Thursday, June 19, 2003

Roddick's rise to top can't come too soon

He's best hope to drive yawns from men's game

By Steve Wilstein
The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Andy Roddick, with an exciting game and charismatic personality, could take over for Andre Agassi as the men's game's star.
(Associated Press photo)
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Tennis desperately needs Andy Roddick to step up to stardom. For all kinds of reasons.

Most fans don't recognize any of the other men except Andre Agassi, and his son with wife Steffi Graf won't be turning pro for another 15 years. Their second baby won't be born for a few more months.

Pete Sampras is semiretired, staying home to potty-train his son and work on the kid's serve.

The Tennis Channel can't fill 15 minutes with material on No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, No. 3 Guillermo Coria and No. 4 Roger Federer combined.

If Martin Verkerk and Ferrero reprise their French Open final in a couple of weeks, NBC's "Breakfast at Wimbledon" might get lower ratings than morning yoga from Hawaii.

Roddick may never be the next Sampras or Agassi, as he too often has been billed, but his time in reaching for the top seems to be coming. Tennis needs him, and he looks ready at last, with a record-tying 149 mph serve in his arsenal, new coach Brad Gilbert in his corner, and a victory on grass Sunday in the tuneup for Wimbledon next week.

Tennis needs Roddick's freshness and wisecracks, his dramatics and charisma, his thunderclap serves and kiss-the-line groundstrokes.

He's got a little Jimmy Connors in him in the way he bares his heart on court, a little John McEnroe in the way he chews out an umpire. He has a touch of Agassi with that baseline game, and a lot of Sampras with those aces.

What he doesn't have is any of their Grand Slam titles. That could change as early as Wimbledon or the U.S. Open later this year.

Whether the rest of the world likes it or not, tennis needs Roddick's American passport to pull in American fans and sell rackets and balls. It needs his name on Grand Slam trophies just as much as he needs those major titles to show he's a 20-year-old who is more than hype and hope.

Serena and Venus Williams have given the women's game sizzle, even if they both cooled off in the French Open two weeks ago. But the men's game is in the throes of the worst illness that can afflict a sport: apathy.

Aside from the No. 2 Agassi, still going strong at age 33 but far past the point of drawing young fans, the rest of the top 20 men might as well hold Tennis Anonymous meetings in private.

Roddick is different. He makes more faces during a match than Jim Carrey in a movie. He plays with the kind of emotion that grabs crowds, and he has all the tools to win on any court. He has a plastic bobblehead doll in his image and a high-profile girlfriend in pop star/actress/MTV host Mandy Moore. Now Roddick has to get a little more game.

Knowing that, Roddick recently called Gilbert, who took Agassi from injury and despair back to the top. It's up to Gilbert to harness Roddick's immense talent and turn him into a champion. Their first joint venture, Queen's Club last week, produced Roddick's first triumph over Agassi and second title of the year.

Roddick showed his heart and endurance in a classic, five-hour match at the Australian Open earlier this year, winning the fifth set 21-19 against Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui to reach a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time.

And Roddick has never been afraid of hard work. Last year, he added a fitness coach to his team.

"I feel like I will be better prepared for Wimbledon than I've ever been," Roddick said.

The world of tennis has millions of reasons, all of them green, to hope he's right.

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