The Roddick Express arrives

Thirteen days after Pete Sampras waved his final goodbye, tears in his eyes, the man celebrated by fans and critics alike as the future of American tennis and the great man's heir apparent — Andy Roddick — had finally arrived, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

AS he threw his arms around his father Jerry's neck after hugging everybody in sight in the players' box at the Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadows, the overwhelming sense of relief sweeping through the handsome young man was obvious.

All gifted young athletes are forced to carry an enormous weight on their shoulders, the burden of public expectations. But few men in recent times may have felt such an excruciatingly crushing weight on their back as did Andy Roddick.

From the moment he cracked the top 200 in ATP rankings in late 2000 and finished the year as the No.1 junior player, Roddick has been reminded time and time again that he was the future of American men's tennis.

The word `future' was so inextricably intertwined with his career that he might have, at some point, even come to think that it was his middle name and perhaps even signed autographs as Andy Future Roddick.

In the event, when that future and the present met at the same place and time, giving and taking a little, it was understandable that Roddick was reduced to tears, buckets-full of them in a tournament that will always be remembered in history for the tears shed by another grown man — arguably the greatest to lift a tennis racquet — on the opening day.

And the symbolism cannot be lost on anyone. Thirteen days after Pete Sampras waved his final goodbye, tears in his eyes, the man celebrated by fans and critics alike as the future of American tennis and the great man's heir apparent, had finally arrived.

If the departure of the legend had a touch of class to it, then the new arrival appropriately had all the paraphernalia of the MTV caravan, all the features of a I-ME generation among whose prominent sporting celebrities is Roddick.

The boy with attitude whose game is the spiritual tennis equivalent of Eminem's music, the young man who burns CDs and loves bungee jumping with his actress girlfriend Mandy Moore, the teen-idol who modelled shirtless for Rolling Stones magazine, could not have come up with a better script for the final weekend even if he had been asked to write it himself.

On the semifinals Saturday, Roddick was within a point of losing to the muscular Argentine David Nalbandian. He displayed Connors-like strength of will to come through in five sets. And a day later Roddick played almost point-perfect tennis to make a mockery of Juan Carlos Ferrero's challenge.

It was a perfect moment of crowning glory for Roddick during a summer in which he has been the hottest player on the men's Tour, winning 37 of 39 matches, the last 19 of them in a row. And the fairytale began soon after the French Open when the young man, deeply distressed after a first round loss in Paris, made a career-turning move.

Justine Henin-Hardenne went on to win her second Grand Slam title, beating her compatriot Kim Clijsters, in straight sets at Flushing Meadows. — Pic. AP-

The decision was not easy to arrive at. But Roddick knew the time was right to say goodbye to his longtime coach Tarik Benhabiles. And he did that like a gentleman rather than like the cocky young brat with a in-your-face attitude that many think he is.

Once he had decided to hire Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert on reaching London for the grass court season, Roddick took a train back to Paris to inform Benhabiles of the change in person.

Fans and critics alike installed him as the favourite to win Wimbledon the moment he won the Queen's Club title and he looked very good too for 10 days and more before an inspired Roger Federer played an exquisite brand of tennis that only one man has bettered in the modern era — Pete Sampras — on grass to outplay him in the semifinals.

But, watching him in six matches at Wimbledon, this much was clear to me: this was a man with a make-over, a brand new Roddick.

Technically, attitudinally, and in every other positive way, Roddick had improved remarkably. His serve, as big a weapon as it is, was no longer just powerful and unreturnable when he got going. He was mixing it up well. There was, too, a lot of improvement in his backhand — for long the weaker flank — while the young man appeared more tactically adept when it came to approach shots.

No matter that stunning defeat against Federer, it was obvious that going into the U.S. hardcourt season the momentum was with Roddick. And he was every bit as hungry as a champion-in-the-making might be expected to be.

When he beat a tough opponent in Tim Henman in the first round, it was obvious that in the 12 months since the great man taught him an on-court lesson at the 2002 US Open, Roddick had become a much more complete player.

"Pete (Sampras) schooled me here last year,'' Roddick, who turned 21 during the Open fortnight, would say. Surely, it doesn't hurt to learn from the great master.

Roddick was brought up to become a champion, so to say, from a very young age. The youngest of three brothers, he began dreaming of Grand Slam glory from the age of five.

The oldest brother, Lawrence, was a team-mate of the legendary diver Greg Louganis and the middle brother John was three times All American at the University of Georgia.

But Blanche Roddick, who would drive with her boys thousands of miles each year to junior tournaments in and around Florida, always knew that the youngest was the best.

Yet, for all the love and attention she showered on young Andy in the early days, the moment he turned pro, Roddick's mother chose to remain in the background, sure in her mind that the boy had what it took to take care of himself on the tough men's Tour.

Although Jerry and Blanche still take care of Roddick's business interests, they have allowed him the freedom to be his own man and this is an important aspect of Roddick's development as a champion of substance.

But his parents will always remember the day, several years ago, when Andy hid himself in the players' lounge in Flushing Meadows to gaze secretly at the stars passing by. Today, he is the biggest star in American tennis.

How good is Roddick? How far can he go? Does he deserve to be compared with Sampras?

As a player, Roddick is very, very good. He belongs right up there with Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero among the new generation of champions. While the US Open will always be his favourite hunting ground — not only because it is home territory but also because the surface suits his game — Roddick may be versatile enough to win in Melbourne and Wimbledon.

As to how far he can go in terms of pulling alongside the legends of the sport only time can say. For, this is a question loaded with too many imponderables. If he stays focussed and concentrates on improving as a player, the sky is the limit for Roddick.

But it is ridiculous to compare him to Sampras, although that is something — a sort of virus — than can never be avoided. Every good, and sometimes great, batsman to make the Australian Test team post 1950 was compared to the greatest of them all, Don Bradman, at some point or the other.

And so it will be in American tennis. Every gifted champion — not the least one that wins his first Slam at the very place where Sampras won his first and last — will be compared to the great Greek-American icon. But the young champion himself is happy to be Andy Roddick the First rather than Pete Sampras the Second. And that is as it should be.

And now that the tears of joy have dried, Roddick can better understand the enormity of his achievement at age 21.

"It was disbelief. He couldn't believe he won,'' said Mandy Moore, his actress girlfriend.

As for the women's champion, she couldn't believe that she actually managed to step on the court for the final.

Justine Henin-Hardenne was so badly dehydrated after the three-hour thriller in which she beat Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals that the petite Belgian was put on IV fluids.

On the morning of the final, the chances of Henin-Hardenne competing were about 50-50. But the brave one not only kept her appointment but also went on to beat her friend and compatriot, Kim Clijsters, for a second time in five months in a Grand Slam final. But, then, in the absence of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, the women's championship was just not the same and it was, in the end, Roddick's tournament more than anybody else's.