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Former Pepperdine player Kendrick a near surprise

August 30, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- For the first 12 games, they played as equals.

Novak Djokovic, Australian Open champion, third best male in tennis, stuck approach shots and pummeled backhands, winning every game he served.

Robert Kendrick, journeyman, 113th in the rankings, matched his opponent, stroke for stroke, game for game.

Now the score, suddenly, is six games all. It's tiebreaker time, crunch time, first to seven points, win by two.

Would this be the start of the first big, meaningful upset in the men's draw at the U.S. Open? Would the Fresno-based Kendrick win the tiebreaker and use the momentum to take the match, giving hope not just to himself but to all of the men's tour's wannabe big-time pros? Or, as most figured, would the big contender have his way?

All match long, fans at cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium have seen surprising stuff from Kendrick, a former Pepperdine player few on hand had ever heard of.

Now it's the first point of the tiebreaker. Djokovic twists and serves -- Thwack!

He draws a miss.

The 21-year-old Djokovic has 10 singles titles, including this year's Australian Open, and has already pocketed $8.3 million. Great expectations hang on his shoulders.

Kendrick? In eight years as a pro he has one title to his name, in doubles. After expenses, he earns the salary of a high school science teacher. Sometimes he has played on the biggest stages. But as holds true for hundreds of unknowns in this sport, often you will find him in Tyler or Tulsa or any number of pinprick towns all over the globe.

Djokovic wins the second point on a flat backhand pass. 2-0.

Understand that Kendrick is a fine player, a hustler with an old-school attacking game. He knocks a good serve and then a punch winner and, in a flash, it's all tied at 2.

Most everyone here wants the American to do well, but they don't really want Djokovic to lose. The Serbian is slated to play Roger Federer in the semis. Many say if that happens, Djokovic will win.

He could certainly win if he plays Federer as he plays for the next five minutes. He nails a 120-mph serve, draws a double fault, slaps a winner. Kendrick throws in an ugly, unnecessary drop shot.

It's 6-2 now. Set point, Djokovic. From the warmup through the first dozen games you could see no real difference between the two players. They both possess the same practiced nonchalance, catapulting shots and quick feet. But at 6-2 in the breaker it all seems to make sense: This sudden run is the difference between great and good.

Not so fast. Kendrick, tall, wide shouldered, baseball cap turned backward, hangs in. He hits a passing shot and a big serve and the stands begin to vibrate from all the claps and cheers.

Now it's 6-4, Djokovic. He beat Federer at the Australian Open last January, Rafael Nadal last month. He'll win this next point, you're sure. But almost unbelievably, he drops the next point. Kendrick clenches a fist. Bring it on, he seems to be saying. Bring it on.

A moment passes, the next point begins. It's a long one, with both players hitting from their heels. Kendrick nails the line once, twice. He hits a ball that looks sure to sail out. It dips in. Finally, Djokovic misses. "Go man, go!" some shout. A lady asks: "Who the hell is this kid?"

At Pepperdine, Kendrick was one of the top college players in the nation. He turned pro in 2000 and though he lives a good life traveling the world, making money with sunscreen on, his dreams haven't quite been fulfilled. His kinda-sorta limelight moment was a near miss: Two years ago he was up big on Nadal at Wimbledon only to lose.

Can he learn from that match? It's tied up now, six points apiece, and good God, Kendrick looks like Boris Becker. When he uncorks another winning shot, suddenly he owns a set point. Capitalize here and he has major momentum.

Djokovic, like Nadal, is known for having the guts to stand up to the imperious Federer. After the Serb did this in last year's U.S. Open final, cracks began to show in the Swiss master.

When the set point comes, it's that kind of gumption that allows him to shove a passing shot down Kendrick's throat.

It's tied up. Soon, it's set point, Djokovic.

You knew how it had to end, right?

Djokovic took a knuckleball that didn't knuckle, and knocked it for a winner, and the set belonged to him.

The second also belonged to the Serb, 6-4. Then the third, same score. A 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-4 Djokovic victory.

Later, Robert Kendrick was asked whether on this warm day he'd been energized by standing up for the journeymen, the forgotten ones, the unseen pros who never get respect.

"A little bit, yeah, sure," he said. "It sure felt good out there today, all those people standing up and the big stage. I feel like I had my chances."

--

Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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