Sunday, August 10, 2003

The rumble that you feel is Roddick

For ubiquitous 20-year-old, a Slam title is the next step

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Andy Roddick was 5, he played imaginary tennis games in his garage, facing the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

Fifteen years later, he's still swinging against those ghosts. For as Roddick tries to ascend the summit of his sport, he is being asked to assume the mantle of American Tennis Savior done best by those icons of the 1970s and '80s.

It's no longer enough just to win. Ask Pete Sampras, who had to claim a record 14 Grand Slam titles to become a people's champion.

Tennis now asks its leaders to be charismatic, in the Andre Agassi mold. As Roddick rises in the rankings - he'll be No. 4 this week here at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters - he must balance his game with his fame.

"We made it, what, 10 questions without that one," he quipped, noting the inevitable celebrity question. "Not bad."

Roddick is just 20. He still hasn't reached a Grand Slam final. His victory Saturday over Roger Federer in Montreal puts him today in just his second Tennis Master Series final, trying for his first such title.

Yet that thrilling 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) victory Saturday, avenging a loss to Federer in the Wimbledon semis, showed why Roddick has been hailed as the sport's future king since ranking as the world's No. 1 juniors player in 2000.

He has the game's strongest serve, tying the fastest ever recorded with a 149-mph blast in June. He wins over crowds with his emotional, all-out effort. And he has furthered his celebrity status by dating singer/actress Mandy Moore.

"I've had a lot of attention on me ever since I came up," he said. "It just happened really fast, so I've just been kind of living with it.

He is being cast as tennis' new sex symbol. Roddick has been featured in the past year in GQ, Vogue, Rolling Stone, People, US Weekly, W and even the Sports Illustrated for Women swimsuit issue.

When the pop culture magazine Interview decided to feature him, it sent Elton John to do the interview.

Roddick is leery of what he calls "the male (Anna) Kournikova thing," where his appearance becomes more notable than his game.

"As far as what I call 'being famous just for being famous,' it's OK," he said. "First and foremost, I want to be known as a good tennis player. That (fame) stuff goes away if you don't win tennis matches."

The past year has seen major growth in his game.

A passing of the torch seemed inevitable when Roddick faced Sampras in a 2002 U.S. Open quarterfinal; he was already 2-0 against Sampras. But Sampras blasted him 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. The lesson was, when Roddick's big weapons - his serve and forehand - failed him, he had no Plan B.

Roddick decided to get more serious about fitness, which paid off during two transcendent matches in the Australian Open. Roddick rallied from two sets down for the first time in his career to beat Mikhail Youzhny, then outlasted Younes El Aynaoui in an epic, five-hour quarterfinal.

"There was no question that watching Andy come of age before your eyes is special," TV analyst Jim Courier said that week. "This is it. This is his time, his turning point."

Next came his decision this spring to split with coach Tarik Benhabiles after four years together. Roddick took a train from London to Paris to tell him face to face.

He enlisted Brad Gilbert, who had helped Agassi become the game's top player. Roddick has gone 23-2 under Gilbert and won three titles.

While he improves his game, Roddick continues to endear himself to the public simply by being sincere.

He is a regular at charity events. He orders an extra pizza for his gated community's security guard when he calls one in for himself. After a rain-delayed match in Houston, he bought tickets to the next day's match for fans who stuck around to watch him.

His relationship with Moore, he said, has made him complete. They met in Toronto last July. She was filming; he was playing.

"It's nice to have something stable," Roddick said. "We can kind of relate to each other, what we're going through."

It's all part of Roddick remaining true to himself and his goals. He is proving to be a man of his word.

As his mother, Blanche, said earlier this year: "Two years ago, Andy told everybody that one day he would date Mandy Moore, and we all laughed at him. But everything he said he would do, he did because of his self-confidence. It's been the key to his whole life."



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