LONDON – The yellow tennis ball hung above Andy Roddick’s left shoulder like a mini-moon. He eyed it with animosity, his weapon poised to shoot the moon as 15,000 witnesses surrounding the grass patch called Centre Court couldn’t believe that with one simple smack the rejuvenated American would post a 2-set lead over the 5-time champion, Roger Federer. It was oh-so-close to happening as the Lord of the Swings, Federer, stood by helplessly while Roddick, close to the net and sideline – possessing his 4th set point in the second set tie-breaker – went after the ball with a backhand…and bungled it.
“The wind was gusting pretty good,” Andy recalled. “When he hit the ball I thought I wasn’t gonna play it. Last minute, it looked like it was dropping.”
In or out? ” I couldn’t get my racket around on it. I don’t know if it would have dropped in or out.”
It was then, after two sets, when his 6-points-to-2 lead in the breaker didn’t hold up, Andy himself seemed a candidate to drop out.
“The second set was the key to what came after,” said Federer, contesting a record seventh straight Wimbledon final. ”Being down 2 sets to love would have been a difficult situation. Winning the second increased my chances because I couldn’t control the match at all.”
That was because Andy Roddick was planted there to stay, giving as good as he got, as he and Roger Federer created one of the greatest showdowns to brighten the Big W.
They slashed and bashed each other through the longest major final: 77 games in 4:18. Only once could Roger bust Andy’s serve, but that concluded their masterwork, 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14. The tense, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better closing passage lasted 95 minutes, also a record for majors fifth sets.
As a guy who didn’t progress as he should have after winning the 2003 US Open, 26-year-old Roddick is a re-tooled version of America’s best. A finalist to Federer here in 2004-05, he has outdone those times considerably within the last week, showing his finest stuff in beating ex-champ Lleyton Hewitt in 5 sets, then promoting British melancholia by stopping their Great Bright Hope, Scotsman Andy Murray in 4.
“There’s no way it doesn’t cross you’re mind,” Roddick said of the botched volley costing him the second set. ”But there are two options: you lay down or you keep going. The second option sounded better to me.”
Andy came in at 2-18 against Federer. ”How can you call that a rivalry?” he has said. But they were heavy-duty rivals on this breezy, cloudy and sunny Sunday. Moreover Andy feels on top of the planet amid his new coach, old hand Larry Stefanki, and new bride, Brooklyn Decker, who talked him out of quitting.
With lodge brothers — former champs Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Manolo Santana — peering over his shoulder from the Royal Box, Federer, felt extra-juiced to land his 15th major, eclipsing Sampras’s record 14 that had stood since 2002.
But to keep up with the new Roddick, Federer needed the prime serving matinee of his career: 50 aces, one short of the house record held by the Leaning Tower of Zagreb, 6-10 Ivo Karlovic. Roger had 22 service winners as well. Roddick, experiencing his best serving against Federer: 27 aces, 62 winners.
In his smooth, effortless glide, Federer, returning to No. 1, often conceals the fact that he’s a relentless digger and fighter. Although Roddick is less fluid, he has improved his groundies and volleys beyond recognition. The malevolent serve remains. It supported and preserved Andy during the lengthy high-pressure journey through the fifth set when he served the even games, thus putting the title at stake 10 times from 4-5. He squeezed out of several 2-points- from-defeat hotspots, and even pushed Federer to 2 break points at 8-8 15-40. Serving and forehands sprung Roger from that trap.
Roddick slipped out of 0-30 to 40-30, 14-15, and was perched on a second deuce. Whereupon, abruptly it was over in two forehands – a winner from Federer’s racket and a shanked error from Roddick’s.
An appreciative audience, standing in ovation, chanted both men’s names, bringing tears to Roddick’s eyes. Andy had played the match of his career, but will he be haunted by that small fuzzy yellow moon that he couldn’t shoot?