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Monday, July 6, 2009

Roddick's second set nightmare

Photo Titled Roddick double-hander
Roddick double-hander

Four points. Four points on which Andy Roddick’s Wimbledon dream hinged. Four luxurious points stretching away in front of him, four separate opportunities to take an unthinkable two sets to love lead over the mighty Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. What would Roddick trade right now for the chance to relive those points? What if he could have that moment back, and make it right? What would he give? Half of all he owns? Everything?

It doesn’t matter. Life won’t oblige him with a second opportunity. Yet how often will he wake in the night over the coming months and find himself back there, on Centre Court, reliving the hideous nightmare yet again? How did it happen? Four points in his hands, the set handed to him on a plate – but somehow the plate slipped through his fingers and ended up smashed to tiny pieces on the floor, along with Roddick’s dreams.

All right, so a two-set lead did not add up to the Wimbledon title itself. There were no guarantees that he would magically stroll away with the match from there and go on to lift the golden trophy for the first time in his life. But as a no-guarantee situation goes, a two-set lead over Federer is an agreeable neighbourhood to occupy. It should have been Roddick’s. He had played so wisely, so unshakeably up to that moment. And in four points it was over.

Until then there had been almost a palpable bubble of self-containment around the American, such was the power of his focus on the task in hand. No one gave him a prayer coming into this match, and no wonder given that he was looking the wrong way down the barrel of an 18-2 career record against Federer.

But two days before this, Roddick out-thought Andy Murray in the semi-final, and the same strategy was working again. It was as if Roddick could see only himself and some nameless opponent on the Centre Court, and no one else at all. The 15,000 crowd and the gallery of famous names in the Royal Box – Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver – might as well not have been there. This was about Roddick getting the impossible job done.

It did not matter what was thrown at him. It seemed that he was breaking the match down into that most successful of formats – one point at a time. So easy to say, so difficult to execute. But Roddick was doing it. If his serve came under pressure, he was equal to it. When chances came to attack, he took them without rushing. It seemed certain that the first set would go to the tiebreak, but at the death he turned it in his favour. When Federer made the error that gave the first set to Roddick 7-5, the American didn’t so much clench his first as merely close it in verification. Then he turned his back, mind already on the next phase of the task.

The crowd was of course thrilled, knowing that he needed this set if the match was to amount to anything. But how could this form last, against the legendary Federer? The second set seemed to go in a flash. This one did go to the tiebreak ... and those four points. Roddick was at 6-2, and the set was all but his. Key phrase: all but. Federer took six straight points. It could not be, and yet it was. Roddick took time out for what is commonly known as a comfort break, although it is difficult to believe that comfort played a big role in his life at that moment.

When he came back out on court, he looked hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed. He had the air of a helpless eyewitness powerless to prevent some terrible trauma. So disoriented was he that he went to the wrong end of the court to receive serve, and umpire Lars Graf was forced to call him back. He hung on throughout the set to take it to the tiebreak, but there was to be no fairytale opportunity to put things right. Federer pounced on a short Roddick return and he was two sets to one up.

If you know of anyone who was predicting a fifth set at that moment, then you are of wider acquaintance than anyone on the Centre Court today. It was a done deal that Federer would win it in four. But he didn’t. Roddick had had enough of being shocked, and at 2-1 in the fourth outplayed the Swiss to convert a break point. It was enough to take it into the fifth.

All match Federer had tried and failed to break Roddick. Not until the final stroke of an epic final set would he manage what had previously been impossible. It was the second longest final of all time, by far the longest in games played. The two of them were in the 30th game of the set when at last successive loose shots from Roddick gave Federer what no other player has ever achieved, a 15th Grand Slam.

The American, beyond exhausted, was too worn out to weep. But the tears will no doubt come and, one fears, the nightmares after that. Elite sport is played out in an arena as wonderful as it is cruel, and only the bravest need apply.

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