Roddick breaks the mold, his opponents on clay

WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

The long-held theory about clay-court tennis being too slow, too laborious and just too truly dull for an average sports fan once made sense. For those who were reared on Eddie Dibbs-Harold Solomon, it was possible to make a cup of coffee, pour a bowl of cereal and climb back on the sofa without missing a point.

Chris Evert against Andrea Jaeger on clay? Let’s not go there.

Now, real tennis fans may not have had those problems. A four-hour plus match between Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya a week ago in Barcelona, Spain, from all accounts, sounded compelling.

But for those with short-attention spans who have never had a bit of red clay in their socks, there is an alternative. In seven days, 18-year-old Andy Roddick has not so much adapted to clay but made the clay-courters adapt to him.

Call it the Big Bang theory of clay.

The Roddick serve is fast and faster. He can kick it out wide and make the ball swerve and spin. The teenager has no reluctance to go for a second-serve ace. In Houston, one first serve sailed long in the second set of his semifinal match against Jerome Golmard of France, and for a second, it looked as if it would take Golmard out. His instinct for survival helped him emerge unscathed.

Two clay-court titles in seven days — first in Atlanta and then on Sunday in Houston — have redefined Roddick’s progress. He joined Andre Agassi, Ferrero of Spain and Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil as the only multiple winners on the tour in 2000. Agassi, of course, has won the three biggest titles of the year, the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami.

Kuerten and Ferrero have each won three titles this year.

Certainly, the conventional wisdom had Roddick winning his first title on a hard court, and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion after he beat Pete Sampras in Miami.

“I might have surprised a couple of people,” Roddick said in an interview from Houston. “I think people were saying that, he’s good on hard (court), but let’s see him suffer on the dirt a little bit.”

The suffering has been limited to the opposition. Roddick is on a 10-match winning streak and dropped only one set, in the first round at Atlanta. There, he won 49 of 51 service games, finishing with 42 consecutive holds.

Roddick felt the breakthrough came in the quarterfinals at Atlanta against Fernando Meligeni of Brazil. Meligeni, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Jamie Farr, reached the semifinals of the French Open in 1999.

“I really played well the whole match,” Roddick said.”That really helped my confidence. That was my first true clay-courter that I beat. I felt really comfortable on clay. A lot of it is mental. You have to get ready and prepared to hit a couple more balls. If you’re ready to do that, it makes things easier.”

Roddick is backing up his serve better than ever, showing he is no one-shot wonder.

“That definitely is the thing,”he said.”You have to expect more balls to come back on clay and you have to pounce on them, take the opportunity to take over the point. You can’t be passive.”

He is the first U.S. teenager to win back-to-back tournaments since Agassi did it when he was 17. Agassi won at Itaparica, Brazil, in late 1987 and followed with another title at Memphis, Tenn., in early 1988. Roddick is also the first U.S. teenager to win an ATP singles tournament since Michael Chang.

“I’m not a big stat guy,” Roddick said.”I definitely respect what those players did. I’ve always admired them. I’m trying to focus on what I need to do. Stats are good to hear about and stuff, but they really don’t help me put balls in the court. I’m not motivated by stats.”

The clay-court success hasn’t pulled his feet off the ground. Roddick still remembers and rues his loss at the French Open in the quarterfinals of the junior event last year. He gave the practically the same answer about his chances at the French Open later this month. From Friday to Sunday, it hardly varied.