There are times when it takes something special to invigorate a tennis tournament, to really make it feel like the competition has begun in earnest. Without question, the most thrilling and dramatic match in recent SAP Open memory came last night, when three-time champion Andy Roddick overcame a spectacular challenge from 19-year old qualifier Denis Kudla, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-4. Under any set of circumstances, the match’s changes in momentum and stellar shot-making from both players would have had all the makings of a classic match. But it was an injury scare deep in the second set that raised the drama in this match to another level.
Roddick had started the match somewhat tentatively, which was cause for concern since the former world number one was playing his first tournament since withdrawing from the Australian Open with a hamstring injury. As the match wore on, it seemed to be more a result of a lack of match practice, rather than any lingering effects. Roddick found a serving rhythm, and while he was still not playing at his best, he was varying his shots effectively and moving well around the court.
It quickly became apparent that for Roddick, moving well would be an absolute necessity. His young opponent, who had to overcome some jitters at the start of the match, quickly settled into an extremely comfortable and surprising rhythm. Since Kudla is a newcomer to the ATP (he was playing in his ninth career tour-level match), not many of the viewers knew what to expect from him. Some had seen him play an excellent match in the first round against Jack Sock, in which he played solidly but largely beat the other young American with his consistency. He came out against the veteran with a much more difficult game plan.
Denis Kudla, who had reached the finals of the 2010 U.S. Open Junior tournament, played the majority of the match at a level that no one would have ever expected from a player ranked outside the top 200, except perhaps for Kudla himself. He had the confidence to go for shots that were for all intents and purposes, ridiculous. He would hit winners stretched wide to both his forehand and backhand side. He would blast shots up the line and rip cross-court winners. For a stretch, it not only seemed that Kudla was able to consistently paint the lines with his shots, it seemed that he was refusing to hit anywhere else on the court.
Roddick was clearly flustered by the flurry of winners coming off the 19-year old’s racket, and on many occasions when another cleanly-struck, line-licking ball flew past him, all he could do was roll his eyes in disbelief and get ready for the next point. This onslaught would have been enough to unsettle most players, but Roddick was clearly there to win. He may have only been playing, in his own words, “at 40%” throughout the first set, but he still managed to get it to a tie-break. Some aggressive play from his opponent in a key moment was enough to seal the set, and Roddick suddenly found himself down a set.
The second set saw Roddick up his intensity, buoyed by the crowd’s support and his own frustration. He started hitting his shots with more pace, while Kudla continued to swing freely, hardly concerned with the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be able to play that well for that long. Roddick was leading as the tail end of the set was drawing close, and the crowd was rooting for Andy to break and take the set. But when stretching out wide to return serve on the first point of the game at 4-5, Roddick rolled over on his ankle and screamed in pain as he rolled on the ground, covering his face with his hands.
The atmosphere in the arena was tense while the trainer evaluated the extent of Roddick’s injury. Ultimately, his ankle was put in a brace and took a few tentative steps. After the match, Andy admitted that he thought that the match might have been over, but he said in his press conference that he didn’t want to retire from another match with injury. He “was tired of doing that,” he said. Even when he returned to the court, it seemed like a long shot that he would be able to fight all the way back.
He was clearly moving a bit gingerly on his injured ankle, finding it difficult to push off that side. In his first service game after the injury, Roddick found himself in a love-forty hole. If he was broken there, surely Kudla would be able to serve out the match. It was at that point that the 19-year old first showed signs that he was feeling the pressure. Kudla had a simple cross-court pass that would have given him the break, but he pushed it slightly wide. Despite being slightly hobbled, Roddick seemed to detect the little waver in his opponent’s nerve, and he somehow managed not only to hold serve, but he also managed to eke out the tiebreak that followed.
Two hours in and the pair were tied at a set apiece. Each had held serve twelve straight times. Shockingly, the third set started with Kudla – who must have been severely disappointed that he hadn’t been able to wrap the match up already – finding a way to break Andy Roddick’s serve. It was at this point, once again, that Kudla blinked. He had the victory in his sights, and the pressure of beating a player who had inspired him while he was growing up proved to be too much. Kudla was broken twice, largely off of shots that he had been making for the first two sets, but were now landing well wide of the lines.
In the end, Roddick was happy to get the win and hopeful that his ankle would recover in time for him to play his best in Friday’s quarterfinal. But he believed that Kudla struggled with the prospect of winning the match, once the reality of it was so close. He knew that he’d been let off the hook, in some ways, by the younger American, and he understood the special kind of pressure that came with closing out a big upset.
Over the course of two hours and forty-two minutes, Roddick and Kudla played 257 total points. The match was so close that the final breakdown of points won was Kudla – 128 and Roddick – 129. The one extra point that Roddick won turned out to be the only point that mattered: match point.