Sunday, August 05, 2001

Roddick, 18, is new face of American tennis




By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nothing could prepare him for all this. Nothing.

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Andy Roddick
(AP photo)
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        Andy Roddick is 18 years old. He has been a professional tennis player for just 18 months, yet as he enters the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati tournament that opens Monday in Mason, he is hailed by many as the savior of U.S. tennis. He has been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, the New York Times, USA Today and People and has appeared on The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn.

        He was ranked No. 325 in the ATP entry system in November, but is now 35th. He practices occasionally with Andre Agassi. He defeated Pete Sampras at the Ericsson Open in March in Miami. He outlasted the durable Michael Chang in five sets at the French Open.

        Roddick has already won two ATP Tour events — both on clay. His first victory, at the Verizon Tennis Challenge in Atlanta in April, came in just his 10th pro event and made him the tour's youngest winner in 10 years. On his way to the title, he held serve 42 consecutive games. The next week, he won at Houston.

RODDICK FILE
  • Born: Aug.30, 1982, Omaha, Neb.
  • Home: Boca Raton, Fla.; lives with parents
  • Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 180 pounds
  • Plays: Right-handed
  • Nickname: A-Rod
  • Fun facts: Had a 3.6 GPA as a senior at Boca Raton Prep. He was twice prom king, and played basketball as a junior and senior. In his senior season, his parents and tennis coach urged him to quit basketball — and thought he did. Roddick would leave home in casual clothes, saying he was going to watch a game. “I would hide my basketball stuff in the car and change when I got there. I wouldn't let the guy who was keeping stats put stats in the paper. I told my mom after the season was over.”
        Sampras played in 34 events before his first title, Jim Courier 33, Chang 17 and Agassi 11. Roddick is the youngest of 19 Americans in the top 170 of the ATP Champions Race; he is 27th, trailing only Agassi (1), Jan-Michael Gambill (17) and Sampras (19).

        “Americans should be very excited about him,” ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale said after Roddick's victory over Sampras. “Everyone's been talking for years about who's going to take over for Sampras, Agassi, Chang and Courier, and I think Andy answered that question today. It's only one match, but he showed me enough.”

        According to the New York Daily News, Courier told a friend after watching the victory over Sampras: “I haven't been this interested in watching someone play tennis in a long time.”

        “I think he is the real deal,” said Tom Gullikson, who worked with the U.S. Tennis Association from 1988 until last month. “He's proven it. He's won on clay. He's won on hard courts. He's worked his way up through the challenger level and built his game and built his confidence.

        “There's a real fire burning in Andy. I see a lot of the same intensity and the same burning desire that Jim Courier had, only Andy's got a bigger game than Jim Courier.”

        Roddick has already defeated four players who have held the No.1 ranking: Sampras, Marcelo Rios (at the Ericsson Open), Carlos Moya (Wednesday in Montreal) and Gustavo Kuerten (Thursday in Montreal).

        Team captain Patrick McEnroe named Roddick to the U.S. Davis Cup squad in February. The Americans lost to Switzerland, but Roddick won his match against George Bastl.

AT A GLANCE
  • Qualifier: 10 a.m. today. Adult tickets $10, kids 14 and under admitted free.
  • Main draw: Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati tournament begins play Monday. Ticket prices range from $18 to $40, depending on the session (tickets remain for all sessions). Call (513) 651-0303 or (513) 562-4949 for info or tickets.
  • Check the bracket
  • More Masters facts
        “He has shown that he can play at this level, and he has made unbelievable strides as far as how quickly he has made progress,” McEnroe said at the time.

        “He loves the pressure that's being put upon him as being a great American hope. I think he really revels in it.”

        In 2000, Roddick became the first American to win the Australian Open junior title in 41 years; he also won the U.S. Open junior championship and was the world's No. 1-ranked junior player.

        His third pro match came against Agassi, one of his idols (Agassi won 6-2, 6-3). Last year in Cincinnati, Roddick lost in the first round to Gianluca Pozzi. Roddick has said last year was about getting on the court and taking his beating; this year, he's out to win.

        “When I started playing full-time and going out there week in and week out, you can't really go in there with a losing attitude,” he said. “I kind of feel like I belong on the tour now. It was pretty gradual.

        “I knew I could win matches on tour before (beating Sampras at) Ericsson, but to beat that caliber of player, it definitely did wonders for my confidence.”

        The media attention has been relentless. Roddick is one of the hot stories on the ATP Tour this season, especially in the United States. That picked up this past week as he steamrolled into the quarterfinals at the Tennis Masters Series Canada before losing Friday.

        “It's kind of an onslaught,” Roddick said. “Sometimes it's a bit tedious, but most of the time it's a blast. I'm just having a really great time.

        “I wasn't expecting to be 30-whatever in the world at this point. I'm just trying to go with the flow and take it kind of lightly. It's been working so far.”

        Roddick is a fiery player who relies on a big serve and a wicked forehand and likes long rallies.

        He recorded a 141-mph serve at the Ericsson Open, the fourth-fastest ever on the ATP Tour, behind only Greg Rusedski (149), Taylor Dent (142) and Mark Philippoussis (142). While hitting with Jeff Tarango in Miami in March, Roddick broke three strings on Tarango's racket.

        “I wasn't serving that hard at his age,” Sampras said after losing to him. “The way he competes and the way he plays, he really is the future. ... He's the beginning of a new American breed. I'm trying to fend him off — not only Roddick, but a lot of the young guys.”

        Off the court, Roddick loves pizza and tends to call people “dude.” Players and tennis officials say he is humble, polite and has his ego under control. His coach, Tarik Benhabiles, praises Roddick's work ethic and has said, “Andy has no limits.” Roddick watches Sampras and Agassi closely, not just their tennis, but how they conduct themselves as professionals.

        “I think Andy's a good guy,” Agassi said in Miami. “He's a quality person who is very considerate of people around him and his environment. ... I like his game. (And) I like the way he handles himself.”

        Said Rick Ferman, executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association: “He's candid. He's direct. It's a real treat to listen to somebody that's reacting in such a genuine manner.”

        At the French Open, Roddick pulled a hamstring during a match against Lleyton Hewitt and had to retire. But while limping off the court, he still stopped to sign autographs.

        After winning a rain-delayed semifinal in Houston before a few hundred fans, he grabbed the microphone, thanked people for staying, then offered to buy tickets for anyone who wanted to come back for the final the next day. “I just felt it was the right thing to do,” he said later.

        He never did find out the total bill. He asked tournament officials to deduct the money from his prize check.

        “It's just who I am,” Roddick said. “I'm not acting or trying to be like that. There are still a lot of players out there who are better than me. I've had a good year, but I'm still working to be better.

        “You don't want people thinking you're a bad guy. That wouldn't be cool. My parents always taught me to respect people who deserve to be respected. I don't think that's anything special; I just think that's normal.”

        Roddick was born in Omaha, Neb., and remains so loyal to the Nebraska Cornhuskers that his bathroom at home is covered with Nebraska wallpaper.

        “I'm diehard. My kids will probably never live in Nebraska, but they'll still be Husker fans,” he said.

        His family moved to Austin, Texas, when he was 5. His father, Jerry, invested in Jiffy Lube franchises. His mother, Blanche, shuttled her sons to tennis practices and tournaments.

        He has two older brothers — Lawrence was a standout diver, and John was an All-American tennis player at Georgia whose pro career was cut short by a back injury. The Roddicks moved to Boca Raton, Fla., so John could work with coach Rick Macci. Andy, who would later work with Macci, too, closely followed Americans Agassi, Sampras, Chang, Courier, Todd Martin and Mal Washington.

        When he was 10 and watching John at a junior national tournament, Andy approached a Reebok official and said: “I might be a good player some day, and I need to have some clothes.” Reebok became his sponsor for the junior national team and now has a baseball cap with its logo on the back, so when Roddick wears it backward, the logo shows.

        “I kind of just schmoozed my way,” he says, laughing. “I was playing the little kid role. Maybe they felt sorry for me.”

        For several years, as U.S. tennis fans and officials anticipate the retirements of Sampras and Agassi, the search has been on for the next great U.S. star. For now, that title has fallen upon Roddick.

        “Andy is ahead of the pack right now,” 19-year-old Mardy Fish has said. “He set the bar really high, really quick.”

        “I think it's a combination of the intangibles, which in his case are extreme confidence and an amazing array of shots,” Drysdale said. “His arsenal, in my opinion, is second to none. His forehand and serve, specifically. To me, they're the two biggest shots in the game.”

        So, is Roddick the future of American tennis?

        “I get that asked probably more than any other question,” he said. “I'm not going to replace Andre and Pete, but I am going to be around for a while and I am from the U.S. I'm going to try my best to play some good tennis.

        “I definitely feed off the buzz. I play my best in those type of situations. If that creates an intense atmosphere, then I enjoy it.”

       



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