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Chile's Massu beats Fish for men's singles gold

Posted: Sunday August 22, 2004 4:57PM; Updated: Sunday August 22, 2004 6:11PM
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ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Somehow, somewhere, Nicolas Massu summoned the strength and the shots to win his second gold of these Olympics.

That's twice as many medals as the entire star-studded U.S. tennis team managed.

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Doing everything he could to buy time and beat exhaustion, Chile's Massu got past American Mardy Fish 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in an error-strewn singles final Sunday night that went four hours.

"He just kept getting better and better," Fish said, "and more untired."

Chile had never won a gold medal in any sport until Massu and Fernando Gonzalez won the doubles title in a match that lasted more than 3 1/2 hours and ended in the wee hours Sunday morning.

"The best two days of my life," said Massu, who didn't get to sleep until 6:30 a.m., 13 hours before his match against Fish began. "That's it. It's just amazing."

Gonzalez won the singles bronze, beating Taylor Dent of the United States. So the unheralded, unseeded Fish's silver is the only tennis medal for a squad that included Andy Roddick, Venus Williams and Martina Navratilova.

Massu broke to begin the fifth set, and he didn't have to do much work because Fish made four errors. In the next game, Fish flubbed a backhand, reared back and smashed his racket to the court, drawing a warning.

All makable shots. All missed. Fish, playing more aggressively, had 105 unforced errors to Massu's 78. There were a total of 12 service breaks and 15 double-faults.

Hardly glamorous tennis. Then again, well, it was hardly a glamorous matchup, which perhaps is why the 8,000-seat center court was about half-empty by the last set.

Neither finalist has ever been past the third round at a Grand Slam tournament nor been ranked in the top 10. They entered Sunday with a combined five career titles.

But No. 1 Roger Federer lost in the second round, and No. 2 Roddick -- cheering for his buddy Fish in the stands Sunday -- lost in the third. Half of the top 10, including Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, didn't even enter.

Indeed, it's the first time Massu has won a tournament on hard courts. He was 0-7 this year on the surface before winning six straight singles matches at the Olympics.

"You obviously can't have a better week," Fish said. "But who would have thought, you know?"

Even China, never a tennis power, was a star at these games, earning the gold in women's doubles when Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian beat Conchita Martinez and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain 6-3, 6-3 in Sunday's first match.

Massu's gold was a testament to endurance, playing 24 hours, 43 minutes over 11 matches, including doubles. No wonder he showed signs of trouble in the second set against Fish, after having looked so fresh while winning the opening five games.

On the first point of that set's fourth game, Massu appeared to twist his leg chasing a short ball and he paused afterward to stretch his thigh. He stumbled a bit on the next point, too.

For much of the rest of the match, Massu bought time by crouching or stretching -- even sitting on a line judge's chair after one long point. Twice, he raced up for drop shots and, when the point ended, grabbed the net and leaned over, as if looking down into a well. Any chance to catch his breath.

"Maybe he was playing a little cat-and-mouse in the beginning," the 22nd-ranked Fish said. "I just don't understand how someone gets less and less tired, keeps going hour after hour. I'm in pretty good shape, and I was getting tired there at the end."

On changeovers, Massu would take his time, then sit back, exhale and drink something or munch on an energy bar. Massu moved his extra chair -- usually where players put towels or spare rackets -- and plopped his legs up, using the seat like an ottoman.

When Fish broke to open the third set, Massu stepped gingerly to grab some water, as if walking barefoot on hot sand. Fish then held at love for a 2-0 edge, ending the game with two aces that Massu simply watched fly past, not even raising his racket.

The humidity couldn't have helped; Fish changed out of sweat-soaked shirts four times. Still, Massu wasn't visited by the trainer until after the third set, when he got his left thigh massaged.

As much as Massu was struggling, Fish repeatedly let him off the hook, once dumping a backhand into the net after the Chilean tripped. After another miscue, Fish knelt and punched his racket.

Suddenly, Massu started playing more fluidly. When he served out the fourth set, Massu hopped to his chair, the match exactly three hours old.

Now, Fish was the one trudging over, head down.

"I had a second life," Massu said.

Massu broke for a 3-2 edge in the fifth with a running forehand passing winner. He held serve the rest of the way, and after one last shot by Fish drifted wide, Massu dropped to the court on his back, arms and legs spread, chest heaving.

When Massu finally rose, Fish came around to that side of the court, and they hugged.

A member of the group of fans loudly chanting "Chi-chi-chi, le-le-le, Vi-va Chi-le!" all night tossed Massu a red-white-and-blue Chilean flag. He draped it over his head, then was lifted into the stands so he could celebrate with his coach.

Massu wasn't about to climb up on his own.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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