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Martin simply blew it

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Posted: Friday June 30, 2000 08:38 PM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

LONDON -- Because Todd Martin is such a well-respected player, because he is in the sunset years of a standout career, because he still overachieves despite a body that looks better cut out for senior management than tennis, it's hard to assess his play Thursday with brutal candor. But here goes: He choked big-time.

Up 5-2 (two service breaks) in the fifth set of his dust-up against second-seeded Andre Agassi, Martin's internal wiring short-circuited in the worst way. Routine returns he was belting just a few games earlier suddenly found the bottom of the net. First serves were flying halfway to the baseline. Second serves fell meekly by the wayside. Makeable volleys bounded off his racket and sailed into oblivion. Barely half an hour after standing on the brink of the tournament's biggest upset, he walked off the court with shoulders sagged, still trying to figure out how he got the business end of a memorable 6-4, 2-6, 7-6, 2-6, 10-8 match.

The score, ironically, was eerily close to the last Martin Wimbledon meltdown. Four years ago he held a 5-1 fifth-set lead in the semifinals against MaliVai Washington. He lost that match, too, 10-8 in the fifth. "You don't feel it until it happens," Martin said of the momentum change. "Then when it happens, it's just a question of how quickly you can get it to stop."

Thursday it didn't stop fast enough, partially because Agassi raised his level of play when he saw that Martin was in a fierce battle with his nerves. During both games in which Martin served for the set, Agassi didn't let his opponent win more than two points. When Martin held two match points when he was leading 5-3, Agassi held them off, first kicking in a tricky serve to the body and then playing an aggressive point punctuated by a backhand volley winner. "I gave an inch," said Martin, "and he took a little bit more."

Agassi, of course, is capable of breathtaking and breathtakingly awful tennis. But just as he was on the precipice of defeat at the 1999 French Open before winning the title, this dramatic victory may have a catalytic effect on his Wimbledon.

Meanwhile, the question that sticks in one's craw is why Martin was so ineffectual when the stakes were highest. It's fascinating, this business of why some players have the organic makeup to play well under pressure while others don't. At first blush, Martin would seem the most unlikely candidate to wilt under the weight of the moment. He's intelligent, levelheaded and has played his share of pressure-packed matches. On the other hand, that might have been precisely his problem. At this stage in his career, he knew precisely how much this match meant and how significant an upset this would have been. The same rational demeanor that makes him the game's statesman caused him to overthink and overanalyze the situation, rather than rely on instinct.

Before we cut Martin down to Olivier Rochus size, consider this instructive anecdote from Lindsay Davenport. Nursing her bad back during the French Open, Davenport was in L.A. watching the NBA Finals with friends. When one of the Lakers missed a free throw in the waning seconds of a game, her friends screamed, "What a choke job!" Davenport took it personally. "You don't even know what pressure like that feels like," she told her pals. "If you were in those shoes, you wouldn't even be able to catch the ball when the ref tossed it to you. Anyone can get nervous and mess up a big opportunity."

Todd Martin did today. It will be someone else tomorrow. In a perverse way, it's one of the virtues of sports generically and tennis specifically.

Half volleys

In the day's "physical superlative" match, Gianluca Pozzi, the oldest player in the draw, beat Rochus, the shortest player, in four sets. ... Rochus, 5' 4", not only had to qualify but has never played an ATP Tour match. The 19-year-old Belgian, whose elder sibling Christophe is currently ranked in the top 100, was described to me as "the brother of that guy you've never heard of." ... Wearing four different brands of apparel, Vladimir Voltchkov advanced by beating Younes El Aynaoui. Particularly if he beats Wayne Ferreira to reach the quarters, one would think Voltchkov might land an endorsement contract before long. ... Pete Sampras caught a break by not having to play his match against Justin Gimelstob Thursday. Still, the word is that his foot injury is serious stuff. ... Martina Navratilova mistakenly faxed her grocery order to an incorrect number. The recipients were puzzled why they received a note asking that a crate of mangos be delivered ASAP. Now we know the secret for eternal youth.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will be filing daily reports from Wimbledon.

Related information
Agassi, other top seeds advance on Friday
Thursday's On the Court: Tennis parents again rear ugly heads
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