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Roddick, Federer Lead Way

Past champions Hewitt (2002) and Ivanisevic (2001) part of a talented group that will contend for major title starting Monday.

June 20, 2004|From Associated Press

WIMBLEDON, England — Andy Roddick has what it takes to be a transcendent tennis star.

He boasts a record-breaking, highlight-reel-worthy 150 mph serve that makes opponents whiff and spectators gasp. He backs that up with a ferocious forehand, while the rest of his game is steadily improving under Brad Gilbert's tutelage.

It helps that he plays with a Connors-esque energy that can lead to high-fiving fans after a fantastic point. He even has a potential career-long foil: No. 1 Roger Federer.

And unlike 12 months ago at Wimbledon, where play starts Monday, Roddick now possesses something essential to consistently contending at Grand Slam tournaments: a Grand Slam title, earned in September at the U.S. Open.

"I was playing really well at Wimbledon last year, but maybe I didn't have the belief that I have now. Now having won one, that is definitely an advantage for me," Roddick said. "I'd always talked about, before I'd won a Grand Slam, that the only fear is the fear of the unknown. People would ask 'Can you win a Slam?' and I would say 'I'll let you know' -- and that's a big difference."

It's also a big reason why, despite all the apparent depth in tennis (something also interpreted as a lack of top talent), no one would be surprised if Roddick and defending champion Federer square off July 4 for the championship at the All England Club.

A changing of the guard could be in the offing. With Andre Agassi out, citing a hip injury, it's the first time in 16 years neither he nor the retired Pete Sampras is entered.

"I'm disappointed that Andre isn't able to post at Wimbledon this year. I know how much it means to fans to have him on court, and I hope he's able to play soon," Roddick said. "There will be a lot of action for fans to keep up with since the rest of us will be giving it all we've got to try and win the tournament."

That, of course, includes Federer, on a 17-match grass-court winning streak and one of just three past champions in the men's field. The others are Lleyton Hewitt (2002) and Goran Ivanisevic (2001), who hasn't played here since collecting his lone major title and is retiring after the fortnight.

"Next year, I'm going to come as a member with a tie and drink the tea," said Ivanisevic, 32. "But this is going to be my last professional match, and there's no better tournament than Wimbledon to end it."

The man known as Never Borin' Goran isn't the only past champion relishing one last hurrah. Nine-time winner Martina Navratilova, 47 and walking away from the game at season's end, competes in singles here for the first time since 1994.

With tennis' TV ratings in decline, and some observers worrying aloud about the sport's direction, novelty acts like Navratilova's or Ivanisevic's can draw a bit of extra attention.

But it's the real rivalries that drive popularity. Think Sampras-Agassi or Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg.

How about Roddick-Federer?

It's not a done deal that they'll meet in the Wimbledon final, naturally. A group of players could intervene, including Tim Henman, who will reprise his role as the Great British Hope for the locals' first male champion since 1936.

Others include 2002 finalist David Nalbandian, Mardy Fish (the only player to win a set against Federer last year), Swedes Robin Soderling and Joachim Johansson, and (if healthy) Marat Safin, last seen yelling at his hand blisters at the French Open.

Of that group, only Safin owns a Slam title, and for many talented players, it's the first that's the toughest. Federer followed his breakthrough at Wimbledon by winning the Australian Open, part of his tour-high five titles in 2004.

"I feel like there are not many guys left who really have an edge on me," says Federer, 5-1 against Roddick.

If Roddick, 21, is power and brashness, Federer, 22, is versatility and cool. Roddick's only loss in 16 grass matches was to Federer in the 2003 Wimbledon semifinals.

"I see Federer becoming more and more the Borg of the 2000s, with his game and style," said Dick Enberg, who first called Wimbledon on TV 25 years ago. "I don't see him going away for a while."

When it comes to a high Q-rating, Roddick seemingly has all the ingredients. He has a sense of humor and a willingness to promote the sport. He went from dating an actress to dating a model. And he has a cool nickname, albeit one shared with another athlete: A-Rod.

"Roddick gets it," Enberg said. "What I like about him, at his age, is he understands the responsibility of making that connection with the audience."

The Williams sisters remain the sport's most marketable stars, its biggest attractions on and off court. But beset by injuries, they haven't been at their best in a year -- since Serena beat Venus in the Wimbledon final.

Both lost in the French Open quarterfinals, the first time they were bounced in the same round of any tournament.

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