New Roddick defends title
When last we left Andy Roddick, he was triumphantly standing alone on Center Court in Mason, on the cusp of becoming the next great American men's tennis player.
Charismatic and powerful - however unrefined his raw talent - Roddick won over Cincinnati fans as he claimed last year's Western & Southern Financial Group Masters title. The momentum didn't stop there. Three weeks later, Roddick won his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open and finished the year ranked No. 1 in the world.
It's a more celebrated, accomplished and polished Roddick who returns this week to the Lindner Family Tennis Center, where bracket play begins today.
But, just like a year ago, questions linger about his future. Only this time it's not when he'll get to the top, but how long he'll stay there.
Roddick, 21, is no longer the whimsical kid, as his coach Brad Gilbert puts it, who might do something big someday. He is now the top U.S. player, and in world ranking trails only Switzerland's Roger Federer, who defeated Roddick Sunday in the championship of the Tennis Masters Canada.
Roddick represents one reason tennis might stop its popularity slide in America.
"I'm not an idiot," Roddick said. "I know we need Americans at the top of the game to have interest in this game in this country. We're not exactly at the top of the totem pole as far as the general public's interest goes as far as sports. My responsibility is to try to promote the game and help it as much as possible."
He has large shoes to fill. The American tennis greats before him, most notably Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, enjoyed lengthy careers on the ATP Tour.
All but Chang won multiple Grand Slams. Agassi, seeded 11th this week, is playing in his 19th season on the tour.
So does Roddick have the same kind of staying power?
"The comparisons (to other great players) now are somewhat validated, whereas before, when I was No. 10, 15 in the world and people were throwing that out there, I almost felt embarrassed about it," Roddick said. "It was like I can't help what's being written, but I don't feel like I'm there. At least now I'm contending for majors. I've won a major. I've finished No. 1, so at least there is some basis for comparison."
Good health in their early 20s was a key for the last generation of American players, and the hard-serving Roddick isn't taking any chances in his fourth season as a professional.
In what is viewed as a sign of his seriousness about fitness, Roddick hired Doug Spreen, a former ATP trainer, as his personal trainer. One of Spreen's goals is to strengthen Roddick's shoulder so it can withstand years of hammering 150-mile-an-hour serves.
"He's building himself for the long haul hiring Doug," said U.S. Davis Cup and Olympic team captain Patrick McEnroe. "That's a great addition by Andy. That's just Andy maturing, understanding he needs the right people around him, building a great team."
Roddick also removed a distraction last winter, when he broke off his relationship with singer-actress Mandy Moore.
That decision hardly diminished his fame: Fans at practice sessions number in the hundreds, and just two weeks ago Roddick hung out with NFL quarterbacks and model Brooke Burke at the Playboy Mansion during an awards ceremony shoot.
"He can't just walk through the crowd anymore," Gilbert says. "He has to have security. But not by his choice; these things just take a little adjusting to."
The hype and hope around Roddick is heavy, and for good reason. Men's tennis finished 19th in a 2003 ESPN poll that gauged Americans' interest in particular sports, down from 16th in 2001
The Women's Tennis Association, horse racing, boxing and the PGA Champions Tour were among the sports that fared better than the ATP in the most recent poll.
"You know as a tennis player the worst thing you can do is get caught up in this," Gilbert says. "The people that run the game have got to do a better job of that. That's their responsibility."
But Roddick can't help but opine about the state of tennis. He feels that a potential rivalry between himself and Federer could drum up more enthusiasm for the sport.
"I look forward to the chance of playing Roger as many times as possible," Roddick says. "When tennis has been at its most successful stages, it has had rivalries. That doesn't just pertain to tennis. That pertains to any sport you can think of. Rivalries create interest."
He and Gilbert concede, however, that Roddick will have to win a few more matches against Federer before it can be considered a rivalry. The Swiss champion is 7-1 all-time against Roddick, including a tough, four-set victory in this year's Wimbledon men's finals.
"I felt like I was a couple games away at Wimbledon," Roddick says. "I feel like I'm in contention for every slam that I enter. You have to put Roger as the favorite, but I think Roger and I have put up the most solid results in the past year or so."
For now, Gilbert said, Roddick shouldn't measure himself against other players.
"You know where he's at right now," Gilbert says of Roddick. "He's 21 and a guy 22 (Federer), one year older than him, is doing a lot of amazing things. That's why I say you judge yourself against yourself and get better. That's all he can do. It puts a lot of pressure on yourself if, 'I have to win here' or 'I have to win that.' Andy's got amazing talent, and hopefully with all those things together, good things will happen."