Even when Roger Federer isn't lurking in the other half of the draw, he's haunting Andy Roddick.
Federer was at home, thousands of miles away in Oberwil, Switzerland, nursing a tender knee in early August while Roddick was working his way through the field in Washington, D.C.
Roddick was asked if he thought he had as good a chance as anyone to win the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday.
"As good as anyone not named Roger," Roddick quipped.
His wickedly self-deprecating humor got the usual laugh from the assembled reporters. If you can't cry anymore, you've got to laugh. Right?
Roddick is cursed by Federer, the No. 1-ranked player in the world and already a worthy candidate as history's best. Federer has won 10 of the 11 matches between them; the latest was a 6-3, 7-5 decision in last week's Cincinnati Masters final. Three of Roddick's 10 losses came in the Wimbledon semifinals or final. Roddick's lone win came at the 2003 ATP Masters Series event in Canada; he prevailed in a third-set tie-breaker.
Roddick, it now seems certain, is cursed by history, too -- likely to be dogged by Federer for the rest of his career.
This year's final Grand Slam will be no different.
No. 1-seeded Federer -- who has been ranked No. 1 for 83 consecutive weeks, the fifth-longest such streak ever -- is the odds-on favorite. Roddick is among the choices for the other finalist with Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin.
Federer turned 24 on Aug. 8. Roddick's 23rd birthday is the second day of the U.S. Open.
They are roughly the same size -- Roddick is about an inch taller at 6-foot-2 and 13 pounds heavier at 190. But their Grand Slam results have been quite different.
While Roddick won his first (and only) Slam singles title at the 2003 U.S. Open, Federer has won five of the last nine -- three straight Wimbledons and the 2004 Australian and U.S. Opens.
Roddick appeared to have Federer solved at Wimbledon 2004 after winning the first set, but a rain delay allowed Federer to regain momentum and he took the last three closely contested sets. Roddick thought he played better at this year's Wimbledon, but lost in straight sets. His post-match news conference was a string of one-liners.
Is Federer beatable?
"Well," Roddick said with a practiced pause, "he's lost three times this year, right?"
A little later: "I did everything I could. I tried going to his forehand and going in. He passed me. I tried to go to his backhand and coming in. He passed me. Tried staying back. He figured out a way to pass me -- even though I was at the baseline."
Roddick was asked if he was confident playing Federer.
"I don't know about confident," Roddick said. "I think you're trying to find a way to get through. I'm [not] sitting here telling you I'm down two sets thinking, 'I've got this one.'
"You just have to sit back and say 'too good' sometimes. Hope he gets bored or something."
Is there anything negative you can think of to say about Federer?
"Well, he cut his hair," Roddick said. "That's all we had going for us before. There's not much to say other than that. If I said something else, it would be out of jealousy or out of me wanting to win or out of spite."
And then, finally, a serious answer to the daunting place-in-history question:
"Yeah, it's unfortunate," Roddick allowed. "But that's what happens. I'm sure there are a lot of guys who are mad that Pete [Sampras] played. The way he's dominated, I mean, he's beaten the best players in the world in finals, what, 21 straight times? No one's ever done that -- dominated the best players in the world on a regular basis. That's pretty impressive. But I'm not going to sit here and complain about it. It's OK."
Heading into last week's Cincinnati Masters, Federer had a 64-3 record. Going back to Federer's loss to Tomas Berdych at the Olympics, those three losses were the only blemishes on his record over a span of nearly a year.
Safin summoned an extraordinary effort in a five-set championship match at the Australian Open to win 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (9), 9-7. French teenager Richard Gasquet beat Federer in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo, winning the third-set tie-breaker 12-10 and ending the Swiss player's 25-match winning streak. Playing on his least-favorite surface in the only Grand Slam tournament he has yet to win, Federer lost to Nadal in the semifinals at Roland Garros.
Federer avenged his loss to Safin, defeating him in the final at Halle, Germany, and took out Gasquet in the Hamburg final. He beat Roddick in the Wimbledon final, beat Nadal in the final at Miami and Hewitt in the Indian Wells final.
Roddick has had a nice little season, winning 49 of 60 matches and four titles -- San Jose, Houston, Queens and Washington. While Nadal, whose win in Montreal matched him with Federer for an ATP-high nine titles, is the U.S. Open's No. 2 seed, no one would be surprised if Roddick managed to pound his way into the final opposite Federer.
"Roger Federer has a physical and mental advantage over everybody," Roddick said in Washington. "He's doing to tennis what Tiger Woods did to golf a few years ago. He's making us all improve."
Roddick has the game's fastest serve -- he clocked a record 155-mph in a 2004 Davis Cup match -- and a forehand to match. He has worked hard the last several years to make himself more than a one-dimensional player and, truth be told, his backhand and volleying skills have improved.
Roddick has even tried to lose some weight in an effort to get quicker. On the surface, anyway, it hasn't made an appreciable difference.
"It's not an excuse," Roddick said in Washington. "I'm not happy Roger is better than me. It's not a crutch. I came out of that [Wimbledon] match saying, 'I played pretty well and got beat.' If anything, it makes me work harder."
Federer has exceptional tools. His supernatural timing allows him to hit shots with sharper angles than any other player -- maybe ever. His variety and imagination create some truly breathtaking shots.
As ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo noted, Roddick's biggest weapon rarely hurts Federer.
"It isn't a good matchup for Andy because his go-to play, his serve, goes to Federer, whose entire game is a go-to play," Carillo said. "So Andy's best stuff comes back to him and the rest of Roddick can't seem to shake up any of Federer.
"What's striking about it all is that at a time when muscle and power have never been more evident in professional tennis, Roger's game is as relaxed and causal and non-rushed as anyone who's ever played.
"It's the essence of cool."
Said Federer last week in Cincinnati: "It's constant pressure. When it's over, it's kind of a surprise. You can't expect to win all the time. If it keeps on going, it's incredible.''
Roddick continues to try to end the run, a quest that comes at an interesting juncture in his tennis career.
He had barely turned 21 when he won the 2003 U.S. Open, becoming the youngest American to finish the year ranked No. 1. Two years later, he's still stuck on one Grand Slam singles title. Pete Sampras won his first Grand Slam, the 1990 U.S. Open, at the age of 19 and had five in his collection by the time he turned 24. Federer, already with five, is thought to have a reasonable chance to surpass Sampras' men's record of 14 Grand Slam singles championships.
And consider this: In 19 career Grand Slams appearances, Roddick beat only one top 10 player -- Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2003 Open final.
According to Roddick, Federer is the most physically gifted he's played. Moreover, he's improved his only weakness.
"He's just become so solid mentally," Roddick said at Wimbledon. "His first couple of years on the tour, even two years ago, if I would have taken my chances, I would have had a lot better shot. But he's just become a mental force, too.
"You put those two together, and it's a tough combination."
Because he is America's great male tennis hope in the wake of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Roddick endures his share of criticism. When his ATP entry ranking dipped to No. 5, there were questions.
"When you set the bar high, anything less than that is going to be criticized," Roddick said. "If the San Antonio Spurs lose next year in the conference finals, then people are going to be down on them. That's just the way it works, and I understand that.
"I'm in the mix. I'm not really concerned with two or three spots. My goal is that I'm contending for majors. I've put in good results in majors this year, and that's my main concern."
In Washington, Roddick joked that his best chance to beat Federer at the U.S. Open would be to "punch him."
He was asked if he'd relish a meeting at the U.S. Open.
"Listen, I want another crack at him until my record is 1-31," he said, in the final answer of his news conference at the All England Club. "I still want to go against him. You want to compete against the best. He's the measuring stick, so you kind of know where you are and where you go.
"So, you know, I'd love to keep playing him."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.