by Steve Flink
Over the course of this past weekend, sports fans had it made. Tiger Woods staged a dramatic recovery to win yet another golf championship, taking his 70th career title with a victory in Akron, Ohio after trailing by three strokes heading into the final day of play. My beloved New York Yankees swept a four game series from the Boston Red Sox, capturing the last of those games by rallying gamely from 2-1 down in the bottom of the eighth inning with two outs as Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira brought their team from the brink of defeat to a hard fought triumph, producing back to back home runs in their ballpark as the fans cheered them on unrestrainedly.
And yet, despite the heroics of Woods and the Yankees, tennis was clearly not left out of the equation. Our sport was showcased in a big way on a magnificent Sunday of competition. With temperatures on court soaring into the high 120’s, world No. 5 Andy Roddick and No. 6 Juan Martin Del Potro waged a riveting battle in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. In the end, the defending champion Del Potro managed to hold back a determined Roddick under brutally tough conditions, prevailing 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (6) in a first rate championship match.
The way I saw it, both men took something important away from this final. For Roddick, it was a good week’s work in his first tournament appearance since losing valiantly to Roger Federer in the final of Wimbledon. The soon to be 27-year-old American survived three consecutive arduous matches against the towering trio of Sam Querrey (6’6”), Ivo Karlovic (6,10”) and John Isner (6’9”) to set up his final round appointment with Del Potro. Roddick did not have quite enough to get himself across the finish line against the 6’6” Del Potro, but he played very well and came within two points of capturing the Washington title for the fourth time in his distinguished career. Despite the setback, he has every right to feel he is on course for a serious run at a second U.S. Open title later this summer.
As for Del Potro, defending his crown in Washington--- and beating a rival as formidable as Roddick in the final--- was not insignificant. He came of age last summer when he won four consecutive tournaments across the summer, securing two on clay before taking the hard court events in Los Angeles and Washington. Del Potro went on to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and he has been a major presence in the game ever since, making it to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and going all the way to the penultimate round of the French Open before losing to Roger Federer in five sets. Del Potro’s mindset could be altered significantly by how he won Washington, and he will very much make his presence known in New York at the last Grand Slam event of 2009.
Along the way this year, Del Potro, who will be 21 in September, has had some impressive wins against many of the top players, toppling Rafael Nadal on hard courts in a final set tie-break in Miami, upending Andy Murray on clay in Madrid, and now edging Roddick in another top of the line hard court performance. What makes this latest win over Roddick perhaps more noteworthy is that it occurred in a final. He had won only one tournament in 2009, and that was in Auckland, New Zealand early in the year. The field was considerably less impressive than the one he faced in Washington, so this triumph could well provide a springboard for Del Potro to start believing in himself more on the big occasions.
Let’s review what happened in the Del Potro-Roddick contest. I watched it on television, and enjoyed it enormously. At the outset, with the sun beating down fiercely on the hard courts in the middle of the afternoon, Roddick looked much more comfortable in the stifling heat. Escaping from break point down in the opening game of the match, Roddick took control with his percentage tactics, giving little away, making Del Potro move more than he would have liked, serving increasingly well. In his last four service games of that first set, Roddick conceded only four points. Moreover, he pounced when he had the chance to break his Argentine adversary.
With Del Potro serving at 2-3, the conditions seemed to be weakening his resolve. He double faulted on the opening point of that game, and double faulted again at 15-40. Roddick took that gift and rolled through the rest of the set. At this stage, he looked fresher, fitter, and more certain of himself and his chances. But Del Potro found some energy in reserve. His footwork and ground stroke execution were sorely lacking in the opening set; he made only nine unforced errors, five more than his American opponent.
But Del Potro found his range increasingly during the second set. He started driving the ball decidedly deeper and more consistently off both sides. Roddick’s game plan was to work Del Potro’s forehand as much as possible, but Del Potro got grooved on that side and served bigger and better. Del Potro broke Roddick at 15 for a 5-3 second set lead. On the first two points of that game, Roddick came forward, but Del Potro counter-attacked beautifully. A pair of finely struck two-handed backhand crosscourt passing shots provoked low backhand volley mistakes from Roddick. Roddick then attempted a surprise serve-and-volley, but Del Potro read that play perfectly, nailing a crosscourt forehand return winner for 0-40. Two points later, he broke when Roddick sliced a backhand approach long.
Del Potro served for the set in the ninth game, but once more his serve let him down in the crunch. At 30-40, he double faulted long again, and a highly charged Roddick sensed he might be able to get off the court with a straight set win. Roddick climbed back to 5-5. At 5-6, he served to save the set. In that situation, he is usually unbreakable and unshakable. But here he lost his way. At 30-15, he served wide to Del Potro’s backhand in the advantage court, and the big man lunged to make the return. Roddick attacked, but Del Potro stung him with a forehand crosscourt pass into the clear. Del Potro made another effective return and then lured Roddick into a mistake off the two-hander. It was 30-40. At set point down, Roddick missed his first serve, and Del Potro laced a terrific backhand return crosscourt off the second delivery. He won that point with a cagey forehand down the line that Roddick could not answer.
It was one set all. Del Potro was unmistakably energized, but Roddick was not swayed. At 1-1, 30-30 in that third set, Del Potro completely mishandled an overhead, taking it on the bounce but sending that shot well over the baseline. At break point down, Del Potro double faulted. It was the third time he had done that in the match, and it could have been fatal. Roddick moved swiftly, but Del Potro held on in the following game and then broke Roddick at love for 3-3.
In that surprising sixth game, Roddick kept serving to his rival’s forehand, and he paid a substantial price for his obstinacy. Despite connecting with three consecutive first serves, Roddick quickly fell behind 0-40 as Del Potro anticipated correctly every time and took control of those points. At 0-40, Roddick uncharacteristically did not give himself enough margin for error going down the T, and he double faulted that game away. Del Potro was back in business at 3-3. Almost inevitably, the two competitors each held on three more times to set up the final set tie-break. Although Roddick had dropped the opening set to Isner in a tie-break, he was 27-9 in tie-breaks for the season, while Del Potro was 11-6.
But Del Potro was nothing short of stupendous on serve in that sequence. He opened with a 137 MPH ace down the T for 1-0. After Roddick sliced a backhand down the line long to go down a mini-break, Del Potro released a second serve ace down the T for 3-1, and a 136 thunderbolt first serve ace down the T for 4-1. Roddick closed the gap to 4-3, but Del Potro reached 5-3 when he framed a forehand half volley crosscourt for a fluke winner. Del Potro unleashed another ace for 6-3 and triple set point, but Roddick’s steely resolve was still fully on display.
The American cracked an ace of his own for 4-6, approached judiciously off the forehand to make it 5-6, and then somehow made a deep backhand return off a 139 MPH blockbuster serve from Del Potro. The Argentine was caught off guard, driving a forehand long. Roddick was back to 6-6. The players changed ends, and an impassive Del Potro struck gold again. He delivered his fifth and final ace of the tie-break for 7-6, and then concluded the battle by making a trademark deep return to rock Roddick back on his heels. Roddick played a relatively weak half volley, and Del Potro stepped in and cracked a crosscourt forehand winner. Roddick challenged the call, but the replay demonstrated that the ball hit the edge of the sideline.
In the end, this was a great clutch effort from Del Potro. He came from a break down in the final set and played a phenomenal tie-break. He got six out of seven first serves in. Four of those six were aces. The one time he needed to hit a second serve, Del Potro hit another ace. And yet, despite all of that, Roddick made it awfully close. This was a remarkably good match from two men who were both making their hard court debuts on the Olympus U.S. Open Series. Del Potro can be proud that he found the inner strength to come from behind after it appeared that the heat would be too much for him. As the match progressed, he played more and more on his terms, controlling the rallies with his flatter and more penetrating strokes, unsettling Roddick with his crackling pace.
Roddick can only question himself for not holding his serve at 5-6 in the second set and again at 3-2 in the final set. Had he held either time, he probably would have won the match. Be that as it may, Del Potro was first rate. He harnessed his ground stroke power exceedingly well over the last two sets, and the purity of his shots off sides was at times breathtaking. He is growing slowly but surely as a match player, and his Washington triumph will serve him well as he moves through the rest of the summer.
This much is certain: with more finals like the Del Potro-Roddick collision in Washington, tennis will remain front and center every weekend no matter how much else is going on in the world of sports. Trust me on that.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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