- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — The serve is percussive. The forehand cutting. Even the backhand is holding up.

With each impressive victory — the pieces of his game falling into place like Tetris blocks — Andy Roddick looks more and more like a Wimbledon champion.

Not that he wants to hear about it.

“It’s just speculation, dude,” Roddick said last week. “Doesn’t affect what goes on between the lines.”

Maybe not. But given Roddick’s recent play between said lines, it’s hard to fault the oddsmakers and commentators who have proclaimed him the tournament favorite.

Seeded No. 5, Roddick rides an eight-match grass court winning streak into today’s fourth-round contest against No. 12 seed Paradorn Srichaphan. He has yet to surrender a set during the fortnight, overpowering opponents with a punishing baseline game and a first serve that sometimes tops 140 mph.

Should Roddick defeat Srichaphan, 1-1 against Roddick and an Andre Agassi-slayer at last year’s Wimbledon, he faces a possible semifinal showdown with No. 4 seed Roger Federer in a draw that has opened up following the first-round exit of defending champion Lleyton Hewitt.

“[Roddicks] got a great opportunity to go all the way if he can keep up the intensity,” said Greg Rusedski, a straight-set loser to Roddick in the second round.

Dubbed the future of American tennis by no less an authority than Pete Sampras, the 20-year-old Roddick has spent most of his nascent professional career laboring to fulfill outsized expectations.

Ranked No. 7 in the world and the owner of seven tournament titles, Roddick won a career-best 56 matches last year, becoming the youngest American to finish in the ATP’s year-end top 10 since Michael Chang in 1992.

In 11 Grand Slams, however, Roddick has advanced to the fourth round or better just four times. Last year, he was blitzed by Rusedski at Wimbledon, then brushed aside by Sampras at the U.S. Open — the latter defeat so lopsided that commentator Boris Becker suggested that Roddick “get off the court.”

Following an inspiring semifinal run at the Australian Open in January — highlighted by an epic five-set quarterfinal win over Younes El Aynaoui — Roddick again faltered, inexplicably falling to Sargis Sargsian in the first round of the French Open.

That loss prompted Roddick to drop longtime coach Tarik Benhabiles in favor of Brad Gilbert, the former player who helped guide Andre Agassi back to the top of the rankings.

“Andy has shown that he’s committed to learning and to pushing himself forward,” Agassi said last week. “I think he made a great decision in Brad.

“Brad came in and taught me how to play the game, taught me to start thinking for myself out there. He just always had a lot of information to give.”

Though the usually loquacious Gilbert insists that the only major change he’s made is getting Roddick to dump his trademark “Freddie Couples” visor — a much-chagrined Roddick now sports a baseball cap — the results of their pairing have been immediate.

Roddick captured his first grass court title at the Queen’s Club warmup tournament earlier this month, defeating Agassi and Rusedski en route. Against Agassi, the game’s top returner, Roddick fired 27 aces and an ATP record-tying 149 mph serve.

“I think Gilbert has added an extra dimension,” Rusedski said. “He’s standing further back on the returns. His backhand is very reliable now. He’s taking time better. He’s doing things a little bit more intelligently out there.”

Intelligent play hasn’t always been Roddick’s forte. Though his outwardly emotional style has made him a crowd favorite, Roddick’s temper and impatience have sometimes gotten the better of him — most notably in a five-set loss to Hewitt in the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals that saw Roddick lose focus following a questionable line call.

At Wimbledon, by contrast, Roddick has been the picture of composure under pressure, winning 15 of 16 tiebreak points. Ballcap pulled low, his expression intense, he recalls the ultra-professional Agassi — who in turn was influenced by Gilbert, a graceless but cerebral player and author of the book “Winning Ugly.”

“You don’t become physically better overnight,” Roddick said of his month-old partnership with Gilbert. “A lot of it’s just between the ears, keeping calm.

“I’m more focused, more relaxed. On the court, I’m not getting as into it maybe. But maybe that keeps me into it over the long haul, instead of having peaks and valleys.”

That much was evident against Rusedski. Down 5-3 in the third and looking at the possibility of a five-set match against a hard-serving British favorite on Centre Court, Roddick had every right to get nervous.

Instead, it was the veteran Rusedski who lost his cool, unleashing an expletive-laced tirade after a fan called a ball out. As Rusedski slowly unspooled, Roddick took advantage, breaking him twice to win in straight sets.

“To be honest, I was trying to ignore [Rusedskis tantrum],” Roddick said. “I was trying to focus on what I had to do instead of worrying about everything that was going on around me.”

Perhaps ominously for the rest of the draw, Roddick’s much-maligned backhand also has shown signs of improvement.

In their last Wimbledon meeting, Roddick was unable to muster backhand passes against Rusedski’s relentless serve-and-volley assault; this time around, Roddick hit a handful of net-skimming winners.

“Last year, I can remember hitting one backhand passing shot in the whole day,” Roddick said. “I remember feeling a little embarrassed about it.

“[Improvements are] just a lot of hard work. Some days it’s there. Some days it’s not.”

Fortunately for Roddick, his overpowering serve has been a model of Sampras-esque consistency. Broken once in 46 service games, Roddick has 37 aces, is connecting on better than 65 percent of his first serves and has won more than 80 percent of his first serve points.

Surprisingly, Roddick confesses that the unusual motion responsible for his pop — a short, compact swing, followed by an explosive wrist snap — came by accident.

“I just got [ticked] off in practice one day and went to the half motion,” he said last week. “I hit two serves, that worked for two serves, the rest is history.”

As was the case with Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon winner, Roddick’s massive serve gives him a huge margin of error on grass, allowing him to win matches even when the rest of his game isn’t quite up to snuff.

Mostly outplayed by third-round opponent Tommy Robredo, the No. 25 seed, Roddick responded with nine aces and 33 service winners.

Time and time again, Robredo would hit a clever drop shot or a powerful forehand to take a 15-0 or 30-15 lead on Roddick’s serve; time and time again, Roddick would pound a series of unreturnable serves, snuffing any chance of an upset.

“It’s one of the biggest serves, no question, speed-wise,” Rusedski said. “It’s also getting the accuracy with the speed, and that’s what he’s improved quite a bit.”

Thailand’s Srichaphan, a devout Buddhist who often meditates at a nearby temple, was asked if the temple’s monks could help quiet down Roddick’s serve.

“I don’t think so,” he said with a smile. “I just try to get the ball back and play in the point.

“His [serves] really kick, especially his second serve. I played him twice … it could be over my head sometimes.”

According to local oddsmakers, Srichaphan isn’t the only one in over his head. Following the Rusedski match, famed British bookmakers William Hill made Roddick a 5-2 favorite to win the title, ahead of even Agassi.

Not that Roddick wants to hear it.

“Bookmakers don’t play matches,” he said.

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