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TENNIS

New U.S. Teen Spirit Works for Roddick

April 02, 2001|Lisa Dillman

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — "Hey, Mister Roddick . . ."

The autograph hunters, poised on the other side of the fence, were doing their polite best to capture the attention of Andy Roddick. If you've never seen Roddick, he certainly looks like someone named Andy. Young and younger.

"Yeah, mister . . . I'm 18 years old," he said, smiling.

The kid who looks more like a high school sophomore, Roddick could be the younger brother of one of the "New Balls, Please" group. Instead, he was enjoying an emotional ride after a breakthrough victory over Pete Sampras last Sunday. Yet he remembered he was one of those autograph-seeking kids not long ago.

"I'll get you guys in a little bit," he said to the kids. "I'm doing something right now."

The best American male prospect in years is the genuine article. Maybe it's because he was born in Omaha. When a writer from a major national magazine showed up at his house last year for an interview, his mother baked cookies. Roddick's grandmother was there too.

More important, his parents have not become part of the story, monitoring his every utterance. Reporters don't have to go through his coach, agent or parents simply to speak to him.

Media attention started last year when Roddick won the Australian Open junior title, the first U.S. male to do so since Butch Buchholz in 1959. Shortly after, he turned pro and last spring played Andre Agassi at the Ericsson, losing in straight sets but impressing many by hitting a 134-mph serve.

Then came an initiation of sorts. Roddick was the Davis Cup practice partner for the U.S.-Czech Republic quarterfinal and, as the new kid, he got to listen to then-captain John McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras, and, of course, Brad Gilbert. Agassi teased him, and McEnroe was impressed that Roddick took the verbal battering and kept quiet.

So, how nerve-racking was that day at the Forum?

"Extremely," Roddick said. "I was there with Mac, Pete and Andre and no one even knew who I was. It was kind of like I was trying to show them that I could play a little bit. I was nervous. Andre and I had played the week before, and he was asking me about some of the shots I hit, riding me a little bit."

Trying to string a few shots together at practice, let alone a few words, was hardly routine.

"What am I going to do? I'm not going to talk trash to Andre and Pete [and McEnroe], I don't think so," Roddick said. "It's not like I can make fun of them or anything. They are the two, three greatest players of all time. I couldn't exactly get my two cents in."

Despite the victory over Sampras, Roddick remains respectful toward him, as well as Agassi.

And Agassi hasn't forgotten Roddick. The 30-year-old dropped in for a few minutes of television commentary during the teenager's fourth-round match against Andrei Pavel of Romania. Then, during a rain delay, Agassi went to the locker room to offer a few pointers, urging Roddick to bring his kick serve out wide.

Roddick won the match in straight sets.

Often, youngsters find it difficult to play the next round after pulling a major upset, but Roddick kept on going until he lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the quarterfinals.

"It was tough because I had a day off and everybody I saw, that's the only thing they wanted to talk about was that [Sampras] match," said Roddick, who lives in nearby Boca Raton. "So I actually locked myself in my room. I talked to my friends, went on line, watched a couple of movies."

Roddick's biggest lesson in 2001 may have come from a loss. In Memphis, Tenn., he won the first set of a second-round match against Tommy Haas of Germany in a tiebreaker and promptly self-destructed.

"I was on an emotional high," he said. "The first game of the second set was going to be really big. I got three really, really bad calls, like, really bad. It was pretty obvious, the same person [on the line]. I kind of lost it, lost my cool and didn't stay very composed. But I think it helped me a lot because I told myself I wasn't going to do it again. It cost me a great opportunity."

What has helped more recently is the progress of two other young Americans, Taylor Dent of Newport Beach and Mardy Fish of Vero Beach, Fla. Dent took Gustavo Kuerten to three sets at Indian Wells and beat Magnus Norman in January. Fish, a junior buddy of Roddick, defeated Mark Philippoussis at Indian Wells.

Thus, the pressure to be the next great American isn't concentrated solely on Roddick.

"All the young guys are pretty close," he said. "Mardy and I have known each other, and we grew up with Taylor in juniors. I'm probably the most outgoing of all three of us. Mardy and Taylor are a little bit more reserved. We have a lot of similarities. We all like sports. We're just normal kids."

The kids are doing all right. Fish has consistent groundstrokes while Dent and Roddick have explosive serves. Roddick created his service motion on his own last year.

"It came from practice one day when I was struggling with my serve," he said. "So I just kind of stepped to the line and served with a half motion, and I hit it hard. I kind of did a double-take, and hit it for the rest of the day like that. And it worked."

Sampras certainly noticed.

Now, so has everyone else in tennis.

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