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TENNIS / LISA DILLMAN

Champions Look Out for No. 1

September 09, 2003|LISA DILLMAN

NEW YORK — They were on multimedia treadmills of Open champions Monday, and of course, this being Manhattan, Andy Roddick's was operating faster than Justine Henin-Hardenne's.

Henin-Hardenne was nibbling on a soybean appetizer at Nobu in TriBeCa at the urging of her proud husband, whom she had persuaded to stay for the entire Grand Slam because of their history at the French Open. He'd stayed in Paris and she'd won, and Henin-Hardenne admitted to being a little superstitious.

The 21-year-olds, Roddick and Henin-Hardenne are one spot away from No. 1 rankings. They won their finals at the Open in straight sets, their toughest tests having been in the semifinals. Henin-Hardenne defeated Jennifer Capriati in a classic three-set semifinal, fighting off cramps, and revealing Monday that the worst of the cramping in her left leg occurred after the match when she had an intravenous tube in her left arm.

The jeans-clad Roddick, who saved a match point in the semifinals against David Nalbandian, was holding court at the ESPN SportsZone at Times Square with his entourage and girlfriend, actress Mandy Moore. If it was a considerable challenge for weary journalists to make this TriBeCa-to-Midtown doubleheader in record time, that was nothing compared to Roddick's valiant attempt to keep his eyes open and the words flowing for the scribes, working on a whopping 4 1/2 hours' sleep.

Roddick complied, though, and then some.

So, what was his first thought when he opened his eyes Monday morning? The Open title? Or needing more rest?

"I said, 'It's early.' And I felt better when I went to sleep," said Roddick, who beat Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in straight sets in Sunday's final. "I got a wake-up call. Actually, my sister-in-law, Ginger, called and said, 'Wake up!' A little too cheery for me."

He relented to her friendly powers of persuasion, though, and climbed aboard the treadmill, beginning with the morning shows and culminating by trading verbal ground strokes with David Letterman at night.

"This is fine," he said. "I figure one day of madness and then I can kind of get back to reality."

He spoke of his gradual progression, the pursuit of the No. 1 ranking, Coach Brad Gilbert's impact and his heartfelt conversation with his former coach, Tarik Benhabiles, on Sunday night. Roddick called the Frenchman, who took him from an unheralded junior to the brink of Grand Slam success, and thanked him for his contributions.

In a career-making change, Roddick replaced Benhabiles with Gilbert shortly after losing in the first round at the French Open. Instead of leaving a phone message or sending a terse facsimile, Roddick delivered the news in person, traveling from London to Paris.

"That was probably the roughest day I've been through," he said. "As far as stepping up and having to be an adult about something, and handle something. It wasn't easy. I did what I thought I had to do and what was best for me professionally. I had to be selfish in that case.

"I went to London after Paris because I couldn't stand being in the city and not being in the tournament. I thought about it for a couple of days. I didn't want to make any rash decisions, like I'd just lost. I made sure Tarik was still in Paris. We met up and we talked face to face and I caught the train back to London that night. So I was in Paris for a total of an hour."

His first talk on the phone with Gilbert was brief too.

"That conversation lasted about 6 1/2 minutes," Roddick said. "He said, 'I don't want to do a whole lot of talking and stuff. It's first and 10. Let's try to move the chains forward. Let's start moving them.' "

Roddick's victory seems destined to give the sport a much-needed booster shot. On a personal level, it brought recollections. Monday, a proud family friend stopped a reporter in the hotel lobby and told a story about Roddick's grade-school, tennis-related project and said that his mother, Blanche, still had it at home.

Roddick had to laugh when he recalled his words about a certain tenacious baseliner from Northern California.

"In second grade, they give you this week, you have to write a book about a certain sport or something," he said. "So, obviously, I was 8 and I watched a lot of tennis. I wrote about the players in the Masters that year. I know my mom showed it to Brad the first time she met him and it said, 'Brad Gilbert, No. 6 in the world. But he's the biggest push on tour.'

"That's what moms are supposed to do," Roddick said. "They're supposed to bring back embarrassing stuff and show it to you."

With Gilbert's strategic mind, combined with Roddick's power and improving backhand, merely a few finishing flourishes were needed. Roddick has lost twice since they joined forces in June, winning tournaments at Queen's, Indianapolis, Montreal, Cincinnati and the Open. Now, Ferrero and the No. 1 ranking are tantalizingly close.

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