Roddick ready for Federer fight

NEW YORK -- Three years, in tennis time, is an eternity. Dog years, one equals seven, almost.

In 2003, Andre Agassi was a spry young man of 33. Jennifer Capriati (remember her?), Chanda Rubin and even Serena Williams (remember her?) were top-10 players. And Andy Roddick, just turned 21, crashed through the draw at the U.S. Open. Creating fireworks with his serve and forehand, Roddick would win the title and heist the No. 1 ranking.

That was B.F. -- Before Federer. Roger Federer lost in the fourth round that year, but since then has been the dominant player in the game. Roddick has spent the last two years struggling to diversify his game to compete with the Swiss champion, recalling Tiger Woods' "slump" when he reshaped his swing.

In the process of bolstering his backhand (actually hitting it down the line) and sharpening his volley, Roddick lost track of his magnificent strengths. His ranking and his confidence ebbed dramatically. When Roddick turned to Jimmy Connors after he lost in the third round at Wimbledon, some sensed a whiff of panic. Now, they smell roses.

In the short span of four weeks, it all seems to have come together for Roddick, now 24 and considerably wiser. Feasting on Connors' legendary belief like IVs of fresh, oxygenated blood, Roddick again has that predatory look in his eye. No one is predicting he will have Tiger-like results, but with Connors in his corner, Roddick has won 18 of 19 matches.

As the shadows lengthened in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday, Roddick put down Mikhail Youzhny, a spirited Russian who is ranked No. 54 in the world, 6-7 (5), 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-3, in the U.S. Open semifinals.

Roddick's opponent in Sunday's championship final, naturally, will be Federer. The world's best player earlier dissected Russian Nikolay Davydenko with typically cool precision, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4. Federer has now reached the final in all four Grand Slams this season and, since Wimbledon 2003, has arrived in 10 of the last 14 major finals.

He's won eight of those matches in a span of just over three years -- only five men have more Grand Slams in their careers -- and the prospects of a ninth are quite good. Federer has won 10 of 11 previous matches against Roddick.

"I'm just going to go out and throw it all at him," Roddick said. "I'm just going to go for it. Just play the way I have. … If the guy plays too well, then he plays too well. But I'm not going to lay down.

"I just want to try and make it a war tomorrow."

Roddick does one thing better -- OK, harder -- than Federer, and he will have to maximize that weapon in the final.

As restaurant hounds know, it's sometimes tough to find good service in Manhattan. But a dozen miles away, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center more than holds its own in that respect. In fact, nobody does it much better than Roddick.

Through six matches, he had more aces than anyone else (95) and had hit the fastest serve (148 mph) -- neither of which is particularly new. What is astonishing is the accuracy Roddick has displayed. Some 395 of his 556 first serves were called good, which translates to a success rate of 71 percent. In the sector of elite tennis, this is an absurdly high number.

That serve percentage through five matches was ranked fourth among all players, which means that despite the larger margin of error with bigger bombs, Roddick still is among the most accurate. Put another way: Roddick has gotten more serves in that most of the clay-court players, who routinely spin the ball in at 100 mph.

No one has ever hit it harder and more accurately. The serve is Roddick's best weapon, and it is the only thing that gives him a remote chance against Federer. Speed, of course, is not everything. While you won't find Federer listed among the top 20 for raw speed or first serve percentage, he wins more games than anyone else and even appears among the ace leaders. The reason is, as fans of Manhattan real estate say, location, location, location.

Roddick's first serves, while good nearly three-quarters of the time, are rarely placed as cleverly as Federer, or Sampras before that. Federer tends to block back Roddick's biggest offerings and, because Roddick is not a gifted volleyer, he rarely takes advantage of those short balls. Tennis aficionados drool at the concept of a fictional Federer-Sampras match with both players in their prime; Sampras, too, had the well-placed serve, but also the ability to move forward and back up it up.

"Andy has a great serve," Youzhny observed. "If Andy can serve really well, he has a chance. But I think 70 percent is to Roger, 30 for Andy."

What does Roddick have to do to win?

"I never beat Roger," Youzhny said, laughing. "I don't know."

Has Roddick found enough variety in his game to hang with the biggest dog? Not based on Saturday's returns.

The consensus around the grounds -- even correcting for home-field American bias -- was that Roddick would need only three sets to romp into the final, maybe four if the Russian could eke out a tiebreaker. Youzhny was making his first-ever Grand Slam semifinal appearance (compared to Roddick's seventh) and was bidding to become the lowest-ranked U.S. Open finalist since ATP rankings were created 33 years ago.

But in tennis, matchups are everything. And Youzhny happens to be a terrific returner of serve. This, combined with Roddick's odd insistence on forcing the issue at net, gave Youhzny the first set. At 6-5 in the tiebreaker, Roddick came in behind a not-deep-enough approach shot and Youzhny hit a rocket that Roddick's backhand volley couldn't keep in the court.

But even as those in the now-nervous crowd at Ashe were revising their calculations, Roddick bageled Youzhny (a verb that, for good reason, appears only in tennis) in a scant 22 minutes to level the match. Roddick served better and Youzhny visibly tightened -- just as Jelena Jankovic and Amelie Mauresmo had the day before in their semifinal matches.

The third set was a replay of the first, except that Roddick won the tiebreaker. With the score 3-3, Roddick smoked a 139 mph serve and then won the set with a sensational piece of defense. His lunging, slashing forehand slice trapped Youzhny at the service line, and the indecisive Russian couldn't pull off an awkward half-volley. A deep backhand down the line led to another Youzhny error and Roddick's unreturnable serve gave him his first lead.

Serving to level the fourth set at 3-4, Youzhny finally cracked. He lost 10 straight points, and when he finally rallied with three winners with Roddick serving for the match, it was too late. Appropriately, the new-and-improved Roddick won his fourth match point standing at the net, with a soft forehand volley.

If Federer has noticed a difference, he isn't saying.

"I haven't seen him enough, to be honest," Federer said, hedging. "I guess he's just serving much better. That's what was letting him down the last year or so. 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."

Roddick, who served 68 percent against Youzhny, will have to do better against Federer.

After the match, Roddick ran through his new inventory. Confidence? Check. Backhand? Check. Serve? Check. Return? Check.

"Mentally," he said, "I'm in a good place right now."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.