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Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Roddick fulfills lifetime dream at 21

By MaliVai Washington
Special to ESPN.com

The only downside to the No. 1 position being determined this early is we don't have the drama in years past when the top players were determined in the final one or two matches of the year. But it's hard to imagine that in his career Andy Roddick has ever been happier to see a player lose than when Juan Carlos Ferrero fell to Andre Agassi on Wednesday night.

It would be nice to see Roddick win the Masters Cup and really hammer home the fact that he is No. 1. He's just accomplished something that every tennis player at some point in his life dreams of accomplishing.

Only an elite few will ever achieve what Roddick achieved only two months after his 21st birthday. At this time in his life and his career -- no matter its duration -- he can sit with his family, his coach and his friends and say, "I'm the No. 1 player in the world."

What's remarkable is that halfway through the season, people were wondering if he could win a major. People were wondering if Roddick could move into the upper tier of players, a tier that includes Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt and Ferrero -- players Roddick had never beaten before. He not only moved into that tier but also rose above them all.

It's interesting to look back at Ferrero in last year's Masters Cup. He led a break in the fifth set to Hewitt but lost. This year, with an opportunity to reach the No. 1 spot, he started out 0-2. I'm not saying there's a mental block when he gets to the Masters Cup, but it surprises me that after such a great year, he'd start out so poorly. Ferrero didn't show up in his first match and lost to David Nalbandian knowing he had to play Agassi and Federer in his next two matches. He showed up against Agassi, and Agassi just beat him. Next Ferrero plays Federer in what might be the match of the tournament.

Now that the No. 1 spot is determined, it's a race for No. 2 between Federer and Ferrero. Many people might think that Ferrero's final match in the round robin doesn't mean much because he has no shot of making the semifinal with a 0-2 record. From a player's standpoint, however, when the No. 2 or 3 spot is on the line, finishing No. 2 has a nice little ring to it.

A win by Ferrero would mean that even if Federer won the Masters Cup title, he would not pass Ferrero. However, Federer can finish No. 2 if he's able to win the Masters Cup and Ferrero loses their round-robin matchup.

People might not think there's a big difference between No. 2 and No. 3. I know from experience, as a player who was ranked No. 11 on several occasions but never finished top 10, that one spot makes a big difference. The best tennis players in the world have a burning desire to finish No. 1, and they'll take every little edge they can get over their opponents. They'll do anything to move up one more ranking spot -- especially when they're jockeying for position at the Masters Cup.

There's no doubt in my mind that Federer and Ferrero both want to finish No. 2 because neither one of them has ever finished that high. A player hates to end the year on a bad note. Ferrero would hate to finish a great year 0-3 in the Masters Cup. It would eat at Federer the entire offseason knowing that if he had beaten Ferrero, he would have finished No. 2.

Certainly that's the main drama left in Houston. But all the players from No. 4 through 8 are still playing hard to move up the rankings in the final four days of the season.

MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.