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Roddick Has to Go to Great Lengths

American needs five hours to reach Australian Open semifinals with 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19 victory over El Aynaoui.

January 23, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia -- They've always said it's hard to hold serve at 19-19 in the fifth set.

Younes El Aynaoui of Morocco knew he was in trouble as he faced a break point at 19-19 against Andy Roddick during the longest fifth set in a Grand Slam in the Open era Wednesday at the Australian Open. Was this a tennis match or a cricket test series?

Before the 20-year-old Roddick could age any more on this epic night -- it seemed as though he might catch up with 32-year-old Andre Agassi if the drama went much longer -- he converted the break. One game stood between Roddick and his first Grand Slam semifinal berth.

About an hour before, at 11-10, Roddick served for it but was broken. He didn't falter this time, holding at 15, moving on when El Aynaoui missed a forehand volley, winning, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19, in five hours.

The ninth-seeded Roddick, who had saved a match point in the 10th game of the fifth set with a forehand winner, knelt on the court, pulled himself up and hugged his opponent at the net. The crowd gave them a prolonged standing ovation, Roddick went back over to El Aynaoui and clasped his hand and the two paid tribute to the fans.

"My respect level for him just grew and grew throughout the match," said Roddick, who will play Rainer Schuettler of Germany in the semifinals. "I'm sure it's vice-versa. I don't even remember ever talking to Younes before this match. But down the line, I mean, we could see each other 10 years down the line and know that we did share something special."

Eighty-three games have a way of bringing guys closer.

The fifth set lasted 2 hours, 23 minutes. Agassi won his quarterfinal against Sebastien Grosjean in two hours. Previously, the longest fifth set in a Slam in the Open era was Wimbledon 2000, when Australian Mark Philippoussis beat Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, 20-18.

The impeccable level of tennis between Roddick and El Aynaoui was even more astounding. Roddick hit 27 aces to El Aynaoui's 25 but double-faulted only twice. In fact, Roddick had only four double faults in his last 10 sets, which included the fourth round against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, in which he rallied after losing the first two sets, a career first.

"He went back to his basics a little bit," said Roddick's coach, Tarik Benhabiles. "No. 1, to be a fighter. He went back to that. Two days ago, he showed everyone he had the heart of a lion. And he stuck with it. He didn't give up. Mentally he was very strong.

"This is going to open his mind; it's going to expand a lot of things. To win a match like that, one year ago, he would have never won a match like that. Never."

Said Roddick: "Coming back the other day from two and a half sets -- two sets down and a break down -- did help my confidence for this match. I was down two sets to one again. I was thinking, 'OK, I have done this before.' It already kicked in a little bit."

Roddick's aggression was impressive. He came to the net 71 times, winning 62% of those points. El Aynaoui, in retrospect, felt he should have come in more in the fifth set, forcing Roddick to pass him. Having said that, El Aynaoui had a match point at 5-4 in the fifth and did everything right on it, only to watch Roddick hit a sensational winner. "I'd say that's the best shot I've hit match point down," Roddick said.

Said El Aynaoui, whose first-serve percentage was 71: "It hurts when you have a match point. He played a great shot on the match point."

Not much was known about the Moroccan in Melbourne, but El Aynaoui is responsible for two remarkable matches at the Australian Open this year, the first knocking off Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round. Jeff Tarango recently started working with El Aynaoui but remains close to Roddick and Benhabiles. Tarango and Roddick hugged in the hallway outside the interview room afterward.

"Both of those guys played an absolute epic in my mind, an epic match tonight," Tarango said. "With the state of the world that it's in today, for those two to hug after the match, is so great. They both deserve to be in the Grand Slam final."

Roddick was his usual amusing self after the match. He didn't believe the statistic sheet, which had only 31 unforced errors by him, and had a humorous rejoinder. Chair umpire Pascal Maria didn't get off as lightly as A-Rod turned into Hot-Rod after dubious calls.

Roddick, at the end of the third set: "Have you heard of that part of your back? It's called a spine. Get one."

Roddick, in the fourth: "It's the only job where you can screw up on a daily basis and still have one."

Hours later, Roddick still found a way to keep his equanimity. After surviving three deuces, at 18-19, in the fifth to tie it, 19-19, Roddick sat in the chair at the back of the court, giving his racket to a ball kid. El Aynaoui did the same and the kids played a point. Then Roddick broke El Aynaoui.

"I think that was a really cool moment," Roddick said. "Whatever crazy number we were at, we can still keep some humor about the game."

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