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The Life

June 25, 2001
ESPN The Magazine

"Get ready. After this, your life will never be the same."
- Ben Affleck to Josh Hartnett on the set of Pearl Harbor

It changed for the kid when he won the Australian Open, Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl junior tournaments in succession -- the first teenager ever to cop that trifecta. It changed at the Ericsson in Key Biscayne when he pummeled Pete Sampras, once jamming him in the chest with a serve so enormous that Sampras recoiled in horror. ("Almost decapitate you?" someone asked. "That, and something else," Sampras said with a chuckle.) It changed when he won Atlanta and Houston, two tournaments in a row, on clay for Borgsakes, in the process buying up tickets for all the Texas fans who had stayed late to watch him one night. It inexorably changed in Paris when he cramped up painfully against Michael Chang yet still managed to hang on for a victory, serving 37 aces in the midst of an ancient, tennis-wise nation that had never seen anything like him before. Mon Dieu! On several continents now, grown-up men gape, in thrall to the tall, lanky teen's powerful serve and weight of shot. Their sons seek out his handwriting, towels and wristbands. Older women want to mother him, younger ones want to squeal for him. And the babes in the middle, whether in purple hair, bejeweled navels or denim barely covering their flashing booties? Don't ... even ... ask.

Andy Roddick
The savior of American tennis?

"My goodness, this guy might win 20 Slams -- if the women don't get him first," says one veteran touring pro. As Mae West once said: "Goodness has nothing to do with it." Or maybe it does.

Andy Roddick will not turn 19 until the middle of the U.S. Open. As a player, he is confirming all the hype and hope that has swirled around him since he was in swaddling Reeboks: that he's the best-equipped American prospect to burst upon international tennis since the Final Four generation of Sampras, Agassi, Chang and Courier. As a person, Roddick seems as consumed with goodness as with his outrageous athletic talent.

Humble, polite, appreciative, honest, brave, on time, values-driven, self-assured, unspoiled, sensitive, mature, "sirs" and "ma'ams" to his elders. Well, most of the time. Following his nearly four-hour epic of drama and peril against Chang, the wasted Roddick perked up when greeted by the sage of tennis journalism, Bud Collins, who is more than half a century his senior.

"Bud! What's happenin', dude?" Roddick shouted.

"You play today?" Collins joked.

"Nawww, man," Roddick said.

Two days later, after the 6'1", 180-pound Nebraska native suffered a pulled hamstring and had to abandon his next match in Paris -- at a set-all, 2-all, against world No. 6 Lleyton Hewitt -- he further confirmed his refreshing, people-friendly nature when he paused while limping off the court to sign tennis balls for some kids who weren't much younger than he. "You can't become, like, mean, just because something unfortunate happens," Roddick says. (Unconfirmed reports had him recovering quite nicely later, dancing at a Paris disco and making somebody else's night.)

Mean? That's it, of course; so simple a description yet precisely what so many of our young (or old), famous (or not) and wealthy (or wealthier) professional athletes seem to become even before -- or maybe it's because -- they realize their position among society's most important role models.

Instead, Roddick manifests "a sense of humanity," according to his 36-year-old Algerian coach, Tarik Benhabiles, whom Roddick's mom found living three streets away from them in Boca Raton, Fla. "From the first time we met, I know Andy is a stable personality, a good spirit, happy, comfortable," says Benhabiles. "His ego is under control." In tune, Roddick laughingly demeans his own derivative nickname. "I'm the poor man's A-Rod," he says with a laugh. "The legends [Sampras, Agassi] ragged on me about it when I was a hitting partner for the Davis Cup team in L.A. But that was before the real A-Rod signed for 25 trillion. It's not like I'm taking his territory or anything."

At his most basic, Roddick -- a lazy if extremely bright 3.4 student while at Boca Prep -- has become a solid listener and learner about life on and off the court. John McEnroe provides this succinct praise: "I like the fact he doesn't think he knows it all yet."

>Roddick does know that his first serve, which he begins with a quick, no-frills, almost half-toss (in the manner of Pat Rafter without the raised leg) is just about the fastest stroke extant; that his second delivery, a wicked, high-kicking snake that absolutely stuns players at first look, is already the most feared in the sport. He backs up those ballistic weapons with a hammer of a spinning forehand that he releases with such twist and torque that the sockets may come flying out of his shoulder at any moment. And his speed and quickness -- he gobbles up drop shots and moves laterally with huge antelopian strides -- is vastly underrated. "I hit with this kid for half an hour in Miami, just groundstrokes, and he broke three of my racket strings," says veteran Jeff Tarango. "That [Babolat] racket gives him so much extra snap. The way he whips it, he can take a flat ball and spin it to kingdom come. Then there's the serve. It's much bigger than [Greg] Rusedski's. They say the hardest thing in sports is to hit a baseball. Roddick has gone way past baseball. The kid's serve terrifies people out here. He's Goliath."

"Some days I feel I've got the live arm, some days not," says Roddick, whose 141 mph specialty was the fastest serve at last month's Ericsson. On the Paris clay, he was consistently over a buck thirty. One entertaining by-product (or duty) of witnessing a Roddick match is keeping track of his mphs from the end-court clock. Does A-Rod know the record speed? "Rusedski, 149." Does he know his personal best? "In, 141. Out, 146." Those 37 aces in Paris, pretty neat, right? "I'm not out there to hit record serves," says Roddick. "Or aces. I'm out there to hold. A day without facing break point is a great service day. I like to watch the speed clock myself, use it as a gauge. I like to know how fast I'm hitting the wide serve. Sometimes I'm slapping the straight one up the T really fast, slicing not so fast. Once I feel I know what I'm doing, I don't notice the clock."


Roddick was raised by Blanche and Jerry, a Wisconsin farm boy who later moved to Omaha and made money running Jiffy Lubes. The Roddicks' oldest son, Lawrence, was an Olympic-class diver who came along in the era of somebody named Greg Louganis; middle son John was on course to be a star on the pro tennis circuit until chronic back problems forced him to settle for being All-America at Georgia (where he's now an assistant coach of the new NCAA champions). Andy was the engaging pipsqueak -- as late as 12, he was still only 5'2" -- who tagged along in the shadow of his brothers, forever "Little Roddick." "I was so annoying, I would have driven myself nuts," Andy says. "It was always, 'Where's Little Roddick? Let's give him a wedgie or something.' "

It was Blanche who packed up the cars, iced the coolers and lugged the boys around to the juniors. But it was Jerry -- now a private investor -- who gave them their feisty, competitive drive. "They had that 'I'm in your face and you're going down' attitude," says their early coach, Rick Macci, who also tutored Jennifer Capriati and the Williamssisters in their infancy. Together, the senior Roddicks have always practiced a laid-back, hands-off, it's-the-boys'-show style, hardly characteristic of tennis' stereotypical progenitors from hell. "We gave them their heads, but we were never afraid to say no when we had to," says Jerry.

"My folks liked the idea of individual sports," says Andy. "They liked the values the individual thing forced on you, reliance on yourself, responsibility. They've been so good about letting me do tennis on my own. They've respected my decisions. When I schedule something, when it's time for matches, practice, medical treatments, press, I have to handle my own business. I can't be late for stuff. I want to be professional about everything."

The one team sport the Roddicks were high on was football -- Husker football. Even after the family left Omaha for Austin, Texas, then for Florida so that John could train with Macci, Nebraska was No. 1 in their hearts. Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips-era posters wallpaper Andy's bedroom to this day. And the Roddicks make it a point to go to Nebraska's annual bowl game. "I'm nuts at the games," says Andy. "But my brother John was the craziest. He'd paint his face, wear a fake cornstalk on top of his head, run up and down the aisles screaming."

By the time John was off to Georgia, Andy was 12 and dismantling his national age-group competition with the same tenacity he'd shown earlier in Macci's Sunday flag football games with the older guys. "Of all the juniors, John Roddick was among the three or four toughest competitors I ever saw," says Macci. "I only had Andy as a little kid, but he was the same breed. He'd wade into tennis games with his brother against the Williams sisters. They were these wild-ass Texas cowboys, it was Austin vs. Compton, and you know something had to give. Andy'd stick his nose in those football games and get killed there, too. But he'd always jump up for more."

"We've always had that hunger for battle," says John. "It's natural. We will never give up, never tank. It's always pissed us off how pros sometimes throw it in. How can guys do that?"

In his midteens, Andy had a growth spurt, putting on about a foot in less than two years. Not only did he shoot up to hoopster height, but he also started dunking all over the world juniors. (A-Rod recently slammed in the Boca Prep alumni basketball game.) He even developed a tennis "jump shot" wherein he rises high off both feet and bullwhips the ball at the top of his leap. Not overheads -- jump shot forehands. "And backhands," says Benhabiles. "I've never seen anybody but Andy do it from both sides."

Says John, "When I showed up at the Orange Bowl, my brother was blowing guys away; he was serving so big, so consistent, he was a level above everybody. Tarik had been the missing link."

Benhabiles gets the credit for A-Rod's fast improvement, just as he took French players like Cedric Pioline and Nicholas Escude to the Top 20. "I was playing brain-dead, headless tennis before Tarik," says Andy. "Now I listen to everything he says. He's been there."

As Tarango says, "Tarik was ranked No. 22 and he's like four feet tall! That tell you how much he knows the game? I saw Roddick play last year and he's 150% better already. He's not even thinking yet. Strategy, ball placement, patterns? He always seems to be playing above himself, but where are his boundaries? If he can add 20% of the intensity Tarik had, world tennis is in serious trouble."

The trouble started when Roddick started dropping foes for the Idaho Sneakers in World Team Tennis last summer. "One of the best decisions I've made," he says. "For three weeks I played 15 singles and doubles matches against guys ranked in the Top 200. It gave me great confidence." One of his doubles losses came against the New York Hamptons and an opponent who suspiciously resembled the team owner, Patrick McEnroe. As Little Mac recalls, "Andy kept looking over at me, and he was so psyched up, he kept serving to my backhand, which is the only shot I have left. So we broke him."

But Roddick's continued improvement kept McEnroe, the newly named Davis Cup captain, on notice. In August 2000, A-Rod overwhelmed Top-40 players Karol Kucera and Fabrice Santoro at Washington, and when he began to dominate all the challenger events, McEnroe called him to play in the U.S. Davis Cup against Switzerland in February.

"Roddick arrives in Basel and, again, he's pumped out of his mind," says McEnroe, who thought seriously about starting the kid over Todd Martin and Jan-Michael Gambill. (After Swiss teen Roger Federer wiped out the U.S., Roddick wound up winning a dead rubber.) "The other guys get off the plane and just want an easy workout. Andy gets out there and starts ripping Mach 10s. On the ride to the hotel he pulls off his earphones, lets the rap music rip and tells me, 'Cap, listen to this!' The van starts shaking so hard, I thought it was a bomb blast."

At his breakthrough Ericsson tournament in March, Roddick bombed out former world No. 1's Marcello Rios and Sampras with his own personal grenades. That's where Pistol Pete declared, "Serve-and-volley's pretty much extinct."

"It was a non-compliment compliment," Roddick says. "What I think Pete meant was that I need tons of work on the volley because I just stayed back and laced the ball. But he's right. I do. I came to the net only four or five times in that match, I was so comfortable ripping from the base. Then whenever I came in, I duffed the balls. But I'm gonna keep working and try to raise my game another level every few months." If that isn't scary enough, Roddick's fellow pros rave about not merely his game but his compassion and commitment. His focus is sharp enough that at Key Biscayne, A-Rod gave up tickets to two U2 concerts because he had matches the next day. Both his SFX Group agent, Colin Smeeton, and his best friend on tour, Gambill, went. "I kill him about that silly rookie move," Gambill says, laughing. "But that shows you what Andy's all about."

"He cares about his fellow players, never condescends or talks down," says Tarango. "That's rare for the phenoms who come out here. The kid thanks you before and after you hit with him. He's so appreciative. He has a class I haven't seen in a long time."

That extends to his relationships with coaches, agents, fans and even the media. At his initiation with the world press at Roland Garros, Roddick kept the fourth estate hopping. When a bewildered Italian asked why he was still wearing his ball cap, Roddick said, "I didn't feel like styling my hair after the match." (So prevalent is Roddick's in-vogue practice of wearing his cap backward that Reebok finally designed a style with the company logo on the rear.)

Roddick respects his elders, and vice versa. Agassi, who beat him in Key Biscayne and Washington last year, likes to hit with the kid on the Roddicks' backyard court when he comes to Boca Raton to visit his girlfriend, Steffi Graf. Muhammad come to the Molehill. "He's young enough to practice on my terms, which is nice," says Double A. "You know, he doesn't have his own ideas on how he wants things to go. [Translated: He busses my butt.] But Andy has a great game, a versatile serve that he can use even more effectively. He has an attitude, a presence out there. When you see him in down situations, the guy steps up and plays his shot. He doesn't hope for somebody to lose. He really tries to win. I think he can handle this whole thing. He's ready."

Before the authorities lock up the women and children, however, Roddick's pulled hamstring must heal -- he will ignore ATP trainers' advice to rest and play Wimbledon later this month, by which time his assault on the record books can resume. "I don't mind being called the Future of Tennis," he says. "But I'm not about to replace the last generation. It's cool. I'm gonna have to roll with all this hype and not freak out. The thing is, if it's gonna be here, it's gonna be here. I know I'm gonna be here for quite some time."

The thing is, American tennis should finally be grateful that, even though everybody else is getting old, the van is just starting to shake.

This article appears in the June 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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