NEW YORK -- Two beanpoles took on about 37,000 opponents on Wednesday on one of those thick evenings at a U.S. Open. Commendably, the beanpoles won.
Just before 6 p.m., Juan Martin del Potro beat Andy Roddick and about 15,000 people cheering for Andy Roddick. Just before 11:30 p.m., Tomas Berdych beat Roger Federer and about 22,000 people cheering for Roger Federer.
Roddick went into anticipated retirement. Federer went into unanticipated chagrin. The 6-foot-6 del Potro, No. 8 in the world, went to the quarterfinals. The 6-foot-5 Berdych, No. 7 in the world, went to the semifinals. New York crowds went disappointedly home.
"Thank you very much for the respect to me," del Potro said graciously, when for pinpoint accuracy he might have gone with, "Thank you very much, except for the people who cheered when I faulted, including that one lout in the upper deck who kept bellowing, 'Yeah!' when my first serves went into the net, plus all the people yelling, 'C'mon Andy,' as I waited to serve.”
"The crowd, you were great," Berdych said even more graciously, when for easy accuracy he might have gone with, "You were sort of great, except the even more ardent cheers on my faults and unforced errors, and the fact that often when I hit a winner the applause sounded like the 17th hole on a Thursday morning at some scarcely attended PGA Tour event."
Many sports play home-and-home, but tennis players play road-and-road-and-rarely-home. Ninety-two of the 128 men in the U.S. Open draw hail from countries without a Grand Slam tournament, and over a late afternoon and late night in Queens, you could develop admiration for two of them had you any feel at all for the outnumbered.
Del Potro, from an Argentine city 192 miles from Buenos Aires and 5,400 miles from New York, went down a set to Roddick in Roddick's 43rd match across 13 U.S. Opens, on Roddick's sentimental farewell tour, during which Roddick said, "I'd be an idiot not to use the crowd right now." Berdych, from a Czech town 163 miles from Prague and 4,200 miles from New York, went up two sets and a break on Federer in Federer's attempt at a sixth U.S. Open title and an 18th Grand Slam title in a Federer world in which the Grand Slams seem to be played in Zurich, Geneva, Basel and Bern.
"Let's go Andy," clap, clap, clap-clap-clap …
"Let's go Roger," clap, clap, clap-clap-clap …
"It wasn't easy for me to play," del Potro said later. He occupied Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time since beating Federer in the 2009 final. Roddick occupied Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time in two days. Near the end, his opponent would bury his face in a towel or the crook of his arm, possibly sobbing, while his opponent's wife clearly did sob.
As del Potro neared victory, thoughts grew odd on the court. "You start thinking about, you know, how real it is, and, you know, a lot of thoughts go through your head," Roddick said. "You're thinking about matches you were playing when you were 12 or you're thinking about, you know, I was thinking about my mom driving me to practices all over the place. You just think about a million things, then all of a sudden you have to play a point against one of the best players in the world."
Finally, Roddick lifted a running forehand long, and del Potro, the road team, went sheepishly to the net, hugging Roddick, pointing to him so the audience could applaud, then breaking off his post-match comments with: "I know it's a very special moment for you and for Andy also, so I think he has to speak. It's time to say good-bye for you." Thereby could you begin the match with thoughts toward Roddick and conclude with admiration toward del Potro. "To tell you what kind of guy he is," Roddick said, "I wasn't surprised by any of it because I don't think you'll find someone that doesn't like him or doesn't think he's a class act."
"I just scratched a little bit of my hard skin on the hand," Berdych said later. He occupied Arthur Ashe Stadium at night for the first time in his life. Federer occupied Arthur Ashe Stadium at night, having never lost in those circumstances. Near the end, Berdych also occupied the stadium's cement floor, having sprawled there trying to cope with an astonishing Federer passing shot from deep in the corner. Federer also produced an art-gallery forehand volley that popped straight up and barely over the net for a winner, and Berdych said, "With him, that's not luck. He really knows how to hit those shots."
As Berdych neared victory with his searing pace, thoughts grew tangled on the court. Berdych had beaten Federer in four sets in the 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinals, but a fan loudly reminded Federer that Berdych would crack in the "bright lights." Berdych reckons that "probably there is something in my game that he doesn't like and it makes him a little bit struggle," but if Federer got through the fourth set with the New York crowd roaring for him, Berdych probably would be done.
Finally, though, at 4-4 in the fourth, Berdych savaged a clean forehand winner cross-court, then cracked a 40-love, 124-mph serve down the middle to carom harmlessly off Federer's frame. When it fluttered to the net, the crowd would muster a cheer for Berdych, and Federer would look so glum afterward that he would elicit that rarest of feelings: mild sympathy for a man with 17 Grand Slam titles. "So many moments I thought, Man, it's just not happening for me," Federer said. "It was just a very disappointing match for me."
Thereby could you begin the match with thoughts toward Federer and conclude with admiration toward Berdych, and thereby had a big chunk of New York lost to two guys who, if you looked carefully, seemed to grow into skyscrapers.