Sunday, August 24, 2003

Roddick in territory Agassi knows well

By Howard Fendrich
AP Tennis Writer

NEW YORK - Everything that feels so new to Andy Roddick these days is been-there, done-that to Andre Agassi.

Rising in the rankings. Dating a celebrity. Being coached by Brad Gilbert.

And then, of course, there's this: Going into a major labeled the favorite.

When the U.S. Open starts Monday, Roddick will enter with the lead in the calendar-year ATP Champions Race as he sets out to win a major for the first time. Agassi will enter with the No. 1 spot in the 52-week rankings as he sets out to win a major for the ninth time, tops among active players now that Pete Sampras is retiring.

At 33, Agassi is the tour's elder statesman, married to Steffi Graf and a father. Roddick, who turns 21 during the Open, is the "I've got next!" star poised for a breakthrough.

As recently as 2000, Roddick was playing in the Open's junior tournament - winning it, of course.

"It's just been a complete whirlwind, from being able to go out and grab a hot dog on the grounds of the U.S. Open, to the kind of madness that's kind of been created so far," Roddick said. "You know, I feel like I've deserved the hype this year a little bit more so than the other years."

That's for sure.

He's 20-1 with three titles during the hard-court circuit and 55-13 overall this year. Only Roddick and Wimbledon champion Roger Federer have won five events in 2003. What's left? Well, Roddick has yet to reach a major final.

"I probably didn't go into the last two Opens to win the tournament. I went in to make a good run," Roddick said. "I definitely want to try to take this title. I know that's big talk, but I feel like I've played pretty well this summer."

Right now seems like the perfect time to assume the mantle from defending Open champion Sampras, who formally will announce his retirement at a news conference Monday, then be honored in a ceremony at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Without Sampras or Serena Williams, the Open won't have either champion returning for the first time since 1971. Williams is sidelined after left knee surgery and hasn't played since winning Wimbledon for her fifth title in the past six Slams.

"If she's in, she's going to win, and if she's not in, maybe it at least makes it interesting," Agassi said. "It is a loss to the tournament - you always want the best players there - but she'll be back."

Williams' older sister, 2000-01 champion Venus, won't play, either, because of an abdominal strain that's bothered her since May. That means the Open will have its first women's final without a Williams since 1998.

Several prime contenders have dealt with injuries recently, too: Lindsay Davenport (foot), Jennifer Capriati (shoulder), Chanda Rubin (shoulder), Amelie Mauresmo (back).

So new No. 1 Kim Clijsters and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne might be the logical choices to reach the prime-time final - an all-Belgian brouhaha CBS probably isn't rooting for.

But Clijsters has been to the quarterfinals just once at Flushing Meadows, and Henin-Hardenne hasn't even been that far. Clijsters did reach the semifinals at the other Slams this year, but she has yet to win one.

"She hasn't brought it at the majors," TV analyst Mary Carillo said. "She denies that she choked, but I watched all of those matches, and it seems she underperforms when it matters."

Roddick had a touch of that problem last year. He didn't make it past the third round of a Slam until the Open, where he was walloped by Sampras in the quarterfinals.

"I don't remember much from it. It was over too quickly. But I think a year has made a big difference," Roddick said. "I don't know if I'd be scared if I was in that same situation. He just hit me like a ton of bricks, and I didn't really know how to respond. I kind of panicked a little bit, and I don't know if I would panic if I was in the same situation this year."

Much of the credit goes to Gilbert, a journeyman player who turned around a struggling Agassi in the 1990s and now is working his coaching magic with Roddick.

While Roddick lauds Gilbert for helping him "between the ears," they didn't team up until June - five months after Roddick outlasted Younes El Aynaoui 21-19 in the fifth set of a five-hour match to get to a major semifinal at the Australian Open (which Agassi eventually won). That marathon made clear that Roddick has the mental strength to complement a speedy serve and fantastic forehand.

When Roddick lost in the first round of the French Open, he fired his coach and was impressed that Gilbert was so eager to hop on a plane from California to Europe and get right to work.

Since they paired up, Roddick is 30-2 - and Gilbert made his skydiving debut. The coach had to fulfill a bet Roddick won by claiming his first Tennis Masters Series title at Montreal, where actress-singer Mandy Moore cheered him on from the stands.

Gilbert used to make similar wagers with Agassi to keep him relaxed.

"They don't play anything alike, but they have a similar personality. People want to be around them. Andy and Andre both have incredibly generous hearts. Both have no problem handling the pressure of being a star," Gilbert said.

"They both have great tenacity, and they both want to win really badly."

So do other top players. Federer, French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2001 U.S. Open winner Lleyton Hewitt, and Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis are among those who could contend.

There isn't a dominant player in men's tennis these days, and this could be the third straight year that four players divvy up the four Grand Slam titles.

Who was the last man to win two majors in a single season?

Agassi, of course.

Seeds: Men

1. Andre Agassi

2. Roger Federer

3. Juan C. Ferrero

4. Andy Roddick

5. Guillermo Coria

6. Lleyton Hewitt

7. Carlos Moya

8. Rainer Schuettler

9. Sebastien Grosjean

10. Jiri Novak

Seeds: Women

1. Kim Clijsters

2. Justin Henin-!Hardenne

3. Lindsay Davenport

4. Venus Williams*

5. Amelie Mauresmo

6. Jennifer Capriati

7. Anastasia Myskina

8. Chanda Rubin

9. Daniela Hantuchova

10. Magdalena Maleeva

11. Elena Dementieva

*-Withdrawn with injury

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