NEW YORK -- Yeah, it was the usual scene at a Grand Slam fourth-round match: Reporters getting hustled off the court between points, a crowd so tiny that the sound of shrieking -- "A baby?" David Ferrer asked the chair umpire -- from across the U.S. Tennis Center stopped play, Andy Roddick holding up Ferrer in mid-serve when he spied someone scaling the chain-link behind him. "Sorry," Roddick called over the net. "There was a guy up on the fence."
Roddick smirked, and who could blame him? His game was alive, he was on his way to upsetting the No. 5 player in the world, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3; the sun had shown up at last. Better still, there was this giddy electricity in the air, an exhilarating, get-out-of-jail sense that anything could happen and that, for one bizarre Thursday afternoon, the 2011 U.S. Open had sent pro tennis back to its low-tech, barnstorming roots. Hawkeye cameras and video screens to decide disputed calls? Gone. Speed guns? Roddick may well have clocked a serve at 160 m.p.h. We'll never know.
But, best of all, there was the feeling at last of mere action. After two days of soggy stasis, of staring at flooded courts and whining over the USTA's foot-dragging on the construction of a roofed showcourt, Roddick and Ferrer and every other player left in the draw began to run again Thursday -- and they weren't alone.
The Roddick-Ferrer match that started Wednesday was supposed to resume Thursday morning on Louis Armstrong Stadium. But after playing two games -- to bring Roddick to a 4-2, first-set lead -- Roddick noticed water bubbling up from a crack behind a baseline. While play resumed all over the grounds, the players left the court and the crack was set upon with all manner of towel and hand-dryer. After an hour, tournament referee Brian Earley called the players back out to play. Roddick looked down at the spot. Then he looked at Earley.
"What is that?" Roddick said.
"Water," Earley said.
The two men left the court again and, under the stands, pressed Earley to put them on any available court -- now. Court 13 was open. It was 12:34 p.m. Time was bearing down on all four players in the bottom half of the Round of 16; the winner could well be facing four straight days of play. Every minute gained mattered. "Just put us on 13," Roddick told Earley. " I don't care where we go play. Let's just go play."
Thus began the stampede. The players hoisted their bags, and as Roddick and Ferrer, security, coaches, Roddick's wife Brooklyn Decker, ballboys and linespeople began migrating across the grounds, word spread. Every artery toward 13 filled.
"We had all the crazies out there, the people were sprinting from Louis Armstrong and now all of a sudden you could kind of feel it build as we were walking over there: 'What are they doing? They're playing on 13! Really?'" Roddick said. "You could feel the whole process taking place. It was kind of fun."
Kind of? It felt like the moment just after the bell rings on the last day of school. At 12:41, the scoreboard on Court 13, with a capacity of 584 seats, read, "No Match Scheduled On This Court Today". Workers scrambled to attach the Mercedes logo to the net; photographers raced into position. Armstrong's capacity is 10,103, the chance to be this close to a late-stage, Grand Slam match is once-in-a-lifetime: Not quite the tennis equivalent of Springsteen at the Stone Pony, but close. Within minutes, the stands were filled with jostling people gone pie-eyed at their luck. Fans clambered to the top of the seats at nearby Court 14, to benches on the far side of Court 11, craning to see. Roddick dropped his bag at his chair.
"Andy, you schmuck!" someone jeered. "Andy, is this one better?"
He pulled out his racket, grinning. Injuries and the recent Davis Cup loss to Spain in his hometown of Austin -- Roddick losing the opening singles match there to Ferrer, no less -- had left him diminished; Roddick came into New York seeded 21, no one's idea of a contender. But his game at Flushing Meadows had improved with every round, and something about Thursday's chaos charged his batteries.
"It was a little bit of everything: We had some Van Morrison wannabe playing music in the courtyard, so we had a 'Brown-Eyed Girl' soundtrack for about two games there," Roddick said. "A couple people wanted to do commentary from the service line; I didn't think that was gonna work. There was a repetitive screaming from the courtyard at one point; it was actually kind of shrill. It was a little stressful. It sounded like someone was getting hurt. I don't know if that's what it's always like out there...."
It didn't hurt, either, that the cozy court, with a perimeter made smaller by the photographers sprawled courtside inhibited Ferrer's rangy game. Not that the 29-year-old Spaniard would admit that publicly; he's as professional as they come. "No, I think he won because he was better than me," Ferrer said. "If we play in another court, for Roddick, he won the same match."
Roddick breezed to a two sets to one lead, overcame a few calls that went against him on his first serve, jawed snarkily at chair umpire Carlos Bernardes; Ferrer seemed to get jobbed by a sleepy judge on the baseline. There were no replays, no rising shout from the crowd as a fake ball on the video screen proved some protest right or wrong. In the eighth game of the fourth set, Ferrer double-faulted, Roddick got lucky with a netcord forehand, then blasted a trademark forehand to earn the break.
Relaxed now, he cracked two service winners and another big forehand -- the weapons that carried him to a No. 1 ranking and his lone Grand Slam title at the 2003 U.S. Open -- to get to 40-0. In 1998, Roddick, the last American man to win a major singles title, played his first-ever match at Flushing Meadow here on Court 13, a first-round loss to Fernando Gonzalez. So long the flagbearer for the American game, he hadn't played an Open match outside Ashe in nine years.
"I didn't think Court 13 was in my future, but I probably could have promised you if it ever came to that I was just going to call it quits," Roddick said. "But extenuating circumstances, I guess."
Now it was match point, just past 3 p.m. A rumbling rose and grew out of the aluminum bleachers: Suddenly 584 pairs of feet, maybe more, were stomping up and down, urging the 29-year old Roddick to bring down the hammer. And he did: A missile to Ferrer's backhand -- who knows how fast? -- that he got a piece of but cracked long. Roddick bent over, grinning. He shook hands, then took off on a jog around the entire perimeter, slapping high-fives the whole way. Ferrer, sitting in his chair next to two bananas, pulled off his shoes, tossed one into the standing, hollering crowd. He walked off the court in his socks.
"The shoes was broken," Ferrer said.
Roddick returned to his bag, flung his racket and shirt into the stands. He saw his mother, Blanche, leaned over the wall and into the mob to grab her. They hugged. "It's great," Jerry said of the scene, the match, the day. "It's crazy." And for the happy few there, it won't be forgotten. Ever.