First-round loss gives Roddick birthday blues

"I don't really remember a loss where I've felt this bad afterwards," the 2003 U.S. Open champion says.

Associated Press
Published August 31, 2005

NEW YORK - The worst birthday of Andy Roddick's life ended with three consecutive tiebreaker losses and a shocking first-round exit from the U.S. Open against a player making his debut in the tournament.

Roddick, the 2003 champion and No.4 seed this year, fell 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-1) on his 23rd birthday Tuesday night to Gilles Muller, the first man from Luxembourg to compete in the Open.

The 22-year-old Muller, ranked No.68, outhustled, outmaneuvered and, most astonishingly, outaced Roddick 24-17 to claim his second upset of the summer. In his first Wimbledon, he beat French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

Asked how he managed to dismantle Roddick, Muller said, "I have no idea."

"For me, it was just unbelievable to come out here," Muller said. "I told myself to enjoy it, and I did every minute."

Roddick hated every minute after blowing a 5-2 lead in the first set and a chance to serve it out at 5-3. From then on, Roddick was frustrated by the left-handed Muller's mix of angled groundstrokes and serves, his blend of speeds and his ability to hit line after line.

Roddick flung his racket to the ground, dropped it another time in disgust and kept chomping on a towel during changeovers. More than a few times he stared at the lines where Muller's shots landed or watched the replays on the giant screen atop the stadium.

"I don't really remember a loss where I've felt this bad afterwards," Roddick said. "I love playing here. I probably had the best practice week I've ever had in lead up. It just didn't translate tonight. ... I'm in a little bit of shock right now, to be honest. I'd give anything to go back four hours right now."

Muller didn't serve as fast as Roddick, but that didn't matter. Roddick couldn't figure out how to break him in the tiebreakers and in the last two sets. Roddick looked flat as Muller dictated the match and forced the action, running up 65 winners to Roddick's 39, though making 33 unforced errors to 15 by Roddick.

"I took some risks and maybe sometimes I was also lucky," Muller said.

If ever a player deserved a turn of good fortune, and earned one by dint of hard work, it's James Blake. To see the Tampa resident play so beautifully and with unfettered ease as he beat former finalist Greg Rusedski in straight sets in the afternoon was to watch a man who summoned a reservoir of inner strength from a year of unrelenting misery.

Backed by his friends and many fans chanting "James! James!" in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Blake served a 131 mph ace to reach match point, then ripped a backhand passing shot to eliminate the No.28 Rusedski, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.

Blake won his first tournament in three years on Sunday in New Haven, Conn. It was a victory that showed how far Blake had come since his lowest moments - when he lay in a hospital bed with a fractured neck last spring from a freak accident on court, or when he later contracted an illness that affected his sight and hearing and temporarily paralyzed part of his face, or when he watched his father dying of cancer last summer.

Unseeded, James may not be a threat to win the Open. He's playing the best tennis of his life at age 25, but he harbors no illusions that he's in the same class as No.1 Roger Federer, who won his first-round match against Czech newcomer Ivo Minar 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in 1 hour, 1 minute earlier in the day, or No.2 Nadal, who could end Blake's run in the third round.

It was a sweltering afternoon at the Open as No.12 Tim Henman of Britain lost 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round to Fernando Verdasco. Women's No.2 Lindsay Davenport won in straight sets in the breezy evening after No.3 Amelie Mauresmo, No.6 Elena Dementieva and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, the seventh seed, did the same during the day.

Roddick's only other first-round Open loss came in his debut as a wild card in 2000. He reached the quarterfinals the next two years, won in 2003 and went out in the quarters last year. As the winner of the U.S. Open Series leading up to the year's final Grand Slam event, Roddick could have doubled the $1.1-million top prize if he won the title again. Instead, he goes home with chump change to pay his travel expenses.