FROM NEW YORK — The young man from Newport Beach, just lucky to be able to walk, spent 4 hours and 12 minutes running, jumping and thrilling a packed grandstand on Friday at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
You want sports drama? Try this:
Taylor Dent beat Ivan Navarro of Spain, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (1), 7-5, 7-6 (9).
You want wild tennis statistics? Try this:
Dent had 121 winners, 20 aces and won 190 points. One of his serves was clocked at 147 miles an hour. His opponent got in 81% of his first serves.
It was a match that made no sense on many levels. Dent learned to serve and volley on the fast hard courts of California. Navarro comes from Spain, where the courts are slow red clay and where the last player coming to the net on a regular basis probably had his passport revoked.
"I assumed he was going to be a typical clay-court player," Dent said.
When it ended, shortly after 10 p.m. Eastern time, with Dent's backhand return of service floating past the charging Navarro and dropping gently into his deep right corner on Dent's fourth match point, a stadium that held 6,000 erupted as if it were 20,000.
They had watched in disbelief as this match went on and on. Neither was willing to yield, neither willing to stop following his serve to the net and banging volleys into corners. They felt Dent's pain when he lost a third-set tiebreaker, 7-1, went down two sets to one, and looked gassed.
Then they rose in unison, disbelief and joy as he finally found a way to hit the winning shot.
And he let them know immediately how he felt about them, going from shaking Navarro's hand to asking the chair umpire for the microphone and telling the crowd how unbelievable they were and how much he appreciated their support.
Pam Shriver, former tennis star and now an ESPN broadcaster, who has been around tennis long enough to have seen it all, told Dent on air that she had never before seen anybody grab the chair umpire's microphone. He told her he owed the fans that, and later called them his third leg and his backbone.
Backbone was an interesting choice of words.
Dent has had two surgeries on a back injury called spondylolisthesis, which is a break in the bottom vertebrae. He talks about the pain, about hanging a painting in his house and when he finished being so fatigued that he needed to rest in bed for three hours. He says that, at its worst, he could barely get through airports.
He said he agreed to the second surgery, another version of a spinal fusion, with little thought of playing tennis again. He just wanted to be able to live a normal life.
"I had to be careful," he said, referring to the dangers of depression. "I had to keep myself busy with stuff I was interested in."
Two years ago, he was at the U.S. Open, wearing a media badge and doing Web reporting. Last year, he was at home, watching, while on a comeback trail that allowed him to play only every few months.
He had received a big surprise when the doctor who did the second surgery in March 2007, told him he had healed so well that he ought to go out and hit some balls. So he did.
"I had to sit down after two minutes," Dent said. "I was winded after 30 seconds. I was hitting the ball terrible."
That was February 2008, and Dent said he realized, when he could start back, that he would be selfish and naive to pass up an opportunity to be able to be a pro athlete. He said the first thing that came back wasn't the forehand or backhand or vaunted serve, but "my tenacity."
Against Navarro, he missed an easy forehand on match point and didn't come apart.
"I told myself to just stay out there, to just keep fighting," he said.
He has told himself the same thing about his next match, against No. 2 Andy Murray.
"I honestly don't know how I'll fare against Murray," he said. "But I will guarantee everybody this: If I lose, 6-love, 6-love, 6-love, I am going to die fighting for every point."
Navarro is not Murray, but he was no slouch. He not only serves and volleys, but seldom misses.
"I think he missed like three volleys all night," Dent said. "I felt like kicking him on the changeovers."
Along with his 121 winners, Dent made 50 errors, 28 more than Navarro. Between the two, they approached the net 255 times, likely about twice as much as the entire rest of the tournament field of baseline bangers all day.
The two of them even broke the net buckle by slapping so many hard serves into it that it tore loose and caused a five-minute repair stoppage.
"Can't recall ever busting the strap itself before," Dent said.
After he took the microphone and thanked the crowd, and did his on-court interview, Dent circled the court, touching hands with the crowd. It was a Hale-Irwin-wins-the-U.S.-Open-golf-tournament moment, only Dent went around twice.
"The crowd just never stopped," Dent said. "They were with me the whole time. The U.S. Open is such a unique experience for a tennis player. It's really unbelievable that I have the privilege to experience it."
It was unbelievable that we did too.