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Roddick Is Tough Enough

Tennis: Fourth-seeded player uses powerful serve to defeat Vahaly, 7-5, 6-4, at the Mercedes-Benz Cup.

July 25, 2002|BILL DWYRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As expected, Andy Roddick made his way into the quarterfinals of the Mercedes-Benz Cup tennis tournament Wednesday night at UCLA tennis center. Not as expected, he got a tough match.

Roddick beat Brian Vahaly, 7-5, 6-4, and if you are a tennis fan and haven't heard the name Vahaly before, you are in the majority.

Vahaly just turned 23, is the winningest player in the history of the University of Virginia and that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee. Since then, he has been one of those struggling nameless, faceless players slugging away in minor league tournaments in such places as Aptos, Calif., and Quoque, N.Y., in the hopes of getting into the big time.

Well, Vahaly made it Wednesday night. Featured match, night session, crowded stands of 6,764 against a marquee star just miles from Hollywood. He got there by winning three Challenger tournaments, compiling a 25-5 record out in the tennis boondocks, scratching enough points out there to take his ranking from No. 403 at the end of last year to No. 118, and beating veteran Italian player David Sanguinetti in the first round here. It was Valhalla for Vahaly.

And then along came Roddick, bigger, taller, stronger and three years his junior, firing serves and forehands the likes of which Vahaly had never seen before. "His serve was the best thing I've ever seen in my life," the bright, quotable Vahaly said. "It was so fast, not only did I not see it, but I had no chance to hit it. I have played a lot at the Challenger level. This was a level way above that."

Still, somehow, with a tough baseline game and a calm demeanor that did not give away the fact that he was totally in awe of where he was and what he was doing, Vahaly got to two set points against Roddick's serve at 4-5 of the first. He did not get either, and he was refreshingly open about saying why.

"I couldn't believe that was happening to me, that I had two set points against Andy Roddick," he said. "So, pretty much, I just froze. I had my best shot, a backhand passing shot, and I couldn't believe I was looking at that with a chance to break. So I froze."

If honesty won tennis matches, Vahaly would be No. 1 in the world.

He also said that, when Roddick tossed in a 135-mph second serve ace, it was something he had never seen before. "I've never even seen a serve over 128 before," he said.

And after revealing that he had a chance to practice with Pete Sampras in Palm Desert earlier in the year, he was asked to compare Roddick's serve to that of Sampras. "The only way I can compare is to tell you I can't return either one of them," he said, smiling again.

The 6-foot-2 Roddick, whose feet are about as long as Valhaly's arms, gave his rookie opponent credit afterward.

"Anybody who can win as much as he has, at any level of tennis, is a good player," Roddick said. "The only difference between us was my serve. I don't think this guy is going to lose to a lot of players who don't have that extra weapon."

Roddick is seeded fourth here. No. 3 Sebastian Grosjean of France was an upset victim, losing to fellow Frenchman Michael Llodra, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3), and No. 8 Max Mirnyi of Belurus took out Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, the conqueror of Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, 7-6 (3), 6-3.

In the second night match, Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse of Belgium defeated Orange County product Taylor Dent, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.

*

An eventful year for Alex Bogomolov Jr. has became even more significant this week.

Bogomolov, a 19-year-old Russian-born American whose claim to fame had been beating Roddick in the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s Super National Hardcourt Championships' boys' 16 title match three years ago, took a significant step up in competition when he turned professional at last year's U.S. Open.

But he is quickly proving he was ready for the jump.

A qualifier who came into the Mercedes-Benz Cup ranked No. 278 in the world, he will face Nicolas Kiefer of Germany in a second-round match at noon today after a 6-4, 6-4 upset Tuesday night of another German star, top-seeded Tommy Haas, the No. 3 player in the world.

"I couldn't fall asleep at all last night," Bogomolov said. "I called my sister in Miami. I woke her up at four in the morning, and she was pretty mad about that.

"But then when I told her the reason, she was really happy for me, and she couldn't sleep either."

*

Staff Writer Lauren Peterson contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT INFOBOX)

At a Glance

What: Mercedes-Benz Cup

Where: L.A. Tennis Center, UCLA

Today's featured matches: Starting at noon on stadium court--Alex Bogomolov Jr. vs. Nicolas Kiefer, followed by Jan-Michael Gambill vs. Noam Okun, followed by Gustavo Kuerten vs. Martin Lee; not before 7:30 p.m.--Robby Ginepri vs. Andre Agassi.

Tickets: (310) 824-1010, ext. 251, or (877) 528-3664

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