NEW YORK When Andy Roddick and Xavier Malisse walked out Wednesday night for their rain-delayed U.S. Open match, they wiped the soles of their shoes on a white towel placed near the entrance to the court.
It was like a welcome mat, greeting two players who actually were able to play tennis on a third straight day of showers and schedule shuffling at Flushing Meadows.
Powered by a dominating serve, the No. 4-seeded Roddick beat Malisse 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (5) in a match that ended after midnight to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the third straight year. Roddick has won 16 straight matches, the longest streak of 2003.
''It was tough conditions out there tonight,'' Roddick said in a TV interview. ''The balls were huge. They were like watermelons out there. It was tough, and I was glad to get through it.''
Of the more than 100 matches scheduled for Wednesday, that was the only one completed, making for a grand total of four in the books since Monday. Roddick and Andre Agassi are the only men who have quarterfinal berths secured.
Just two other matches even got under way Wednesday, before being postponed until Thursday. Top-ranked Kim Clijsters took a 3-0 lead over No. 5 Amelie Mauresmo, whose 10 unforced errors worked out to one per minute of play; and No. 12 Sjeng Schalken led No. 8 Rainer Schuettler 5-1 after 25 minutes (the winner will play Roddick).
That was it.
''This is a rolling calendar at this point, which is changing by the hour,'' said Arlen Kantarian, the U.S. Tennis Association's chief executive for professional tennis.
If Thursday is a washout, the men's final could be played next Monday, Kantarian said. The last time that happened at the U.S. Open was 1987; Goran Ivanisevic beat Patrick Rafter on a Monday to win the 2001 title at Wimbledon.
Roddick and Malisse started at 9:15 p.m., by which point most players had been told to head to their hotels. They played for 44 minutes before rain forced them to stop with Roddick ahead 6-3, 2-2. When they returned, they played 11 more minutes, enough time for Roddick to break to go ahead 4-3 in the second set. But on the final point of that game, Roddick slid behind the baseline, putting a hand down to stay upright.
''It was a little slick,'' Roddick said. ''Until I slipped, I didn't know it was that bad.''
Malisse, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2002, threw his racket over to his changeover seat, then tossed a water bottle. Tournament referee Brian Earley walked out to check the court, and action was held up for another 7 minutes.
But then, miraculously, the fourth-round match resumed and finished.
That's because Roddick, who lost to the eventual Open champion in the quarterfinals the last two years, served brilliantly. He had fewer aces than Malisse, but with speed and placement was able to get the upper hand. Midway through the third set, Roddick had won 52 of the 56 points played on his serve, holding at love in nine of 13 games.
Roddick then faced break points trailing 4-3 and 5-4 (Malisse had two set points), but pushed the third set into a tiebreaker.
The American, who turned 21 Saturday, trailed 5-3 in the tiebreaker but won the final four points. The match ended when Malisse sent a backhand volley into the net.
Here's an indication of how desperate everyone was for tennis: The smattering of fans on hand for Lindsay Davenport's quarterfinal against Paola Suarez applauded the prematch coin toss. Alas, when the warmup finished, the court was too wet, and the players walked off. They never got a chance to hit a shot.
''It hurts everyone. It hurts the players, it hurts the fans, it hurts the TV network, it hurts the sport,'' TV analyst John McEnroe said.
The likelihood of finishing the event by Sunday grew slimmer, and Kantarian, Earley and other officials met with representatives of the ATP Tour, WTA Tour and TV broadcasters for 2 1/2 hours.
They drew up a tentative calendar to complete the tournament by Sunday, adding a night session Friday, with the women's semifinals starting at 8 p.m. The schedule would include having some women finish fourth-round matches Thursday afternoon, then play a quarterfinal Thursday night.
And some men could have to play on five straight days.
''If they actually played four matches in four days, in the fourth or even the third one, it would be impossible for them to be at their best,'' McEnroe said after trying to entertain the paying customers by hitting balls into the seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Heading into Thursday, there were four men's fourth-round matches suspended in progress and two that never even started.
The women still have two fourth-round matches to be completed: two-time major champion Mary Pierce vs. No. 7 Anastasia Myskina, and No. 15 Ai Sugiyama vs. No. 29 Francesca Schiavone. Those matches began Monday night, continued Tuesday night, were scheduled to resume Wednesday, but at 6:30 p.m., they were pushed to Thursday. Sugiyama was leading Schiavone 7-6 (5), 5-4, and Myskina was ahead of Pierce 7-6 (2), 2-0 when they were sent home Tuesday.
''If the score is 2-all, or at the beginning of the match, it shouldn't be that frustrating. But it's at the end of the set, so it's hard to keep your concentration,'' Sugiyama said Wednesday.
''We have no voice, of course when we're going to play or where we're going to play.''
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