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Roddick Could Be Tennis' Alter Boy

The sport would worship a kid with the talent and charisma to change game -- if he wins Wimbledon.

June 30, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England -- At the world's most sacred tennis tournament, the middle Sunday of Wimbledon is less a religious Sabbath than a day of rest. Mostly, at this grotto of the sport, it is a day of contemplation.

Wimbledon has reached the round of 16. Today, the schedule calls for eight men's and eight women's singles matches. That makes it Magnificent Monday.

For the sake of the sport, it would truly be magnificent if Andy Roddick won.

It has been written before, and it will be written again. Tennis is a sport in need of a new superstar. And Roddick is one of the few right now whose foot will fit into Cinderella's slipper.

Roddick plays Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, and victory is nowhere near assured. Srichaphan is seeded 12th here, seven spots below Roddick. But it was Srichaphan who upset Andre Agassi in last year's Wimbledon and who was one of only two players on the tour, along with Carlos Moya, to have wins last year against Lleyton Hewitt, Agassi, Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Those just happened to be the players who ended the year ranked Nos. 1-4.

With Roddick, the attractions are obvious.

There is youth. He won't turn 21 until Aug. 30.

There is promise. Last December, he became the youngest American to hold a year-end ranking in the top 10 since Michael Chang in 1992. Also, he has had compelling runs in the U.S. Open the last two years and the Australian this year. His public-awareness rating skyrocketed after his marathon match with Younes El Aynaoui at Melbourne, where he battled like a warrior in a five-hour quarterfinal and won the fifth set, 21-19. But that thrill turned to a chill when, playing with an injured arm, he lost his semifinal to Germany's Rainer Schuettler

Mostly, there is charisma, something that crafty guru Brad Gilbert, Roddick's new coach, spotted quickly when he made his student dump the visor he had always worn. Men's tennis players digging deep for victories in long matches against other great players, as well as against wind and heat and unfriendly crowds, don't wear visors, Gilbert reasoned. Golfers advertising golf balls do.

Roddick has the huge serve that attracts the fans, and Gilbert is likely to get him to follow it to the net more often. He also has the kind of fire that fans love. That suited him perfectly in the last two U.S. Opens, where his most memorable matches were at night, when the stockbrokers have a few cocktails, take the train out from Manhattan to Flushing Meadow, where they have a few more and then treat the tennis as if it is World Cup soccer. Properly freed of inhibitions, they prodded Roddick into two quarterfinals, and Roddick rode the wave nicely.

The charisma thing in tennis isn't exclusively an American thing, although it certainly doesn't hurt when it comes time for branding and marketing and all those things that American dollars pay the bulk of. Australia's Patrick Rafter had it. So did Germany's Boris Becker.

And it is not that tennis is currently devoid of charismatic players. Agassi is the best of the best at that. The Williams sisters have their own brand, and it works nicely.

But they aren't new. And the ranks are thinning.

Pete Sampras was a compelling figure first because of the way he played, and later because of what he accomplished and how he dealt with his quest for history. But he is, for all intents and purposes, gone, retired and unlikely to come back and fight all the battles needed to be at the top.

Goran Ivanisevic was one of the most colorful players ever to pick up a racket, and his Wimbledon victory two years ago gave the sport a huge boost. But he is, for all intents and purposes, gone, injured and not young enough to come all the way back.

Martina Hingis was a fascinating player who was both good and cocky about it. She spent years playing as many events as it took to remain No. 1 and answered most questions that appeared to raise doubts about her stature or game by pointing to that ranking. But she is, for all intents and purposes, gone, injured, probably retired and simply not big and strong enough to compete with the Williams sisters anyway.

So tennis needs a new face for the cover of People magazine, and Roddick is it.

That is, if he wins Wimbledon.

People doesn't put semifinalists on the cover. Nor do talk radio guys chat about near misses or great efforts, especially in tennis. Sports editors, most of whom rate tennis an afterthought on their priority list, find spots on Page 12 for stories of those who almost did it.

Today, Roddick's match is the second up on Centre Court. The people who make a living in tennis, especially those executives who run it, will be tuned in, no matter what time zone they are in.

They know that Roddick holds a key to their future kingdom, although in public they will blather on about future stardom for Roger Federer or Ferrero, both fine players who simply do not pass the charisma test.

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