The scene – a third round match in the 2005 Rome Masters tennis tournament. Not a major by any stretch, but certainly a lucrative tournament that most of the world’s top players entered. American Andy Roddick is mostly having his way with plucky Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco. Roddick is up a set in the best of three match, up a break at 5-3, with Verdasco on a second serve, down love 40.
Umpire: Game, set, match, Mr. Roddick.
Roddick: No it isn’t.
Umpire: It… is though?
Roddick: The ball was good. Caught the line.
Umpire: You’re joking, right? Just shake the guy’s hand. You won.
Verdasco: What is happening?
Roddick: Your serve was good. We’re still playing. I’m trying to tell this punk ass (gesturing at the umpire) but he ain’t listening.
Umpire: What did you just call me?
Roddick: Oh, shut the hell up before I break the handle of my racket off up in your ass.
Umpire: Jesus… ok, whatever. Point Verdasco. 15-40. Mr. Verdasco to serve.
Roddick had long been seen as the successor to Pete Sampras in the long line of great American tennis players. John McEnroe. Jimmy Connors. That… other guy. And while Roddick never quite ascended to those heights, he did manage to achieve the the world number one ranking for a brief while before the immortal Roger Federer arrived and took it from him.
What he did achieve was a well-deserved reputation as one of the best liked guys on the tour, and a fan favorite. He was a fiery competitor, and never shy to light up an umpire for a bad call. But with his opponents and in the press, he was the consummate gentleman; always gracious to his opponent in defeat, and always willing to give an insightful interview with the press.
In one of the most iconic matches in recent tennis history – just two short years before this one – Roddick outlasted Morroccan Younes El Aynaoui in an Austrial Open five setter, 21-19 in the fifth set. Five hours of tennis.
Anyway, Verdasco had never achieved, and never would, the level of success of his opponent, but himself was a respected competitor. Lacking a big serve or signature weapon, he would always be at a disadvantage against guys like Roddick who could smash a first serve at over 130 mph. But what he lacked, he made up for with aggression, hustle and grit.
Still down two match points at 15-40, Verdasco was far from out of the woods. Nonetheless, the Spaniard clawed his way back and held serve. It would likely be for naught, however, as the big serving Roddick was still up 5-4, and would now serve to close it out. Funny thing, however. This match was being played on clay, not the surface best suited for a big server. The texturous surface took a considerable amount of sting out of the ball, compared to the much faster and skiddier hard court, to say nothing of the grass courts at Wimbledon.
Verdasco broke Roddick’s serve, forced a tiebreaker and won that, forcing a deciding third set. As the players changed sides, Roddick looked at the umpire.
Roddick: I was kidding. It was out.
Umpire: Excuse me?
Roddick: The serve. It was out. Do I win?
Like it or not, believe in it or not, momentum is real. Emboldened by his comeback in the second set, Verdasco played amazing tennis in the third set, hammering one blistering groundstroke after another with pinpoint accuracy, leaving Roddick virtually helpless to do anything. Verdasco would win the set, and the match, proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished. Roddick downplayed his sportsmanship after the match, crediting Verdasco for his excellent play, maintaining his honesty about the call was simply the right thing to do.
But can you imagine the bottom of the ninth inning, the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead in a pivotal playoff game. Mariano Rivera fires the game-ending cutter for strike three past a hapless, frozen hitter. Only after the umpire calls the third strike, Rivera says,”Nah Blue. That was a bit outside. What? No, of course I’m not kidding. We wouldn’t want the game to end on a bad call, would we? Good!”
Or with the Ligue 1 title hanging in the balance, Paris St. Germain’s Lionel Messi summons his remaining energy after 90 minutes plus stoppage time of relentless running for one last foray up the pitch. Kylian Mbappe feathers an impossibly perfect through ball to Messi who appears to just beat the goaltender and the desperate efforts of the last defender to flick the ball over the line for the game-winning goal. The referee signals it’s a goal, and with time having run out is ready to blow the final whistle, only for Messi to say, “Ref. It’s no goal. I fouled him. Yes, I’m serious. Why would you ask that? Yes, I know that now we have to go into added time and 97% of Paris hates me, but what’s fair is fair. If you can’t win honestly, what’s the point of winning?”
Larry Bird hits the game-winning three-pointer as time expires over the outstretched hand of his friend and rival, Magic Johnson. The Celtics are your NBA Champions!!! Except Bird has the nagging feeling the buzzer sounded while the ball was still on his finger tips. As fans rush the Boston Garden parque in jubilation, Bird erupts, “ALL OF YOU GOD DAMNED CLOWNS GET BACK TO YOUR SEATS! WE’RE GOING TO OVERTIME. I DIDN’T GET THE SHOT OFF IN TIME!”
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? So, imagine it! Did Andy Roddick really decline a victory, and tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, on a call he thought was unfair to his opponent? No Googling! Tell us what you think on Twitter.
Thank you for reading.