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Shaky Turf for U.S.

Roddick, Serena Williams expected to have tougher road at All England Club

June 19, 2005|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

He is 0-5 in five-set matches since 2003 and is 2-14 in his career against the two leaders of his peer group, Roger Federer of Switzerland and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.

This surely wouldn't be the description of the second-seeded player at Wimbledon, but it fits all too well for Andy Roddick.

Stray losses are one thing, but his record suggests a pattern -- and a couple of words you would not have used last year when he nearly beat Federer in the Wimbledon final:

Career crossroads.

The arrival of the grass-court season could be something of a balm. Wimbledon, which starts Monday near London, could prevent the former U.S. Open champion, who has struggled most notably in big matches, from slipping further. He is coming off a title at Queen's Club a week ago, winning there for the third consecutive year, and his two losses on grass the last two years have been to Federer at Wimbledon.

"The grass plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said.

Which is why some in U.S. tennis are hesitant to use the word crossroads to describe the state of Roddick's career ... for now.

Roddick's struggles are most notable in the context of other American men: Andre Agassi, who pulled out of Wimbledon, is moving toward the exit; Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent have struggled with injuries in 2005; and James Blake is on the comeback trail.

"He has had a bad run of late," television commentator Mary Carillo said of Roddick. "It can't be a crossroads. Especially on grass with that serve of his.

"The big frustration for Andy is that he's working so hard and it's not showing up in the results. That's an awful time for anybody. It's not like he's slacking, not like he's letting his game go. To me, from listening to him and watching him play, he's gripping. He wants it so badly."

Some of those factors have been evident in 2005. There has been an inability to close out tough matches, ranging from the Australian Open semifinals against Hewitt, the Davis Cup against Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, and most recently on his worst surface, against Jose Acasuso of Argentina on clay at the French Open.

Roddick stayed angry for a couple of days after his loss to Acasuso, saying, "I wasn't the most pleasant person to be around. But at the same time, I had this to look forward to and I know how I can play on grass."

At Queen's, Roddick pulled out a three-set victory over Karol Beck of Slovakia in the third round, and noted: "I've lost a couple tight ones recently, so it was big for me to kind of stick around and hang in there and win one the tough way."

McEnroe was at Queen's and was able to see some flashes of the old Roddick.

"Clearly, this is a big tournament for Andy," McEnroe said. "He has struggled. He's lost some tough matches. What I have sensed missing a little bit from Andy has been that attitude, that in-your-face, stick-it-to-you attitude. I think it's going to be back at Wimbledon. I saw a very positive attitude from him. I think that's a huge key to his success, playing with that little bit of edge."

That's the positive end of it. The flip side came when the Wimbledon draw was released. Roddick, who will play Jiri Vanek of the Czech Republic in the first round, was elevated to the No. 2 spot, moving past Hewitt, a slight likely to fire up the Hewitt camp. Hewitt and Federer are in the same half of the draw and could meet in the semifinals. Roddick is in the same quarter as No. 6 Tim Henman and same half as No. 4 Rafael Nadal of Spain, the French Open champion.

For Roddick, a big threat looms in the second round: 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic of Croatia.

Ivo, non-threatening most of the year, turns into Dr. Ivo -- or is it Dr. Evil? -- for one month on grass. Karlovic beat Hewitt in Queen's, and Roddick needed two tiebreakers against him in the final.

Roddick isn't the only one facing a pivotal moment in his career as well as an early Wimbledon test. Australian Open champion Serena Williams, who lost to Maria Sharapova of Russia in last year's final, arrives in an unfamiliar position of not being the solid favorite.

The two-time Wimbledon champion did not play the French Open because of an ankle injury, and she said in a telephone interview Thursday that it kept her off the court for four weeks. She also spoke of the smothering pressure she felt last year against Sharapova, who won, 6-1, 6-4.

"I thought I was going to win, but I put way too much pressure on myself, I couldn't even hit a ball over the net," Williams said. "I was way too nervous."

Williams said that had not happened before or since.

"Never. It was new and I never felt it again because I didn't want to go through that again," she said. "It was way too awful. Too much. Too hard. I don't want to do that anymore."

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