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ATHENS 2004

A Lasting Gold Image for Chileans

Less than 24 hours after a marathon final victory in men's doubles, Massu goes four more hours to surprise Fish in five sets for the singles title.

August 23, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Chile has been competing in the Olympic Games for, oh, 108 years, and never came away with a gold medal, not receiving the opportunity to listen to its cheerful, melodic national anthem on the victory podium.

In less than 24 hours, there have been two golds for the soccer-mad South American country -- both in tennis. There was Nicolas Massu and Fernando Gonzalez winning the gold in doubles, defeating Germany's Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler in 3 hours 43 minutes in five sets, ending in the early morning hours Sunday.

Incredibly, an exhausted and emotional Massu outdid himself. Massu defeated Mardy Fish of the U.S. in a marathon here Sunday, winning, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, in a four-hour epic. A little slice of Vina del Mar turned up in Athens with flag-waving Chilean fans chanting, "Nico! Nico! Nico!"

This breakthrough sent Chile into celebration mode. Horns honked in the nation's capital of Santiago, and for some time on Sunday, international phone lines were jammed with those trying to call friends and relatives in the country.

"I can't believe it. The best two days of my life," said Massu, who fell onto his back on the court after Fish's return sailed long on his first match point. "That's it."

Nor could Fish, who appeared to be the prohibitive favorite after Massu's grueling doubles adventure. Massu said he got back to the athletes' village at about 4:30 a.m. and could not get to sleep until 6:30.

"I just don't understand how somebody can get less tired when they keep going," said Fish, who had 23 aces and 105 unforced errors. "Usually every time I've done it, I always get more and more tired."

No wonder Massu's nickname in the Chilean press is "El Vampiro." He certainly took out Team USA in single-handed fashion, despite having no hard-court victories to his credit in 2004 before coming to Athens.

"There's 22 Chilean athletes here, and they've never won a gold," said Mary Carillo of NBC and USA Network. "This guy wins two, and he beats five Americans. Massu beat Vince Spadea in the second round, the Bryan brothers in doubles, then Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish.

"We have 536 athletes. They have 22. He beat five of them here. Isn't that amazing? Jim Courier said it's the most amazing physical effort he's ever seen from anybody."

It almost seemed to come from nowhere for the 24-year-old Massu, who has only four clay-court titles in his career. After winning the first set, he looked weary in the second and third, appearing to fight off cramps. Several times, he propped up his legs on another chair during changeovers. Then he got something of a third wind and started to pick apart Fish's normally reliable backhand.

"Maybe he was playing a little cat-and-mouse in the beginning, trying to show me he was tired," Fish said.

Or, the cat and El Vampiro?

"This is my best memory in my sports career," Massu said. "If I look in 10 more years, I look back to this. I'm going to be so happy. Now I can die happy."

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