Relaxed Roddick plays, acts like No. 1

He tops Blake in 3 sets, has fun with tennis fans during match for charity


December 05, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Andy Roddick, wearing a sweat suit and knit hat, looked relaxed. He was in town to play James Blake last night in the Mercantile Bank Tennis Challenge, and his surroundings were familiar.

Two years ago, Roddick, then a teenager with great expectations, was here to play superstar Andre Agassi. Now, back at 1st Mariner Arena, Roddick, the No. 1 player in the world, found himself the headline act in a match against his friend, No. 37 James Blake.

The two began by trying to outmuscle each other with warmup serves that had the crowd squealing. By the time they reached the fifth game of the opening set, it was apparent fans sitting in the end-zone seats - and even the lines people - had to be ready to duck at all times.

With fans yelping, one man protected himself with a baseball mitt, catching one of Roddick's howitzer-like serves that blew past Blake in the middle of that fifth game of the opening set. That drew a laugh. When the fan offered Blake his glove, Roddick got a mitt from a fan behind him and he and Blake played a game of catch. Blake won that game as Roddick fumbled.

The tennis game, however, went to Roddick, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2.

"It would have been nice to beat the world No. 1," Blake said. "But this was a great crowd and a lot of fun. I learned some things I can use next year. Andy's a great player."

Blake's first break of serve came in the second set after a young female fan held up a sign asking Roddick to take her to the prom. "I'm too old," he yelled, expressing his sadness.

Later, a fan yelled, "We love you, James." That prompted Roddick to yell, "I love you, too, James."

Blake cracked up.

"You want to go to the prom with me?" he asked Roddick.

It was playful. It was fun.

It has been a funny kind of year for Roddick. Before the match, he talked about what a surprise it is to him to have reached No. 1 after just four years on tour.

"It is funny," he said. "I never thought about being No. 1. Really. Before I was even in the Top 30, people were projecting me to be No. 1. It seemed like a long, uphill battle to me."

And then, all at once he was there. That was funny because it did happen fast - winning his first Grand Slam tournament at the U.S. Open in September and then backing it up by climbing to No. 1 at the season-ending Master's event in Houston last month.

"It happened fast, but at the same time, when I lost at the French Open, everyone said it was happening too slow," said Roddick, 21. "I definitely didn't expect this going into the year."

Pam Shriver, Baltimore's retired Hall of Famer, may not have expected Roddick to be No. 1 at the start of this year, either. But she had the foresight to book him in the spring.

"We knew at the beginning of last year Andy could be the lead player for our event," Shriver said. "But if Andy had had a mediocre summer, it would be a totally different event. But he won the U.S. Open, he did Saturday Night Live, he reached No. 1. It's our breakout year. Some years you don't get it, some you do. We deserve it."

The biggest crowd to attend this 18-year-old event, which prior to this year had raised $3.1 million for children's charities, was 10,000. That was the year Roddick played Agassi. Last night, Shriver said, depending on the walk-up ticket sales, it could be more than that and looking around the arena, it looked like more than that.

Fans were excited from the moment they entered the building, surrounding the court to watch Roddick and Blake hit with ferocity in warmups.

"I think I can be a better player," Roddick said. "I think I can be a lot fitter. I think that's important. I even have a full-time trainer living at my house with me. We have workouts twice a day."

It might seem Roddick started working harder after the French Open. It was there, after an early round loss, that he decided to change coaches and hire Brad Gilbert. But Roddick said Gilbert changed only his focus, not his work ethic.

"Overall, things became more relaxed," he said. "Instead of focusing on what I was doing wrong, we worked on what I can do well."

Shriver said her respect for Roddick climbed to new heights when he won the U.S. Open.

"I think Brad was the perfect coach at the perfect time for Andy," she said. "But, at the same time, it's still the player, no matter who is influencing you off the court. It was Andy who fought off that match point against [David] Nalbandian to make it to the finals, and I'll never forget the way he served out the match for his first major - all service winners and a couple of aces.

"My respect for him went through the roof. I can still be a little cynical until someone does it - I couldn't do it."

NOTE: In the night's first match, Maria Sharapova started fast and held on for a 7-6 (7-4) victory over Ashley Harkleroad in the Future Legends of Tennis Match, an exhibition competed as one pro set.

"I did my best," said Sharapova, 16. "Ashley played well, too. I hope we entertained the crowd."

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