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The great hype

With Andy Roddick making his game more well-rounded, he could be the next big U.S. player.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 27, 2001

It's a darn good thing Andy Roddick came along, seeing as how the old guard is fading. His predecessors are all grown up. They're getting married, thinking about kids, coming up with fewer and fewer big hits.

Male tennis stars? Oh, America needs a few of those, too, and Roddick seems to fit the bill nicely. But we're talking about teen idols here.

"Um, Andy," a female reporter from Teen People asked on a conference call last week, "Do you have any good luck charms?"

As if Roddick, 18, needs one.

The first American teenager to be ranked in the top 20 since Michael Chang in February 1992, Roddick has a personality as big as his 130-mph-plus serve, and both have made him the talk of the men's tour. Ranked No. 338 in the world a year ago, the Boca Raton resident jumped to No. 18 last week after winning the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, his third title of the season.

His jaw-dropping serve has gotten him attention -- and victories -- but Roddick is quickly putting together a well-rounded game with the help of coach Tarik Benhabiles. Add in his burgeoning confidence, a favorable draw and the fact that the New York crowds surely will be rooting him on, and at least two analysts consider him a contender for the U.S. Open title.

Roddick already has been the subject of a Vogue photo shoot and thrown out the first pitch at a Reds game. Next stop: Letterman?

"His game is monstrous," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and CBS analyst. "The way he's been playing ... in my mind he's a real threat. The big question for me is how he'll handle the best of five (sets), which is physically demanding."

Added ESPN's Cliff Drysdale, "His stroke production is equal to the best in the business even now. And winning promotes confidence. He is definitely one of my top four picks."

* * *

The tennis world has been searching for some time for the next great male U.S. player. If you believe the hype, Roddick is everything Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were at 18, and many things they were not.

Where Sampras has been faulted for his stoic demeanor and refusal to play Davis Cup, Roddick eagerly began Cup play this year, professing that "playing for your country is one of sport's ultimate honors."

Agassi always has been charismatic; so is Roddick, in perhaps a more boyish manner. "With Agassi, you always wondered whether it was contrived," Drysdale said. "With Roddick, definitely not."

If all of America is not yet utterly charmed by him, tennis crowds (and many teenage girls) certainly have been. Mere practice sessions involving Roddick have been known to draw hundreds of people, and not just because of his booming serves.

"He loves to play," McEnroe said. "His game has a lot of flair, with his serve and athleticism and power. He's not afraid to show his emotions, he's not afraid to get psyched, he's not afraid to get down and throw his racket when he gets ticked off, but he doesn't let himself get down for long.

"People say men's tennis is boring, people serve too hard, but when they watch Andy Roddick they want to see him serve. People love the fact that he can serve at 140 mph, but he can do more than that. He's the whole package."

Roddick simply had hoped this year to crack the top 60, make the semifinals of a tour event and not embarrass himself at the French Open or Wimbledon. Instead he has won two clay court titles and a hard-court title, beaten Sampras and earned worldwide attention for his play at the French.

Playing Chang in the second round, he persisted through severe cramps and boomed 37 aces in beating the elder American in five sets, a victory that evoked memories of Chang's run to the French Open title in 1989. Now, Roddick says, "I definitely feel like I belong."

Finally, his game and his 6-foot-2 frame are working ... well, in sync.

For years a big talker in a little boy's body, Roddick grew up tagging after his two older brothers. Lawrence, the oldest, was on the U.S. diving team with Greg Louganis, and middle brother John was the star junior tennis player who became an All-American at Georgia.

Andy was small -- four years ago he was still 5-1 -- and spent his time on the court scrapping for points.

"I never really thought about (a pro career) when I was younger," he said. "I always looked up to (John) and thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. ... I didn't have a lot of shots. I couldn't hit the ball hard because I wasn't very big."

That changed in a hurry. Roddick grew nearly a foot in two years but struggled to adjust to his new body. Then one day, 16-year-old Andy discovered the shot that is expected to make him a household name.

"I was getting mad in practice and kind of walked up to the line, threw this half-serve thing and tried to hit it as hard as I could out of anger, and it went," he said.

As big as his serve and the buzz surrounding him have become, on tour Roddick is in many ways still the little brother. Off the court, he is a backwards-cap-wearing, self-described "goofball." He hasn't spent his prize money to buy a house or car. When not playing, he prefers to live with his parents.

And when people say they expect him to be the next great American player, he demurs.

"It's flattering, and it feels good, but at the same time I'm nowhere near Agassi, Chang, Sampras," he said. "I still have a long way to go."

But don't be fooled. Roddick has every intention of getting there, and is relishing the journey.

"I think he enjoys the pressure," McEnroe said. "I think he realizes great players are not afraid to fail, to go out there and put it all on the line. That's the kind of guy he is."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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