Friday, June 25, 2010

SPORTS>>Americans put in time, take place in history

Leader sports editor

I was at Wednesday night’s Arkansas Travelers-Springfield Cardinals game as it dragged into its 12th inning and fourth hour at Dickey-Stephens Park.

Then, mercifully, Arkansas’ Clay Fuller took third on a wild pitch and scrambled to his feet to score on catcher Tony Cruz’s throwing error, and Arkansas had a 3-2, extra-inning victory that lasted three hours and 42 minutes.

Too long, in other words.

Those of us working in the pressbox agreed we only like extra innings, “free baseball” as it’s called, when we’ve paid to get in, especially when beer sales aren’t cut off in the seventh inning.

I don’t know anything about beer sales at Wimbledon, but fans there got plenty of free tennis when American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut squared off.

Lots and lots of free tennis.

It was an 11-hour, five-minute match played over three days that finally ended Thursday when Isner hit a backhand up the line for the victory. The score was 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

See, by Wimbledon rules there is no tiebreaker per se in the final set, which you have to win by two points.

That was the part Isner and Mahut had trouble with. Neither could break serve as Isner finished with 112 aces and Mahut had 103, both surpassing the previous record of 78.

The final set alone took eight hours 11 minutes. The previous record for longest MATCH was six hours, 33 minutes set in the 2004 French Open.

I don’t know if I could have sat through that, but chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani had no choice.

“I travel economy,” he said. “Seven hours sitting still on court is nothing.”

Fortunately, the sun set on the English umpire, and everyone else, twice. Centre Court at the All England Club has a retractable roof and lights, but the lesser courts where the lower seeds play are not lighted, and so the long match was twice suspended by darkness, giving the players a rest.

By his estimate Isner, seeded 23rd, put away a dozen energy bars and close to 40 bottles of water and credited his training in Florida for helping him endure the three-day epic.

“My coach actually, believe it or not, said jokingly before the tournament started that I’ll be able to play 10 hours,” he said.

Wow. Think how long Isner could have gone if he trained in Arkansas in June.

With his victory Isner, who generously applauded his worthy opponent, contributed to what has been a good week for Americans in international competition.

The U.S. soccer team won a dramatic, 1-0 victory over Algeria in the World Cup on Wednesday to reach the second round. It was the first World Cup victory in eight years for the U.S., which tied England and Slovenia earlier, and it was the first time the U.S. has won its first-round group since the original World Cup in 1930.

And again, the Americans needed extra time to win.

Landon Donovan scored 45 seconds into four minutes of injury time, which is tacked on at the end of the match rather than have the clock stop during regulation every time a player goes down writhing and grabbing his knee when an opponent looks at him funny.

It’s not overtime mind you — the match can still end in a tie after the injury time runs out — but this time it was enough for Donovan and the U.S., which had to survive two bad calls by referees to get to this point.

A blown offsides call on Donovan wiped out what would have been the winning goal against Slovenia and another bad offsides call wiped out a goal by Clint Dempsey against Algeria.

“It makes me believe in good in the world,” Donovan said of Wednesday’s victory. “When you try to do things the right way, that’s good to see them rewarded.”

The team even earned a lockercroom visit from former President Bill Clinton, himself a comeback kid who won four more years.

In honesty it should be pointed out the soccer team and Isner both have a long way to go. The U.S. team only now enters the World Cup round of 16 and Isner was back on the All England Club courts Friday for what was only a second-round match in
Wimbledon’s seven-round singles tournament.

But Isner and the soccer team, as near as I can tell, have been classy and gracious and deserve a championship.

They have certainly put in the time.