Davis Cup 2006: Roddick and Rochus – a classic match with a rude ending

Andy Roddick and Olivier Rochus played a Davis Cup match for the ages last Sunday in Leuven, Belgium. The match lasted four hours and thirty-two minutes and was determined by one of the strangest calls ever seen in a tennis match.

The US was in Belgium because they lost to Croatia in the first round of the 2006 Davis Cup. They have to win this tie to get into the World Group competition for 2006. James Blake has already lost in straight sets to Olivier Rochus. Roddick beat his brother, Christophe Rochus, and the Bryan Brothers beat brother Olivier Rochus and Kristof Vliegen to put the US up 2-1. Roddick can win the tie if he beats brother Olivier.

Rochus is no taller than I am at 5’4”, so he spins his first serve in and he does it well. At one point he had a first serve percentage of 85%. Roddick, on the other hand, has the fastest serve on the tour and this turned out to be very important.

Neither player lost their serve or even faced a break point in the first two sets. They split the sets winning a tiebreaker each. In the third set, though, everything goes haywire. Roddick breaks Rochus twice to go up 3-0 and it looks like the set might be over pretty quickly when Rochus strikes back and breaks. Then Roddick gets to 4-2 but gets broken then loses again when serving for the set at 5-4. This is how it will go for the rest of this set and most of the match. Every time one player gets on a roll, the other player steps up and takes back the momentum.

The crowd has hundreds of clappers and they’re clappering and chanting now that Rochus is showing that he can match Roddick’s play. Combine that noise with the quietness of a clay court match, you don’t hear the foot movement very much, and the fact that the indoor building seems to mute the sound of the racket hitting the ball, and it’s a bit like being in an empty gym with loud crowd noise piped in now and then. Kind of like a sitcom with a laugh track.

The crowd is already annoyed because Andy Roddick called out the Belgian Davis Cup captain, Steve Martens. With Rochus serving at 4-4, Roddick accused Martens of standing up during the point. After US captain Patrick McEnroe finished discussing the issue with the chair umpire, is it against the rules for the captain to stand up during a point?, Roddick insisted on walking towards the net as he repeatedly asked the Belgian coach if he had stood up. Martens sat there with a puzzled smile on his face and said nothing. A replay showed that Martens hadn’t moved at all.

Rochus’ strategy is to pound Roddick’s backhand – he hit ten straight shots there on one point – then run around his own forehand and hit winners down the line. Roddick isn’t the best mover on the tour and it’s even worse here today. This is soft red clay on a temporary indoor court. It’s like playing beach volleyball. You feel like the cartoon character The Road Runner. Your feet are turning at an incredibly high rpm before you can gain enough traction to actually move. Thankfully Roddick’s serve is in fine form, he wins the tiebreaker in the third set by hitting five straight aces. Isn’t that a record of some sort?

In the fourth set, Roddick finally figures out that most of the serves are going to his backhand and starts to run around it to hit forehand returns. He runs so far around his backhand that he is off-screen – you can’t see him hit the return. Both players trade early breaks and holding serve becomes an adventure. Rochus played through six deuces to hold serve in the sixth game. He threw in a phantom swing at a Roddick shot that was clearly on its way out, no doubt in retaliation for Roddick’s borishness towards Martens. Roddick struggled through three deuces in the ninth game before finally losing and putting Rochus up a break at 5-4. The match was now three hours and forty-one minutes long. Roddick was so tired that he double faulted twice in a row and went for aces on his second serve so he wouldn’t have to play long points.

Rochus held serve to win the fourth set, 6-4, but he is not doing much better. Both players look like a toy I used to get in a Cracker Jack box. It was a little plastic boxing ring with two fighters facing each other. If you pressed the bottom of one side of the toy, the fighter on that side completely buckled over. If you pressed the other side, the other fighter buckled.

Roddick’s strategy in the fifth set was to hold serve at all costs, rest during Rochus’ serve and conserve his energy for the tiebreaker. When Rochus’ hit a drop shot, Roddick didn’t even bother running for it.

Maybe it was exhaustion that led Rochus to make a bad mistake serving at 15-30 in the sixth game. Roddick approached the net and hit a short volley. Rochus could have passed him any number of ways, he had plenty of room to work with, but he hit the ball right at Roddick who then put it away and went up 15-40. That was bad enough but what happened next was beyond belief.

The Belgian players are pissed, the home crowd is stunned, and the Americans, well, they’re very quiet. They know not to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

Rochus hit a very deep approach shot just inside the line to Roddick’s backhand. Roddick managed to get to it but could only hit a wounded duck that flew up in the air and just made it over the net. Rochus had plenty of time to set up and hit an easy overhead just inside the deuce court sideline. So far so good. After the point, though, the linesperson on Roddick’s side of the net walked up to the chair umpire and told him that she had called Rochus’ shot out. Rochus and Martens are outraged, as is almost everyone else in the building except Roddick, who is getting an unintended and desperately needed rest.

There are a number of unbelievable things about this event. First of all, this match is in Belgium, not the United States. Why would you make such a bad call against the home team? Second, in clay court matches, players are all over any ball that even looks like it’s going out. You can be sure that Roddick would have been right there to draw a ring around the mark if there had been any question.

Third, and most puzzling of all, the chair umpire, Sune Alenkaer, didn’t overrule the call – he must have seen it just like everyone else in the house – and never left his chair to check the ball mark. All match long, whenever a player questioned a call, the chair umpire obligingly jumped out of his chair and ran over to the mark. Now, when it would have been crucial to do so, he doesn’t make a move.

The chair umpire awarded the game to the US giving Roddick a 4-2 lead in the deciding set. The Belgian players are pissed, the home crowd is stunned, and the Americans, well, they’re very quiet. They know not to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

After both players held serve, Roddick served his thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth ace to win the set and match, 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-3. With a courageous effort that included an exceptionally high number of aces on a clay court surface, Roddick managed to hang in there long enough to take advantage of an inexplicable mistake and win the tie for the USA in the longest match in Davis Cup history since the introduction of the tiebreaker.

The US team didn’t celebrate. They circled Roddick, gathered up their belongings and got off the court as fast as possible.