- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

NEW YORK — The future is as subtle as a frying pan to the face, as nuanced as a Humvee in a soapbox derby. The future wears a baseball cap, swings a sledgehammer forehand and fires whiplash-inducing serves that wouldn’t be out of place on the autobahn. The future, to borrow from “Spinal Tap,” goes to 11.

And the future is now.

In a percussive display of ball-bruising power tennis, Andy Roddick swatted his way to the U.S. Open title, defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3 yesterday afternoon in the tournament final at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It hasn’t sunk in,” said Roddick, who captured his first Grand Slam championship. “I came to this tournament so many times as a little kid and watched from way up there. I don’t believe it.”

For Roddick, the victory was both coronation and validation. Long tabbed as the United States’ next great champion, the 21-year-old Roddick became the youngest American man to win the Open since Pete Sampras in 1990.

Sampras, coincidentally, retired on the first day of the tournament, while Michael Chang bid the game adieu shortly thereafter.

“No more ‘what’s it feel like to be the future of American tennis crap,’” Roddick joked after the match. “I don’t think you could have written a script any better, starting with Pete’s retirement and Chang gone. It’s just too good.”

As was Roddick. Gifted with a slingshot arm that produced an ATP Tour record-tying 149 mph serve earlier this summer, Roddick came out firing, finishing with 23 aces and 46 winners.

In a commanding first set, Roddick won all but one of his first serve points. Sixteen of his 26 serves went unreturned.

“I took it to him,” said Roddick, who hit a tournament-high 38 aces in a semifinal win over Argentina’s David Nalbandian. “I was aggressive. A lead was big today, considering we both have played a lot.”

Facing Roddick for the first time, Ferrero seemed taken aback. Literally. Despite standing some 10 feet behind the baseline, he struggled to bat back Roddick’s blasts, sometimes shrugging in resignation when the ball sped past him.

Following Roddick’s first service game, Ferrero momentarily forgot to change sides — perhaps a sign of fatigue, given that the tournament’s rain-wracked schedule forced Ferrero to play three tough matches over the previous three days, including a tough four-setter against Andre Agassi in the semifinals.

“I didn’t play my best tennis,” Ferrero said. “But Andy played so good. He served unbelievable. I couldn’t do much.”

Still, Ferrero didn’t capitulate: Uncorking a few 120 mph-plus serves of his own, he held serve through the second set, forcing a tiebreak in which neither player held serve through the first five points.

The next point illustrated Ferrero’s dilemma, akin to a soccer goalie in a shootout. Trailing 3-2, Ferrero guessed left on a Roddick serve; the ball went right at 132 mph, Roddick’s 15th ace of the afternoon. Two errant Ferrero forehands later, Roddick sealed the set with a forehand winner.

In the third, Ferrero’s sole double-fault gave Roddick a chance to serve out the match. Fittingly, he crushed three more aces, the last down the middle.

“Thankfully, I didn’t get a chance to get tight,” Roddick said. “I just decided to go with my first serves. Before I knew it, it was over. I just wanted to go as fast as possible so I wouldn’t think about it.”

After his final ace, Roddick fell to his knees, then clambered into the stands to embrace his friends, his parents, coach Brad Gilbert and girlfriend/pop star Mandy Moore.

“I told [my parents], ‘I just won the U.S. Open, I just won the U.S. Open,’” Roddick said. “And my mom said, ‘you just won the U.S. Open, you just won the U.S. Open.’

“I wanted to get to the people I love and share what I was feeling at the time with them. I had brothers fly in from all over the place, friends drive 10 hours to see me play.”

Tabbed for greatness since finishing as the world’s top-ranked junior in 2000 and upsetting Sampras in Miami the next year, Roddick nevertheless entered the afternoon with a history of frustrating Grand Slam exits.

Two years ago, he melted down against Lleyton Hewitt in the Open quarterfinals; last year, the resurgent Sampras blitzed him out of the same round. At this year’s Australian Open and Wimbledon, he fell in the semifinals, the latter a lopsided defeat to Roger Federer.

After the worst of those losses — a first-round flameout at this year’s French Open — Roddick dropped longtime coach Tarik Benhabiles and hooked up with Gilbert, a cerebral ex-pro who formerly worked with Andre Agassi.

Results were immediate. Ripping through the summer hard court circuit, Roddick won titles in Cincinnati and Montreal and carried a Tour-best 18-match win streak into the final.

“My game’s come a long way,” Roddick said. “I think I’ve improved in every aspect of the game.”

More impressively, Roddick appeared more focused on the court — still fiery, but less prone to emotional implosions. When Nalbandian bludgeoned his way to a two-set lead in the Open semifinals, Roddick didn’t panic, instead saving a match point with a 138 mph ace en route to a stirring five-set victory.

“His abilities and his knowledge for playing big points now, it seems to me to be a lot different,” said Jimmy Connors, who was on hand for a pre-match ceremony honoring former Open champions. “He’s not as overanxious at times. He’s able to stay in there, to work the point a little more.”

Widely regarded at the best clay court player in the world, Ferrero had little to hang his head about. Heading into the season, he set three goals for himself: Win the French Open, become No.1 and do well at the Open.

On all counts, the 23-year-old Spaniard was successful. He triumphed at Roland Garros, surpassed his previous Open best — a fourth-round appearance in 2000 — and will become the ATP’s top-ranked player today. Roddick will be No.2.

“I feel a little upset right now,” Ferrero said. “But tomorrow, I’ll be No1. So it’s going to be a big day for me.”

Still, the afternoon — and the Open trophy — belonged to Roddick. As he stood at midcourt following match point, the moment washing over him, he held a hand to his face, blinking back tears.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”

Believe it. Like one of Roddick’s serves, the future gets closer all the time. Yesterday, it arrived.

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