Jaffe: I love me some Dolgopolov

Jan. 27, 2011, 1:30 a.m.

I’m sick. Frequent cough, clogged ears, no appetite, lack of energy, trouble sleeping, the whole nine yards. When this happens, there is very little for me to do other than watch sports and complain about being sick (ignore the fact that I’d be doing the same thing even if I was healthy, except I’d find something else to complain about).

Now, no one (and I mean no one) likes listening to me complain about being sick, so let’s concentrate on the sports. Well, when you’re a casual sports fan, you can look up when big games are going to be on and plan ahead so that you can watch those games and only those games. When, as one of The Daily’s editors said to me the other day, “You watch way too much sports,” you broaden your scope a little bit. Sure, you’ll watch the NFL playoffs, but you’ll also check out that Horizon League basketball game if it seems interesting.

It was in one of these situations, when I was virtually a part of the couch from setting up shop there for so long, when I stumbled upon a tennis match that I never expected to care about. I like tennis, and I can certainly appreciate good tennis, but I’m never going to be someone who follows it regularly. Other than the Stanford tennis teams, the only tennis I’ll watch is the Grand Slams, which I guess makes me the equivalent of a C&E Christian (an AFWU tennis fan?).

Anyway, the Australian Open is well underway, which, coupled with said illness and sports fandom, means it’s Jacob Jaffe the Tennis Fan time. I had already watched some–I missed my favorite meal of the week, ribs, because I was watching the first set of Andy Roddick vs. Igor Kunitsyn (nope, I hadn’t heard of him either, but it was a good set)–but I hadn’t sat down for a full match yet.

Then I flipped to a seemingly random and boring match–Robin Soderling, seeded fourth, vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov, whose face looked like that of an acne-riddled high school girl. He appeared to be playing like one, too, as Soderling was doing whatever he wanted with the unknown Dolgopolov. As the first set finished 6-1 in favor of Soderling, the announcers were raving about how Soderling was destroying his opponent and seemingly counting down the minutes until they could stop trying to say the name Dolgopolov (pronounced, as far as I can tell, Dole-go-POLE-off).

Despite the blowout and the fact that I had no connection to this match (Soderling was clearly going to win and I’d never heard of this guy with a funny name), I kept watching. Even as Soderling got a quick break in the second, I stuck with it, because…why not? I’ve got nothing better to do with my life. The AFC Championship Game was at least as much of a blowout (24-3 Steelers) and it was halftime anyway. There’s no way I’m getting up and doing anything useful. Why not watch some random tennis?

It was sure lucky I did, because the match turned upside down. This 22-year-old Ukrainian suddenly decided to do his best Roger Federer impression and started pummeling the stunned Soderling. Down 2-1 in the second set and facing Soderling’s serve, Dolgopolov looked reborn, winning 11 of the next 13 games to take a two-sets-to-one lead. He pulled off some absurd shots, and he certainly won me over. The announcers kept telling the story of how he almost lost to a local club player just a month ago, and here he was holding his own against one of the world’s top five players.

So naturally, Dolgopolov was coasting toward one of the biggest upsets of the year so far. Or not. Soderling went on to win the first four games of the fourth set and hold on for the 6-4 win, forcing a decisive fifth set. By this point, the Jets-Steelers game was well into the fourth quarter and the Jets were threatening to make a game of it. Football is my favorite sport, and this game is obviously huge. Yet I couldn’t help but flip back to the tennis match, because I was honestly more interested in this Swede facing this Ukrainian in Australia than anything going on in America at the time.

I did see the Jets get within five near the end of the game, and I saw Ben Roethlisberger make a few plays to clinch the game for the Steelers. But what I’ll remember much more from that day is watching Soderling go up a break in the fifth, only to see Dolgopolov win six of the next seven games to take the set and the match. I’ll remember a crazy back-and-forth showdown that saw the No. 46 player in the world beat the No. 4 player, and Dolgopolov go from having a one-percent chance of winning (according to ESPN’s spiffy “match win likelihood” calculator) after trailing by a break in the second set to pulling off a 6-2 fifth set for the win.

Dolgopolov went on to lose to Andy Murray in the next round, and his match against Soderling will probably have almost no lasting impact. But for one afternoon, I was transfixed.

And really, isn’t that what sports are all about?

Jacob Jaffe is one of three Americans who can correctly pronounce Dolgopolov. Applaud his pronunciation at [email protected].

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