Roddick — America's great hope or hype?

"IF Roddick makes it big, it will be very big for American tennis," former world No. 1 Jim Courier, now a TV tennis analyst, was saying during the 2003 Australian Open.

PAUL FEINPAUL FEIN

Andy Roddick is highly goal-oriented and is striving to enhance his popularity and profile. — Pic. EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

"Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion."

— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

"IF Roddick makes it big, it will be very big for American tennis," former world No. 1 Jim Courier, now a TV tennis analyst, was saying during the 2003 Australian Open. "Roddick is such a likeable guy. Everyone loves Andy. He's effervescent on the court. This is the year he's got to back up all that stuff we've talked about."

Tabbed as The Next Great American Player for the past three years, Andy Roddick started backing up all that hype at Melbourne. No, he didn't win his first Grand Slam or even reach the final. But he did play two career-defining matches and make his first semifinal at a major tournament.

Against Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, also 20 and the hero of the 2002 Davis Cup final, Roddick displayed his never-say-die spirit to rally from a two-set deficit and win 6-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-2, his first such Slam comeback as a pro.

Then, in a record-shattering quarterfinal that seemed like it would never end, Roddick outlasted Younes El Aynaoui, a 31-year-old Moroccan, 4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 21-19. Roddick staved off a match point with a vintage forehand winner at 5-4 in the marathon final set, which lasted two hours, 23 minutes, the longest in the Open Era. "Strategy was out the door; it was just pure fighting," said the exhausted Roddick whose crowd-pleasing passion for victory and occasional outbursts reminded tennis fans of Jimmy Connors.

Roddick, the world junior champion in 2000, has treated tennis fans to delicious matches before. He first whetted our appetite at the 2001 Ericsson Open when, ranked No. 119, he overpowered former No.1 Marcelo Rios 6-4, 6-1 and then "played with no fear," as Pete Sampras put it, to upset the legendary champion 7-6, 6-3.

Spectators loved Roddick's youthful exuberance as much as his rocket serves and bullet forehands. Courier then enthused: "I haven't been this interested in watching someone play tennis in a long time."

At Key Biscayne, Roddick thanked his supportive, loving parents. "I'm happiest of all for my mom," he said. "She's been driving me to practice since I was 8 years old. With my parents, my dad's the salt and she's the sugar. Dad's the enforcer, and mom is the sweetest lady there ever was." Fortunately, for a tennis world too often sullied by overbearing tennis parents, Jerry and Blanche prefer the background to the limelight.

In fact, when a magazine writer turned up at the Roddicks' home in Boca Raton after the Sampras match, his mother baked cookies for the uninvited visitor.

Roddick was only six when a TV match turned him on to tennis. He watched a cramping but courageous, 17-year-old Michael Chang shock heavily favoured Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open. "I went out and played three hours after that," he recalled.

Ironically, an eerily similar match 12 years later involving the veteran Chang at Roland Garros turned fickle French fans on to Roddick. This time Chang found himself at the receiving end against a young, refuse-to-quit fighter who somehow overcame leg cramps that had him writhing in pain to prevail 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. "Yeah, I thought about that match as we played," said Roddick afterwards. "Michael wouldn't lie down and die, and I wasn't going to either."

In another thrilling battle, at the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals, Roddick played evenly with Lleyton Hewitt, the lightning-fast Australian and eventual champion, until late in the fifth set. A dubious line-call overrule by umpire Jorge Dias on the first point of the final game infuriated Roddick who shouted, "Are you an absolute moron?" Dias hit Roddick with a verbal warning for the temper tantrum. And soon after the earnest but immature teenager lost his poise, he lost the big match 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Those dynamic matches heightened expectations for 2002. Despite winning two titles in four finals and ending the year ranked No.10, media critics called 2002 a "sophomore slump" because Roddick was disappointing in Slam events and lost both Davis Cup singles matches against France. He looked particularly inept losing to Wayne Arthurs in the French Open first round and to Greg Rusedski in the Wimbledon third round. Roddick fared best on hard courts, his favourite surface, at Flushing Meadows, but Sampras outclassed him 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarters.

As a rookie and sophomore pro, Roddick often talked about how much he "embraced" the challenge of becoming The Next Great American Player following Sampras and Agassi. At the start of the 2003 Australian Open, however, Roddick finally admitted the heavy burden of striving for that goal and the media's harping on it was frustrating.

"Well, yeah, with that question, it was probably 289 straight press conferences," Roddick confided with a laugh. "But, it's tough. I'm coming up and it's a hard act to follow, you know. It's tough being in the shadows of Pete and Andre. But that's the way it is, and that's just the way I have to deal with it."

Roddick, a student of tennis history, added, "American tennis fans have been spoiled in the best possible way since the Open Era began. We've always had somebody at the top - if not No.1, the top 2 or 3 and competing for Slams (titles). So, you know, I'm trying to get there. I do believe that I'll get there. But, it's going to take more work, and I'm going to have to take my opportunities as they come."

Unlike Belgian Kim Clijsters, the world No.3 who surprisingly declared, "If I don't get to number one, who cares?" No.6 Roddick is highly goal-oriented. "I'd like to end up in the Masters Cup (for the top eight players) at the end of the year," he said then. "As far as the Slams go, I definitely want to make a dent in one this year. The only one I've played well so far is the (U.S.) Open, and I've run into the two winners the last two years. Besides that, I haven't performed very well at any of the Slams."

Roddick snapped that Slam slump at Melbourne in January, but another disturbing trend, especially for a 20-year-old, bedevilled him there, too: injuries. Tendinitis in his right wrist flared up during his five-hour and 484-point duel against El Aynaoui and clearly hampered him in his disappointing semifinal loss to underdog Rainer Schuettler.

Just five weeks later, Roddick collapsed in agony in a match against Mardy Fish, another young and rising American player, at a Delray Beach, Florida tournament.

Roddick screeched in pain when he severely sprained his left ankle. It was the same ankle he had injured at the 2002 U.S. Open and in a Basel, Switzerland event a month later.

Roddick may or may not be more injury-prone than other players today whose bodies frequently break down from competing in too many tournaments, especially on unforgiving hard courts, a too-short off-season, violent stroke-making, and punishing matches in every round. But he has also been riddled with assorted health problems: ankle cartilage surgery in 1999, cramping at the 2001 French Open against Chang, a right ankle injury forcing him to retire in the 2002 Australian Open second round, and flu that caused him to vomit in the 2002 International Tennis Championships final. One has to wonder: can Roddick make it physically through seven gruelling matches to capture a coveted Grand Slam crown?

Even in perfect health, Roddick is limited by his two-dimensional serve-and-forehand game. True, his rocket first serve (he boasted the Tour's fastest at 144 mph last year) and viciously spinning second serve enable him to rank No.1 in service games won (91%). And he pounds his formidable, semi-Western forehand for plenty of winners. On the other hand, Roddick's backhand and volley break down sometimes, he positions himself too deeply (four or five feet) behind the baseline, and he makes strategical errors, such as approaching net crosscourt.

When Roddick was upset 7-6, 6-3 by Spanish qualifier Albert Portas, ranked No. 96, in the first round of the $2.45 million Monte Carlo Masters in April, he acknowledged: "I need more patience. I'm still missing that little something."

What is that "little something"? A smart suggestion comes from Tony Pickard, who coached Stefan Edberg to six Grand Slam titles. "Roddick has the most perfect game to serve and volley," asserts Pickard. "But how often does he do it? Look at the enormous serve he's got. If he were taught to go forward off that serve, he would have so many easy shots to play, even if he isn't a great volleyer. If he did that, he could cause enormous problems (for opponents) on any surface.

"Tarik Benhabiles has done a hell of a good job with Roddick," says Pickard, "but Benhabiles played from the back of the court. The greatest attribute a coach can have is to add the other dimensions that a player doesn't have."

Two other factors help Roddick's cause. While no one will mistake James Blake, Mardy Fish and rapidly improving Robby Ginepri for the "Fab Four" of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang, these close friends have closed the gap on frontrunner Roddick and provide him with stimulating competition and emotional support. Second, with Sampras in limbo, the only champions competing these days are Hewitt and Agassi and, on clay only, three-time French champion Gustav Kuerten. While men's tennis has extraordinary depth, such non-stars as Thomas Johansson, David Nalbandian, Arnaud Clement, Albert Costa and Schuettler have reached Grand Slam finals this century. Roddick, even with holes in his game, can equal and surpass them.

However he fares, rollicking, fist-pumping Roddick is Mr. Excitement on-court, though he gets low marks for badgering officials. (Against El Aynaoui, he smart-alecky said, "You know that thing you call a spine, why don't you use it," when asking the umpire to make an over-rule.)

His boyishly handsome face and spikey hair, romancing singer Mandy Moore, signing autographs "until my hand drops off," hosting charity benefits, and TV acting (on "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch") enhance his popularity and profile, too.

The ambitious and confident native Nebraskan likes to quip that he's "the poor man's A-Rod" (compared to $252 million baseball great Alex Rodriguez). But attaining superstardom in men's tennis is no easy feat these days, as other "New Ball Please" hotshots Marat Safin, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero can attest.

Is Roddick destined to be a champion or a contender?

Courier gets the last word. "Roddick clearly has the power. He's clearly a good enough athlete. And he's very young, 20. He's got time," says Courier. "(But) He's got to understand his weapons, his strengths, and know when to use them. If he gets organised, Roddick has a couple of Slams (titles) in him, at least."