For Roddick, Wimbledon arrives as proving ground

Grass could be antidote to big-match struggles

Tennis

June 20, 2005|By Lisa Dillman | Lisa Dillman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON - He is 0-5 in five-set matches since 2003 and 2-14 in his career against the leaders of his peer group, Roger Federer of Switzerland and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia.

This wouldn't seem to belong to the resume of the second-seeded player at Wimbledon, but it is, in fact, part of the record of Andy Roddick.

Stray losses are one thing, but his record suggests a pattern - and a couple of words that might not have been used last year when he nearly beat Federer in the Wimbledon final:

Career crossroads.

The arrival of the grass-court season could be something of a balm for Roddick. Wimbledon, which starts today, could prevent the one-time U.S. Open champion, who has struggled most notably in big matches, from slipping further.

He is coming off a title at Queen's Club a week ago, winning there for the third consecutive year, and his two losses on grass the last two years have been to Federer at Wimbledon.

"The grass plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said.

Which is why some in U.S. tennis are hesitant to use the "crossroads" to describe the state of Roddick's career for now.

His struggles are most notable in the context of the careers of other American men: Andre Agassi, who pulled out of Wimbledon, is moving toward the exit; Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent have struggled with injuries in 2005, and James Blake is on the comeback trail.

"[Roddick has] had a bad run of late," television commentator Mary Carillo said. "It can't be a crossroads. Especially on grass with that serve of his.

"The big frustration for Andy is that he's working so hard and it's not showing up in the results. ... To me, from listening to him and watching him play, he's gripping. He wants it so badly."

Some of that has been evident in 2005. There has been an inability to close out tough matches, ranging from an Australian Open semifinal against Hewitt, a Davis Cup match against Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, and most recently on his worst surface, clay, against Jose Acasuso of Argentina in the French Open.

Roddick stayed angry for a couple of days after his loss to Acasuso, saying, "I wasn't the most pleasant person to be around. But at the same time, I had this to look forward to, and I know how I can play on grass."

Roddick isn't the only one facing a pivotal moment in his career.

Australian Open champion Serena Williams, who lost to Maria Sharapova of Russia in last year's Wimbledon final, arrives in the unfamiliar position of not being a solid favorite.

The two-time Wimbledon champion did not play in the French Open because of an ankle injury, and she said in a phone interview Thursday that it kept her off the court for four weeks. She also spoke of the pressure she felt last year against Sharapova, who won, 6-1, 6-4.

"I thought I was going to win, but I put way too much pressure on myself. I couldn't even hit a ball over the net," Williams said. "I was way too nervous."

Williams said that had not happened before or since.

"Never. It was new, and I never felt it again because I didn't want to go through that again," she said. "It was way too awful. Too much. Too hard. I don't want to do that anymore."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Players to watch

Men

Roger Federer (top seed): Two-time defending champion ... In the past 25 years, only Pete Sampras has won three straight Wimbledon titles. ... Has won 29 straight matches on grass. ... Has won 20 finals in a row, an Open-era record.

Andy Roddick (second seed): Won third straight Queen's Club title on grass. ... Owns record for tour's fastest serve, 155 mph. ... Lost to Federer at past two Wimbledons; is seeded higher than No. 4 ranking, so could only face defending champion in final.

Lleyton Hewitt (third seed): Off tour from March until last week. ... Had foot surgery after being hurt at Indian Wells, then skipped French Open after cracking rib in a mishap at home.

Rafael Nadal (fourth seed): Breakthrough year, highlighted by first Slam title in just sixth major of career. ... In only Wimbledon appearance, at 17, was youngest man to reach third round since Boris Becker at 16 in 1984.

Marat Safin (fifth seed): Skills, athleticism could carry him to title, but head - and tough draw - could carry him to another early exit. ... Last year, said he was done trying to do well on grass, but he reached final of tuneup in Halle, Germany, last week.

Women

Lindsay Davenport (top seed): Said last year she might not play at Wimbledon again, and was considering retiring at end of `04. Now returns as top-ranked, top-seeded player. ... Hasn't lost before quarterfinals at All England Club since 1997.

Maria Sharapova (second seed): First chance to defend a major title. ... Won second straight title on grass in Birmingham, England, last week. ... Appears to have relatively easy path to potential semifinal against Serena Williams.

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