Killion: Whether up or down, Roddick enjoys ride
By Ann Killion
Mercury News Sports Columnist
When Andy Roddick takes the court at HP Pavilion tonight, he'll probably be wearing his signature Lacoste hat, the one with the alligator symbol. But he could just as well be wearing one with a question mark.
Because questions keep following Roddick.
Is Roddick, the top seed at the SAP Open and the sixth-ranked player in the world, still the great hope for American men's tennis? Or is Roddick, at 25, a player whose best chance at Grand Slam titles has already come and gone?
The questions started earlier than usual this year, after Roddick's disappointing loss in the third round of the Australian Open to German Philipp Kohlschreiber. Despite unleashing his best weapon - his serve - and collecting 42 aces in the match, Roddick lost in five sets.
"I took one on the chin a little earlier than I wanted to," Roddick said in a conference call leading up to the SAP Open. "This is an important tournament for me coming off a disappointing Australian Open."
Roddick, a two-time SAP champion, won his first Grand Slam title in 2003 at the U.S. Open, shortly after turning 21. He was immediately deemed the new face of American tennis. Since then, he has reached three other Grand Slam finals - at Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005, at the U.S. Open in 2006 - and lost them all. Each loss came at the hands of Roger Federer, fueling the story line that America's best tennis hope was just unlucky, his prime years running smack into the greatest man ever toplay the game.
But Roddick's play has been erratic of late. And recent results, including the eye-opening ones at the Australian Open, indicate that a new generation in men's tennis is on the rise. In short, Roddick's competition is more than just Federer.
Novak Djokovic, who beat Federer on his way to the title in Australia, is 20. Rafael Nadal is 21. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Nadal to reach the Australian final, is 22. There is a lot of depth in men's tennis, and Roddick has seen it coming.
"Surprised? Yes," Roddick said when asked about Tsonga's run in Melbourne. "Shocked? No."
But the depth in the sport hasn't included American tennis. The pressure and focus is on Roddick because, aside from James Blake, there isn't much impressive talent surrounding him. Roddick said he's hopeful about the development of young American talent but that there is still a lot of work to do.
"I think there's no substitute for hard work," Roddick said. "To be honest with you, that's one of the things that lacks when you see the young American players. It puts a different dynamic on things when you're playing tennis to find a way out of the country as opposed to playing for fun."
Roddick, by all accounts, has been putting in the work. He has been emphasizing his backhand and his fitness with coach Jimmy Connors. He came into Australia fit and confident, something he said might actually have hurt him. In analyzing his loss to Kohlschreiber, Roddick thought he relied too much on movement and not enough on his big forehand.
Roddick believes that, with age, he has become a more complete player.
"Sometimes you miss the youthful ignorance a little bit," he said. "I used to not really recognize situations too much or realize that they were actually important. Sometimes that worked to my benefit."
Roddick is an easy player to cheer for. Though he can be petulant on the court, in a manner reminiscent of Connors - during his loss in Australia, he erupted at the chair umpire and was snippy with the media - Roddick can also be charming, funny and insightful.
He has made playing for his country a priority. He was at the Olympics in 2004, staying in the village and relishing the experience. He led the United States to an emotional Davis Cup championship last fall, and is back working to defend the title. Earlier this month he played a Davis Cup match in Austria, and will lead the Americans against France in April - when he'll get a chance to face Tsonga and Richard Gasquet, who knocked him out of Wimbledon last summer.
"I'm passionate about it," Roddick said. "Representing your country is an honor."
And Roddick has refreshing perspective on his recent ups and downs.
"That's sports, man," he said after losing to Kohlschreiber. "If you don't want an emotional roller coaster, if you want to be serene and chilled out all day, then get a job serving margaritas at the beach."
Roddick isn't at the beach. He's here, trying to answer the same old questions.
look who's in San Jose
Andy Roddick, left, 1st seed at the SAP Open, and James Blake, 2nd seed, pose for a photograph during a ceremony at the SAP Tennis Open, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008 in San Jose, Calif