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Diane Pucin

Roddick's Got Next, if He Likes It or Not

July 27, 2002|Diane Pucin

Andy Roddick is being asked to become Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Roddick is expected to be a classy, focused, Grand Slam-winning machine and to also be full of vim and vigor and charming unreliability. He is supposed to be No. 1 in the world and to have won a Wimbledon or U.S. Open by now.

That's what happens when your country has been blessed with watching the extraordinary talents of two of the greatest champions in tennis history, watching them be rivals for a decade, watching them dominate the sport.

But Roddick is still a kid, a 19-year-old who did time on "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn" wearing jeans so faded they were almost invisible and a tousled T-shirt that must have been pulled out of the laundry basket.

For a year now, Roddick has been tabbed as the single hope of U.S. men's tennis, the only young man with the game and the charisma to take the place of both Sampras and Agassi.

This has happened because Roddick ended last year ranked No. 14 in the world and because he earned the first three tournament titles of his career and because U.S. tennis fans desperately need a winner and because Sampras and Agassi are getting old, are losing their hair and gaining families and getting beaten more and more often.

This happened because Roddick wears his baseball cap backward while he plays tennis and because his game is manic and percussive, a blur of pounding power from the baseline and service line. Roddick has the fastest serve of 2002--144 mph at Wimbledon.

In this "SportsCenter" world, where a 10-second clip is what we see, a 144-mph serve makes the news. But Roddick lost in the third round and that's not how the new Sampras/Agassi is supposed to behave.

"My confidence doesn't waver," Roddick says. "I have too much belief in myself."

He has, at least, a champion's ego, the ability to count on his talent to make him a champion.

He arrived for the Mercedes-Benz Cup ranked No. 12. After Roddick, seeded No. 4, beat No. 7 Xavier Malisse, 6-4, 6-4, Friday in the quarterfinals, his record this year is 39-12.

If you're into comparative statistics, Roddick took 32 events to win his fifth tournament. Lleyton Hewitt, 21, the No. 1 player in the world, needed 34 to win five; Agassi, seeded No. 2 seed, needed 35; Sampras, owner of a record 13 Grand Slam titles, needed 63; Michael Chang needed 75. Or, how about this? After 100 professional matches, Roddick had a 73-27 record. Agassi and Chang were 70-30; Sampras was 60-40.

Yet there has been a murmuring sense that somehow Roddick has become a disappointment already.

At last year's U.S. Open, Roddick lost a tough, tingling quarterfinal match against eventual champion Hewitt. The battle lasted five sets and Roddick crumbled after receiving a bad line call late in the final set.

Hewitt has moved on to win Wimbledon and become No. 1. Roddick had to withdraw from his second-round match at the Australian Open because of an injured ankle. He was upset by journeyman one-shot artist Wayne Arthurs in the first round of the French Open and by plodding Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon.

So in our fast-paced sports world where winners better create themselves quickly, Roddick has come here as a tennis sophomore who is being whispered about. He will never win a Slam, some experts say. He has too much extraneous movement in his groundstrokes. His footwork is sloppy. He should get rid of his lifelong coach, Tarik Benhabiles. That's what European media were writing at Wimbledon. Roddick's game has stagnated, his progress has been halted.

"No way," Roddick says.

Roddick has just finished a fiery hour-long battle against Malisse, a stylish Belgian who was a Wimbledon semifinalist. Roddick had finished off the match with a cannon serve and a follow-up nuclear forehand, the kind that would have knocked a hole in Malisse's stomach had Malisse been able to locate the ball.

During the match, Roddick had tossed a handful of rackets in anger and muttered not-so-sweet nothings to himself on occasion.

If he is asked about bearing the burden of being Sampras and Agassi, of being considered the one and only man right now with enough talent and pizazz to feed the tour its American pie, Roddick sounds weary but resigned. "I guess it's not unfair to have those expectations after last year," he says, "but I think people are being impatient."

Benhabiles, a Frenchman and a former Tour player, says Roddick needs time to mature. "There is only one Pete and only one Andre," Benhabiles says. "And there is only one Andy. This Andy is part of a new generation. Don't judge him yet. Give him three, four, five years."

Roddick says he took it hard, losing to Hewitt in New York last September. He wasn't happy to have lost his composure over the bad call. He shrugs off the two lackluster Grand Slam performances this summer as "just something that happens."

What he should have learned from those disappointments, Benhabiles says, is, in one word, "preparation."

In today's semifinals, Roddick will meet Jan-Michael Gambill. Gambill, a handsome blond with a sparkling smile, had the Roddick tag a couple of years ago. Gambill was going to be the next Sampras/Agassi.

Now Gambill is ranked No. 53. It is where he belongs, where his talent has taken him.

It's too soon to tell where Roddick belongs or where his talent will take him. Or leave him.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com

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