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Around The Way With Mark Gray

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Right after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat there is the human drama of athletic competition. There are moments where you push the human body to its limit and withstand the elements of nature and forces against you to achieve victory.

Sunday was the first brutally oppressive day of the summer and the 129 degree on court temperatures and the insane humidity merely added to the drama of the finals of this year’s Legg Mason Tennis Championships. Juan Del Porto defeated Andy Roddick in a third set tie breaker to win his second straight D.C. title against the odds, the elements, and the fans.

Roddick seemed to have everything his way early on. He cruised to a first 36 minute first set win at 6-3 with a first serve averaging nearly 130 miles per hour as Del Porto tried to figure him out. For the match, Roddick out served Del Porto by getting 68 percent of his first serves in compared to 55 for his Argentine opponent. The American also won the battle of aces 21-19 and unforced errors 32-20.

But like a baseball pitcher who left his best stuff in the bullpen, Del Porto got banged around early and then found his groove. When the second and third sets got tight he raised his game and ultimately broke Roddick down. He was clearly the most athletic of the finalists and even with Roddick in the fittest shape of his career, Del Porto covered more ground and was more clutch on critical points.

Down 3-1 in the final set, Del Porto won 11 straight points to take control. He had six more winners for the match and that aggressiveness was more about beating the heat than it was beating Roddick.

“It was so difficult for me,” Del Porto said. “I broke his serve and that made me keep trying. The heat was so difficult. If you run you die.”

The whole match could be summed by its final three points. Down 6-5 in the tiebreaker Roddick found one final gem on his first serve. He whistled a 136 mph serve down just inside the baseline that Del Porto could not handle to tie and the momentum seemed to be shift dramatically to his side.

During the end change Roddick ran to the other side of the net to grab his towel with the crowd chanting “Andy, Andy,” that drowned the tepid support for Del Porto. The Argentine champion calmly spent a little extra time under his umbrella and collected himself before returning to the court to serve for the match.

There is no home court in tennis – unless it’s the Davis Cup – but the Fitzgerald Tennis Center became Roddick Park on Sunday. However, Del Porto was undaunted by the partisan crowd. He blistered his own 130 plus serve pass the people’s choice to go up 7-6. On match point, he whistled a forehand that just clipped the sideline which after a challenge earned him the victory.

“They want to see Andy with the trophy, but the crowd was so respectful, said Del Porto. “It was unbelievable.”

Actually what was unbelievable was a compelling, three set thriller in scorching heat and overbearing humidity. It was a grand slam victory for tennis fans in this area.