August 22, 2002
Can Roddick Strike Back?
By Curry Kirkpatrick
ESPN The Magazine
Tennis gets more and more confusing. While we all try to figure out which Williams sister's turn it is to win the U.S. Open, as well as which one is hooked up with LaVar Arrington, men play tennis, too. Don't they?
In fact, wasn't it Andy Roddick of America -- not Lleyton Hewitt of Australia -- who was supposed to be rocketing to Number One, accumulating major titles and becoming tennis' It Kid along about right now? Well, yeah, but when you're spending a bunch of your down time meeting George Bush (the old one), going live with Regis and Kelly, posing with Daisy Fuentes and otherwise perpetuating your Teen Idol Goes Madison Ave. image, who's got the time to worry about winning this upcoming thing at Flushing Meadow -- not to mention beating a bunch of guys named Fernando?
Actually, Fernando Gonzales (ranked 39) and Fernando Meligeni (ranked 61 and no relation to Maleguena) are just the most recent vaguely familiar characters to have upset Roddick in his teeter-totter sophomore season in the big leagues. Not that A-Rod -- who really should bow in the general direction of Texas anytime anybody has the gall to saddle him with that nickname -- hasn't been building some impressive credentials on top of his roistering rookie campaign when he won 42 matches and was the first domestic teen to win three tournaments since Pete Sampras won four in 1990.
Wasn't Roddick supposed to be No. 1?
Roddick is 48-16 coming into the Open -- the most match victories on the tour this year. He's even won two more tournaments, whipping Davis Cup pal James Blake to take Memphis and out-serving Sampras to win Houston. But on the grand occasions ... Andy has been simply raggedy. Down and Out (and Quickly) in the second, first and third rounds of the majors, the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon, respectively. Even at the "March major" -- the huge hardcourt event at Miami -- Roddick lost in the second round to the immortal Juan Ignacio Charo. Uh, no ... Chela.
American Davis Cup team skipper Patrick McEnroe is among most of tennis' panting seers who love the 6-foot-3, gangling Roddick's energy, enthusiasm, huge serve, flashy ground strokes, competitive spirit and a macho 'tude that seems to mirror the prideful characteristics of his beloved native Nebraska Cornhuskers. (If we hear one more time how Roddick had part of his house wallpapered in Big Red poster tributes or something, all of us will no doubt retch husks of corn all over our rackets.)
The contrarian aspect of his physical skills and big numbers, though -- in particular, Roddick's undefeated Cup record (as if anybody cares about the Davis Cup) -- is that much of his success has been built against the likes of Leander Paes of India, whom he had to rally against in Winston Salem, N.C., last fall. Amid the crowd furor, Roddick pumped his fists and sprinted to the sideline, calling out to Captain Mac: "I love this s---!"
Hey Andy, Bro: Leander ain't no World Threat. And you ain't no Vin Diesel -- who, naturally, utters almost the exact same phrase ("I LIVE FOR THIS S---!") as the tattooed one is ordered to skydive out of an airplane and save the universe in the magnificent XXX.
Maybe Andy is already pushing Vinny in the sex symbol department. (According to Tennis Magazine, in a fan fiction site, female fans write novellas which, among other things, place Roddick in a love triangle that ends up in Andy's bedroom.)
But why hasn't the Roddick tennis franchise come to fruition yet? Well, among the IN's, how about injuries, inexperience (still) and inadequate preparation? It was over two years ago that Roddick had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He shined that affliction on by coming back to play within two weeks. But there has been concern over the wear Roddick's intensely twisting and torquing physical game tears at his raw, teenage body. (He turns 20 on the middle Friday of the Open.) Roddick's older brother John (now running his own tennis academy) was a blossoming star before he wrecked his back while playing for the Bulldogs. Locker room sources say Andy requires as much inflammatories and medical treatments as many scarred-up tour veterans.
In his first two matches against Hewitt, for example, Roddick was betrayed at Miami, 2001, by a muscle pull in his hand, and at Roland Garros that same summer when, just as the rivalry was heating up (1-1 in sets, just about to go 2-2 in games) he had to default with a pulled hamstring. Then, at this year's Australian, the angular Roddick was forced to retire against Ivan Ljubicic with a sprained ankle.
While the now-resident of Boca Raton, Fla., can impose his enormous power (serves in the 140 mph range) on most opponents, when he's faced with equal strength on the other side of the net, Roddick doesn't seem to have a clue. The imposing Aussie left-hander, Wayne Arthurs, served him off the clay at Paris in June. Then at Wimbledon Greg Rusedski made Roddick look as if he was still back in Nebraska, figuring out the difference between a netcord and a goalpost.
The scores were 3-6, 4-6, 2-6 (in 'Husker terms, one of those 64-6 laughers) -- and it wasn't that close. "I looked like a complete idiot," Roddick says. "I had no idea what to do." So he hauled embarrassed butt to San Antonio to visit his other brother Lawrence, a former world-class springboard diver now turned chiropractor, against whom he pounded balls even in a pouring rain.
Roddick says he suddenly remembered why he loved tennis -- the purity of the hits, the free swinging, the laughing and interacting, the simplest fundamentals, accent on the f.u.n. "That worked better than just freaking out," Roddick said of his therapy sessions amid the arcs with the diver.
Alas, the succeeding summer results have again traversed up the down staircase. Though Roddick reached the semis at L.A. -- where he was beaten by another close friend, Jan-Michael Gambill (only the second of his countrymen after Andre Agassi to defeat him) -- and the finals at Toronto (losing to Guillermo Canas), the subsequent twin failures to the Fernandos at Cincinnati and Indianapolis were not exactly the preferred way to establish a beachhead prior to the Open.
Moreover, Roddick's sometimes alarming strategic ineptitude -- during which he reverts to looking like a helpless junior in full stalkabout -- has fueled rumors on the tour that his longtime coach, the quiet, niceguy French Morrocan, Tarik Benhabiles (a clay specialist as a journeyman player) may be ripe for replacement. One scenario even has Agassi's former guru, the wise and witty Brad Gilbert, joining the Roddick camp by year's end.
Who knows? A change in coaches has seemed to re-energize the always aggressive, ascendant Number One, Hewitt. His speed, athleticism, tenacity, fighting will and baseline style has carried him to two of the past four Slam titles. He is just begging for somebody to emerge as an arch-rival. And all of tennis -- desperately searching for somebody, anybody, to replicate the cash cow that was Sampras-Agassi (if only to take some ink and airtime away from the Sisters Sledge) -- seems to be just begging for that somebody to be Roddick.
While the little wizard from Oz has won all three of their encounters, the Hewitt-Roddick battle at last year's Open was very nearly as compelling as the Sampras-Agassi classic. And while the five-set quarterfinal climaxed sourly -- Roddick getting screwed on a terrible line call near the end -- lucky witnesses will recall that, absent that and Roddick's subsequent stupid meltdown, the match might have gone the other way. And Roddick, not Hewitt, might have walked over both the choking dog, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in the semis, and the aging lion, Sampras, in the finals, to become the champion.
"I know Lleyton will hold up his end," Roddick says. "But for our thing to get to be a rivalry, I've got to beat the guy sometime."
Would that sometime be soon. Or rather, would that in the next couple of weeks the slugger from Omaha and the counterpuncher from Adelaide -- their ballcaps backward, their determination and confidence out front, their talent and "You Want Some Of Me" testosterone raging everywhere -- drill tennis balls at each other for several hours and (no matter who wins) the long dormant battle between the game's two previously dominating nations be joined once again.
Curry Kirkpatrick is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
I don't often like Curry Kirkpatrick but this article is interesting.