del Potro sandwiched between, forcing a tiebreaker and nudging the crowd to life.
But when del Potro served up a 137-mph ace to start the tiebreak, the die was cast. It was the first of five aces by del Potro in the tiebreak; Roddick had one, on del Potro's first match point. Roddick staved off two more match points, and finally we heard the "Andy! Andy! Andy!" chants. Then del Potro uncorked his final ace, and finally we saw our first Argentinian flag.
Afterward, del Potro said he knew he disappointed the partisan crowd. "They want to see Andy with the trophy, but the crowd was so respectful. It was unbelievable."
Roddick also wanted to see himself with the trophy, but his runner-up news conference was one of the funniest and kindest I've ever witnessed. He continually mopped at his face with his sleeve until someone brought him a towel; he put it over his face and kept talking, the towel muffling his answers. He teased two journalists who tried to ask a question at the same time, then apologized to each other for interrupting, saying of their deference, "this is unbelievable." Asked if having his own place in New York would make him more comfortable for the U.S. Open, he pointed out that the places he normally stays on tour are also nice.
It was his first tournament since his loss in an epic Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, and he patiently declared himself in good shape for the final Grand Slam of the season.
"This is the start of preparation leading up to the U.S. Open," he said. "I feel better about my game now than when I got here."