WASHINGTON - -He was showered with applause before he even struck a ball.
And Andy Roddick applauded in return, turning to all sides of the Stadium Court on Wednesday night to salute the tennis fans who were saluting him as he strode out for his first match since the heart-rending loss to Roger Federer at Wimbledon last month.
Washingtonians will get another chance to cheer the top-ranked American, with Roddick sailing through his opening match at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in 55 minutes - less time than it took him to play that arduous fifth and final set at Wimbledon.
After a four-week layoff to heal body and spirit, Roddick didn't expect to launch pursuit of a fourth Legg Mason title this week in top form. But he pronounced his game "fine" after overwhelming 47th-ranked Benjamin Becker, 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the tournament's third round and a meeting tonight with fellow American Sam Querrey.
Just 24 hours earlier, Becker (no relation to his more accomplished countryman Boris) had looked so imposing in bouncing American Robby Ginepri in the tournament's first round.
But whatever magic Becker had conjured against Ginepri was absent against Roddick, who broke the German to open the first set and did so again to set the tone in the second set.
"I wanted to get out there and make him play a lot of balls and get my feet under me and not overplay out of the gates," Roddick said after the 55-minute contest. "I wanted to work way into the match, get some rallies going and try to do the basics well."
Roddick stopped well short of proclaiming himself in peak form. While he blasted eight aces and didn't double-fault once, he said he was disappointed in his first-service percentage (58 percent, when he would like to see about 70 percent).
But the serve is one aspect of the game that rarely lets Roddick down, and it's a safe bet that he'll shake off any residual rust in the matches to come.
Better still is the fact that his right hip, which he injured in a nasty tumble during the fourth set of the Wimbledon final, felt great.
While Roddick would count his stay in Washington a success if he ends up hoisting another Legg Mason trophy after Sunday's final, his sights are on a far bigger prize: the U.S. Open championship, to date the only major he has won.
Currently the world's fifth-ranked player, Roddick won't arrive in New York as a top seed, eclipsed in the standings these days by Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
But he will no doubt be met by more support than he ever has, having won profound respect through his showing at Wimbledon for the way he has retooled a once two-dimensional game and refined a personality that had alternated between cocky and petulant.
Even the media, which duly noted Roddick's failure to evolve into a perennial Grand Slam contender after winning the 2003 U.S. Open at age 21, have taken note of his new fitness, his mental resolve and the strokes that have added an element of surprise to a game that had bordered on predictable.
"I do think people maybe early on in my career had an idea of what I was about," Roddick said. "But I certainly didn't do myself any favors at the time with the way I was on court. I don't think it's a stretch to say [that] any 26-year-old is probably more mature than they were when they were 19. I've just had an audience."
In other action Wednesday, Querrey earned his third-round match against Roddick, who is 2-0 against him in his young career, with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Igor Kunitsyn.
Also advancing were two former world No. 1s: Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, who vanquished countryman Tommy Robredo, 6-3-, 6-2, and Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, who beat Dudi Sela of Israel, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.
Croatia's Ivo Karlovic blasted 18 aces en route to a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Ranier Schuettler.