PARIS -- The legend continues.
It wasn't enough that Andy Roddick -- who has been America's Great Hype Hope since he was wearing swaddling Reeboks -- whipped the bejeesus out of Pete Sampras the first time they played. (Miami in March, 7-6, 6-3). Or that he won his first two clay-court tournaments back to back (Atlanta and Houston last month). Or even that, at 18 years old, wearing a backwards ballcap and a lock-up-the-teenyboppers grin, he arrived in Paris this week on the wings of an 11-match, 22-set winning streak (as many clay-court match victories as the nine other Americans playing Roland Garros combined). No, what he accomplished at a few minutes after 9 p.m. on Wednesday, just as it was getting dark in the City of Light, was the kind of instant-classic exhibition of sporting skill and courage that will assure Roddick's own particular light shines forever.
Indeed, after bouncing a tournament-record, thoroughly incroyable 37 aces across the baked, bronze dust and past one of the still-quickest and best returners in the game, Michael Chang; after dangerously cramping up late in the evening and hobbling around the place like some refugee from Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks"; after playing five sets over nearly four hours, practically keeling over every time he struck the ball in the last couple of games yet still out-battling one of the great battlers of the generation and finally winning 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 -- the only concern is what possibly can this rawboned, fresh-faced, brand new A-Rod ever do for a more dramatic encore?
Even veteran tennis journalist Bud Collins hadn't seen much like this -- just before he was the first to greet the exhausted Roddick in the press room following the match.
"Bud! What's up, dude?" said Roddick to Collins, more than half a century his senior.
"You play today?" joked Collins.
"Naww, man," said Roddick.
But play ... and slug ... and dig down ... and somehow work his athletic butt off he surely did -- in his first Grand Slam match on a center stage (the newly named Court Philippe Chartrier; "it seemed huge, like an 18-wheeler," Roddick said), in the first five-set encounter of his career and under physically debilitating circumstances with which a football-crazy kid from rural Nebraska who still keeps posters of all the Cornhusker gridiron heroes on his wall would have no idea how to deal. Take a knee? Run out of bounds? Punt?
"What do I do now?" Roddick fairly screamed at his Algerian coach, Tarik Benhabiles, sitting high in the players' box at one end of the stadium, when he began to cramp -- and teeter and limp and walk silly -- after 4-4 in the fifth set. Benhabiles ("Andy has a huge, huge heart. But he has to learn how to manage his energy.") motioned for Roddick to call for a trainer, which Roddick did at the changeovers. But he never asked for an injury timeout for fear of resting a few minutes, then not being able to stand up -- much less swat a yellow ball across a white tape.
So Roddick ramrodded on, cracking aces, rifling his dynamite forehand to the corners and hoping Chang would somehow crack -- even though tennis' now ancient (well, he's 29) Reverend Sun Old Moon Ball himself was serving 16 aces of his own, crafting an equally brilliant performance and remembering what it was like to famously suffer cramps as a teenager at the French Open.
It is both Chang's eternal pride and curse that the high point of his career came in 1989 when he shocked the tennis globe by winning Paris after surviving an awful onslaught of cramps in the semifinals, serving underhand and upsetting the titan of the time, Ivan Lendl. Chang then stunned Stefan Edberg in the final. He was 17 years old. "That was always crossing my mind today," said Roddick. "It's one of the first memories I have of watching tennis when I was a little kid. I remember Michael in that match on TV. I was so excited I went outside and played for about three hours. Yeah, I was thinking this was pretty ironic. Here I was, fighting and clawing in the same place ... It was like a fairy tale."
In fact, Roddick should have closed out his lead in the first set and won this second-rounder in straights. Moreover, he should have won the thing in the fourth; he led 5-4 in the tiebreaker with two serves to go from his own racquet. But Roddick missed his first serve ("a bad toss," he said) and, as is his wont, went for it bigtime with his nasty snake of a huge-kicking second serve. But he missed that, too. ("That sucked!) On the next point the Nebraska neophyte pounded a forehand practically into the Bois de Boulogne so that Chang could escape and send the match the distance.
But: "Andy's serve kept saving him," said Chang. "I was surprised he could keep serving for so long to that degree. Even cramping, he was hitting bombs, nailing the corners well. I was giving him different looks, changing stances, playing cat and mouse. Still, he kept bombing."
"I was struggling even after the fourth," Roddick acknowledged. "But I just hoped I could finish before I was on my back. My hand was doing a 'bendy.' My calves were gone. Whatever this is ... " -- he pointed to his groin -- "... hurt. Tired? Yeah, I hit the wall in the fourth. But I tried to rally the crowd. Then ... it's like I wasn't tired. I just was cramping. In those situations you either suck it up or ... Hey, you don't play a match for three and a half hours to lay down and die when it gets tough."
An ace and a drop shot winner took Roddick to 5-4 in the fifth. In the next game one of his enormous forehands, a clear winner, took him to his first match point. But a similar blast found the net and Chang held. "AN-DEEEE, AN-DEEE," the crowd chanted, in response to Roddick waving his arms to pump them up ... to pump him up ... or something. Sure enough, Roddick persevered -- his entire body now "bendy" as he managed to hold serve again. At 30-all in the final game, Roddick finished a dramatic rally by fooling Chang, wrong-footing him with a winning backhand down the line. The marathon finally ended when Roddick nailed a backhand to the baseline, then closed with another howitzer off his forehand that Chang could only float long.
"Get some liquids and minerals in your body," Chang told the youngster as the two gladiators met warmly at the net. The mutual respect was obvious. "Yeah," said Chang. "Sometimes nothing needs to be said. You can see it in a guy's face."
Soon, Roddick was ripping his shirt from his body -- his coach, Benhabiles, did the same thing in the stands -- and throwing his cap, towels and racquet into the crowd. "I can't even explain what winning that match felt like," he said later. "I wanted to cry ... these were the moments you play tennis for."
Cramping so much, hurting, searching for something, anything, Roddick was asked if he ever thought about going to the long-ago Chang card of the underhand serve?
"Naw, my underhand serve is suspect," he said with a straight face.
But surely nothing else about American tennis' new 'Husker hero will ever be suspect again.
Curry Kirkpatrick, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, first covered the French Open in 1976. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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