Roddick collapses against resilient Rafa

With a set in his pocket, Andy Roddick was locked 2-2 in the tiebreak against Rafael Nadal as round-robin play continued at the ATP World Tour Finals at London’s 02 Arena. The chance was there, and it grew larger as the world No. 1 netted a poor forehand behind his own serve.

Now, Roddick just needed to hold two service points to take a 5-2 lead. The winning post was in sight, but he never got there. Nadal came to London this year bristling with determination to make up for his lackluster showing 12 months ago and wasn’t going to succumb to this American barrage without a proper Rafa-like fight.

That’s what Roddick got. A super backhand got the tiebreak score back to 3-3, and a forehand cross return that landed plum on the sideline took the second of Roddick’s serves. Suddenly, an ace took Nadal to three set points and, having saved two, Roddick threw it all away with a weak forehand that plopped into the net.

The eventual score was 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, and, to Andy’s credit, he never gave up; never stopped trying to pound forehands. However, trying to force errors out of Nadal from the net on a court this slow means risk-taking of a high order, and, inevitably, Roddick found the odds turning against him.

Until he started throwing himself forward in the final set, he had won more than 50 percent of points at the net, but that slumped to four out of 11 and eventually five out of 12 as Nadal’s sharp eyes measured the pass with ever-increasing accuracy.

"Everything hinged on the breaker," Roddick said. "He hit two really good second-serve returns when I was 3-2 up. That was it, basically. I came out of the gates aggressively, and that caught him by surprise. He definitely was not settling comfortably.

"I think the difference was he found his range on his forehand in the second and third sets. I thought I played well and not much different in the last two sets from the first. But he was better than me in the third."

Nadal felt he was a bit lucky to come through this fierce, hard-fought encounter.

"I started the match a little bit nervous," he acknowledged. "Five weeks without play. Playing against the best players in the world on the more difficult surface for me will always be difficult, no? Right now, I have to play better. I have to play with a little more energy, with a little more positive attitude. That’s what I have to do in my next match against Novak Djokovic."

Having missed this year-end event 12 months ago because of injury, Roddick was making his first appearance at the 02, which presents pro tennis as well as any venue I’ve seen. Spotlights sweep over the crowds after a big rally, aces are signaled by a white light that shoots around the arena at upper-box level and music blares between games. It’s part rock show, part sports and it draws performers from all walks of life. Kylie Minogue was there tonight, and the iconic Argentine soccer star turned coach, Diego Maradona, will be here all week.

Including the surroundings, which are spacious enough to house three practice courts and dozens of restaurants, the whole structure is big enough to take the Eiffel Tower lying flat. The volume is that of 10 St. Paul’s cathedrals.

Roddick obviously enjoyed playing in it. "I thought it was great," he said. "I’m glad we put a really good product out there tonight because, up to now, I don’t feel that two players have played well at the same time. We’re supposed to put on a show for them. We’re supposed to entertain. We’re focused on what we do, but the bottom line is that if 17,000 people leave here having had a great time, it puts our sport in a better position."

Never accuse Roddick of not getting the big picture — even after a disappointing defeat.