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Game, Set, Ma-------

In losing a match, Roddick became a true sportsman

Posted: Wednesday May 11, 2005 1:05PM; Updated: Wednesday May 11, 2005 2:26PM
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Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick fell to Fernando Verdasco in the second round of the ATP Telecom Italia Tennis Masters in Rome.
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Last Wednesday, in the round of sixteen at the Rome Masters, Fernando Verdasco of Spain was serving to America's top player, Andy Roddick. Verdasco had lost the first set and was down 5-3, love-40 -- triple match point. After he hit deep on the second serve, the line judge called the ball out and Roddick had the match.

Only, Roddick refused to accept the point. Verdasco's serve had nicked the line, he said. Stunned, the umpire let Roddick overrule him. Verdasco then fought back, held serve, won the set and then the match.

Probably you heard nothing about this display of generosity; it barely rated a mention in the American press. Yet Roddick risked -- and lost -- tens of thousands of dollars in a tournament where he was seeded first simply because he felt obliged to be honest. He didn't even milk his integrity. If the umpire had come down and looked at the mark in the clay, the American explained, he'd have seen that the ball was in. But the umpire hadn't been disposed to move. The ball looked out to him. If Roddick keeps his mouth shut, he wins.

I don't know about you, but to my mind, if there's still a small place in heaven reserved for athletes, Andy Roddick just got his wings.

Roddick, by the way, could not have been criticized if he had simply accepted the bad call. The ethic in modern big-time sport is that it is up to the officials to call the game, and for the players merely to abide by those decisions, even if they know that they have succeeded under false pretenses.

When it comes to sportsmanship, modern fans are probably no better or no worse than the players. Apologists for the steroid-enabling baseball players union are quick to point out that the paying customers don't seem to be particularly exercised by the steroid scandal. New York Yankees fans even cheered Jason Giambi after it was revealed he had admitted to a grand jury that he had used steroids. But I take that with a grain of salt. Fans tend to be loyal to the guys in their team's uniform right up until they screw up on the field. "It's a fine romance, with no kisses." In the long run, though, I believe that those players reasonably suspected of cheating with steroids will eventually see their reputations blackened. They're playing in a fool's paradise.

Probably the most famous cheating incident of recent times came in the 1986 World Cup when Maradona of Argentina fisted in a goal that beat England. It was soon titled "the hand of God" goal. Argentina went on to win the Cup, and Maradona retired, esteemed as one of the greatest players ever. Mostly now, though, he is remembered for only one thing -- his flagrant cheating. The hand of God indeed. So, too, I imagine, it will be with the steroid swindlers. In sports, often the true assessment doesn't begin until the cheering stops.

But sometimes, we get fooled -- nicely. In one moment, with victory his for the taking ... no, not for the taking .... his given, his assumed ... Andy Roddick went against the way of the world and instinctively did what he thought was right.

Once upon a time we called such foolish innocents ... sportsmen.