NEW YORK — Jimmy Connors vs. Roger Federer at the U.S. Open would have been a fascinating study in contrasting methods and styles.
Alas, Federer was born a few years too late and Connors didn't have another comeback in him. So it will have to be rivalry by transference today in the men's final at the Open: Federer vs. the son of Jimbo. Well, the symbolic son of Jimbo.
Ninth-seeded Andy Roddick, the newly minted protege of Connors, reached the final by defeating Mikhail Youzhny, 6-7 (5), 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-3, in the semifinals Saturday. His match put the drama back in the day after the top-seeded Federer had vacuumed it out of the stadium in the opener, beating No. 7 Nikolay Davydenko, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4.
"I'm just going to go out and throw it all at him," Roddick said of playing Federer. "Just play the way I have. We've been simplifying it. If the guy plays too well, then he plays too well. But I'm not going to lay down."
Even from his lofty position in the clouds, Federer has noticed a difference in Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion who had struggled through most of 2006.
"I guess he's serving much better again because that's what was letting him down the last year or so," Federer said. "People were returning him too easy. Obviously, if you return Andy Roddick well you're always in for a chance. That's what he's been able to do better again."
Federer, aiming for his third consecutive U.S. Open title and ninth Grand Slam victory, is 10-1 against Roddick and has lost just once when he has reached a Slam final, to Rafael Nadal at the French Open in June. Federer won the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles this year.
Then again, Federer has never played the Roddick/Connors hybrid. It might sound like a science fiction project, but Connors seems to have transferred enough of his swagger and legendary backhand to Roddick to make a difference.
What was once a barely passable backhand is now, shockingly, being used to hit winners down the line. Roddick is confident enough to hit the backhand with power, rather than just slicing it to buy some time to get back into the point.
"Federer certainly is the No. 1 player, but there's a third name now in the mix, which is the way it should be: Nadal, Federer and now Roddick," Connors said after the semifinals.
They started to work together in Santa Barbara shortly before the tournament at UCLA in July. Connors told Roddick earlier at the U.S. Open that he had been hoping their improvements would surface by early next year, perhaps at the Australian Open. The eight-time Grand Slam tournament winner, whose last U.S. Open was in 1992, echoed those sentiments Saturday.
"I thought whatever happened, this was a bonus," Connors said. "He is the quickest learner I've ever been around."
Roddick refused to get deflated Saturday after losing the first-set tiebreaker, and promptly broke the 54th-ranked Russian in the opening game of the second set and ran off five more games before Youzhny steadied.
The key was the third-set tiebreaker. Youzhny started by double-faulting, later netted a volley, and seemed unsure of his court positioning in making the transition forward. Down 4-3 in the tiebreaker, he found himself stranded in the dreaded no-man's land and lost the point.
"Ah, it was the wrong thing to do," he said. "First, I want to go into the net. I stopped just ... middle of the court. I cannot go forward. I cannot go back."
Call it stranded in the semifinals. The Russian didn't have much to offer in terms of what Roddick needed to do today.
"I never beat Roger," Youzhny said. "I don't know how I need to play against him and beat him. But Andy has a great serve. Against Roger, very tough to serve well all the match. If Andy will serve really well, he has chances."