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Poorly Drawn Character

Roddick Has Talent, Personality to Burn, but He Faces a Tough Road at Australian Open

January 13, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — Athletes In Acting.

Sure, it's always harder than it appears. For every star turn, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in "Airplane," there is a wooden Wayne Gretzky on "Saturday Night Live."

Teenager Andy Roddick was finding this out shortly before Christmas at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, even though he was playing himself, not required to sing or dance. "I probably wouldn't have been caught dead doing a play," he said.

Hollywood wanted him to be himself. No problem ... once the cameras stopped rolling on the set of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Sabrina, played by Melissa Joan Hart, was spraying balls, off the court, and right at Roddick.

"You hit the ball well, Sabrina, you just have to learn how to hit it in the court," Roddick said.

Roddick was asked to project more. There are similarities to his day job, of course, doing the same thing over and over for hours. Once you get something right, something else goes wrong.

"I get the dialogue right and then I don't step out," Roddick said.

He's had those days on the court, too. The serve is fine, but the volley isn't.

At the club, there was no crowd of 15,000, cheering his every gesture. In some ways, it's tougher in front of the small crew and cast on location. "I just don't want to mess up," he said.

Even Roddick couldn't help Sabrina, who had to resort to magic to compete against her boyfriend on the court. And, maybe there should have been some sort of cosmic tradeoff--she could have summoned her powers to change his lousy draw at the Australian Open, which starts Monday.

You begin to wonder about magic, superstitions and flat-out bad luck for the top Americans when the 13th-seeded Roddick landed in the same quarter of the draw as two-time defending champion and third-seeded Andre Agassi, No. 8 Pete Sampras and No. 9 Marat Safin of Russia. What's this? Legends vs. kids?

Still, any conspiracy theories are dismissed when the case of Australian favorite Lleyton Hewitt is considered. The U.S. Open champion and top-ranked player, who is recovering from a recent run-in with chickenpox, was not exactly handed a cure when the draw came out. He will open against Alberto Martin of Spain and is in the same half as Agassi, Sampras, Roddick and company.

The women's draw is not nearly as unbalanced. Venus Williams, seeded second, will try to win her third consecutive Grand Slam, following her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2001. For the first time, she has put in early preparation in Australia, winning the Gold Coast tournament two weeks ago. Williams is unbeaten in 20 matches since losing to Meghann Shaughnessy in Palo Alto in July.

She could meet her younger sister, fifth-seeded Serena Williams, in the semifinals if Serena gets past a possible quarterfinal against No. 3 Martina Hingis of Switzerland. Hingis, who defeated Shaughnessy, 6-2, 6-3, on Saturday in Sydney to win her first tournament title in 11 months, has played in the last five Australian Open finals, winning three. Her last Grand Slam title was the 1999 Australian Open, but since losing the top ranking last year, Hingis seems to have relaxed, adopting the role of challenger.

Lindsay Davenport, recovering from knee surgery, will not play.

Defending champion Jennifer Capriati is coming off a shaky performance in a three-set loss to Alexandra Stevenson in Sydney, and finds herself in the same half of the draw as Belgians Kim Clijsters, seeded fourth, and Justine Henin, seeded sixth. Stevenson and Anna Kournikova would be considered two dangerous, unseeded floaters, if not for their first-round draws.

Stevenson will play No. 10 Shaughnessy in the first round, and Shaughnessy beat her in the quarterfinals in Sydney and reached the final when Serena Williams retired because of injury. Kournikova will meet Henin in her first match at Melbourne.

An early Kournikova departure would turn full Australian attention back to the fortunes of Hewitt and his troublesome draw. His quarter is almost ridiculously loaded with talent. There's 11th-seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland, No. 7 Tommy Haas of Germany and two former Australian Open finalists, Carlos Moya of Spain and Marcelo Rios of Chile. Federer won the tour event in Sydney after beating Roddick in the semifinals. Rios, a former No. 1, is one of the most dangerous floaters, along with Australian Mark Philippoussis, who is in the lower half.

And, another former Australian Open finalist is in Hewitt's portion of the draw: No. 15 Arnaud Clement of France, who lost to Agassi in straight sets in last year's final.

This tournament has not been kind to native sons. It has been almost 14 years since an Australian male reached the final (Pat Cash), and the most recent singles champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

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