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A Greek drama

A tennis match in Athens became an Olympic odyssey

Posted: Thursday July 19, 2007 6:18PM; Updated: Thursday July 19, 2007 6:18PM
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By Richard Deitsch

Editor's note: We asked SI.com writers to share their memories from the best game they've ever seen. Here are their stories:

Eleni Daniilidou collapsed in exhausted, painful relief after defeating Magdalena Maleeva in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Eleni Daniilidou collapsed in exhausted, painful relief after defeating Magdalena Maleeva in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
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Doric ruins to my left, vendors hawking souvlaki to my right, but no U.S.-Greece basketball anywhere.

I'm in Athens. It's 2004, and the Summer Olympics are in full swing. I'm tired. I'm overworked. I'm looking for a basketball game. The event I've been waiting for all evening -- Carmelo, A.I. & Co. against the Greek National Team -- is nowhere to be found. I stumble along streets with names I can't pronounce. I am a malaka in the Plaka. Translation: I'm an idiot.

Finally, I make my way to Kirykeiou just off Pandrosson, where some 300 people in an outdoor cafe are glued to a 15-foot TV screen showing the game on Greek television ET1.

Just one problem.

It's not the basketball game.

They're watching tennis.

Here's the thing about Olympic tennis: Most people don't care about it. Neither do most tennis players. It's too close to the U.S. Open, too much of a hassle to travel around the world. But this match was different.

First, a crowd was actually watching it. On the street. You've probably never heard of Eleni Daniilidou, but on this night she was Madonna and Elvis combined. In front of her rapt countrymen, the unseeded Daniilidou played the entire final set against No. 15 seed Magdalena Maleeva of Bulgaria with a torn thigh muscle and staggered to the finish. She collapsed on the court twice, tears welling in her eyes.

Of the 300 people in the crowd, there was only one American. But never had I felt more in sync with another nation. I watched Daniilidou struggle for every point. Leading 4-2 in the third, she fell to the ground with a cramp. Her opponent quickly leveled at 4-4, but Daniilidou, looking punch drunk and moving like an aging pug, kept fighting. She hit lobs. She slowed down points. Somewhere in the ninth game of the set came a long rally that ended when Daniilidou went down, screaming in pain.

And then she was gone.

ET1 switched to the Greece - U.S. basketball game because the Greeks were making a run. (They would eventually take a lead over America's collection of soft-as-tzatziki All-Stars before Tim Duncan restored order.) After what seemed like days, they finally switched back to the tennis arena, where the crowd was on its feet.

A stranger was kind enough to tell me in broken English that it was match point for Greece. Through blue and white flags and boisterous cheers I saw Daniilidou hit a forehand and sprint to the net. Maleeva's return was timid, and what followed was a backhand volley winner into an open court. Daniilidou collapsed, the crowd screamed, and I drank frappes free for the rest of the night.

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