Guard changes, and Roddick arrives as Open champ

Published : Sep 20, 2003 00:00 IST

What began on a Monday with a big-serving American tennis champion retiring in tears ended on a Sunday with a big-serving American tennis champion celebrating in tears.


What began on a Monday with a big-serving American tennis champion retiring in tears ended on a Sunday with a big-serving American tennis champion celebrating in tears.

In between those emotional cornerstones, it was a shaky US Open, but for the host nation, it still turned out to be a seamless transition from the old guard to the new wave. Andy Roddick completed that generational shift in style, winning his first Grand Slam singles title by defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

At 21, Roddick is not quite as young as Pete Sampras was when he won his first major title on these grounds at age 19. But Roddick appeared just as impervious to the stakes, serving as freely as if this were an exhibition instead of the biggest moment of his career, keeping his once-volcanic temperament under wraps, then wrapping his arms even more tightly around the trophy that he only recently came to believe he had the ability to win.

A year ago, Roddick's potential was clear but his game was still a work in need of progress. His two-handed backhand was frequently a liability. His fitness and court coverage were unexceptional. His emotive style sometimes left him drained as tough matches wore on. But he began this season in better physical condition, proving it by winning the most dramatic match of the year against Younes el-Aynaoui by the score of 21-19 in the fifth set to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open.

But it was not until he fired his longtime mentor, Tarik Benhabiles, in June and hired a new coach, Brad Gilbert, that his game and confidence truly took flight.

Gilbert, a fast-talking tactician who helped Andre Agassi make the most of his world-class talent, has not had enough time to make significant changes in Roddick's strokes, but he has done much more than simply change Roddick's headgear (he barred Roddick from wearing a visor he judged not intimidating enough).

Gilbert has helped Roddick return better by having him stand back deeper to receive. He has helped him make better choices and better dissect his opponents' games.

But because of Roddick's formidable weapons — a serve that is the fastest in the game and an elbow-cocking forehand that is also one of the sport's most powerful shots — he has the luxury of not having to analyse too much. But what really grabbed the attention of longtime Roddick watchers on that Sunday was the quality of his backhand, which enabled him not only to hold his own with Ferrero in baseline rallies, but to dominate more than his share of them.

Not that baseline rallies were the rule. Roddick's serve was still the signature shot of the surprisingly one-sided final. Ferrero, the French Open champion, who has taken over the No. 1 ranking from Agassi, is a phenomenal returner, but he rarely managed to conjure convincing responses to Roddick's deliveries and also struggled against his high-kicking second serve. Ferrero won only 41 per cent of the points against Roddick's second serve.

In the end, Roddick finished with 23 aces and just two double faults. Most important, his serve was never broken. Ferrero had only three opportunities: one in the first set and two in the seventh game of the final set when Roddick fell behind, 15-40. But Roddick saved the first with a huge serve that Ferrero could not get back in play and saved the second with a twisting second serve that Ferrero shanked off the frame.

Two points later, he polished off the game and the last significant threat with an ace, then walked calmly to his chair.

That was an apt summation of his mood throughout this very positive 1-hour-42-minute experience. Consider the final game of the match, which went like this: first serve that forced a return error; ace up the middle; ace wide; ace up the middle.

"The hardest thing is the fear of the unknown,'' Roddick said. "I didn't know how I'd feel going in. I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm baffled by how calm I felt out there and how easy it was. I almost didn't feel anything. I was kind of just going through the motions.''

The game and its inherent challenges had seemed much more daunting when he had to save a match point in the third-set tie breaker of his semifinal against David Nalbandian of Argentina before winning in five sets. During that match, Roddick berated the chair umpire, exchanged testy words with Nalbandian on occasion and shouted at the sky. But he got through the tie breaker and the experience by being bold at the right times.

It has been the story of his near-perfect summer. Since hiring Gilbert, his record is 37-2 and he has won three straight tournaments and 19 straight matches to move to No. 2 in the ranking behind Ferrero.

Ferrero put to rest for good any further insinuations that he is only a clay-court player by beating the former Open champion Lleyton Hewitt and Agassi but could not give himself the satisfaction of becoming the Open champion.

To Ferrero's credit, he did not use fatigue as an excuse. Because of the rain delays, he had to play four matches in four days, an unprecedented challenge at a Grand Slam. Roddick, who managed to sneak in a victory during the rain early in the second week, had to play three matches in three days. "Strange experience,'' Ferrero said. "To become No. 1 is a great feeling. To lose is not.''

But Roddick had no need for mixed emotions, and after he held his serve and nerve at love, he hunched over inside the baseline and covered his tears with both hands, just as Sampras had done 14 days earlier on this same American-friendly stretch of hardcourt.

New York Times News Service

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