Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Mojo this: Muller upset ranks right up there
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- For the last four years, Andy Roddick has been money in the early rounds of the U.S. Open. After losing his first-ever match here in 2000, Roddick went 16-0 on his way into the quarterfinals and broke through with the title -- his only Grand Slam -- in 2003.
On Tuesday night, Roddick ran into an unconscious 22-year-old from Luxembourg who didn't care if he has the fastest serve ever recorded. He wasn't concerned that Roddick is the latest, greatest hope of a nation in search of a new men's tennis hero. Or that he is the centerpiece of an elaborate promotional campaign.
Where's Andy's mojo? American Express advertisements have posed the question relentlessly for days. Look no further than Gilles Muller, a free-swinging, 6-foot-5 left-hander who actually hit the ball harder than Roddick on the day Roddick turned 23.
You wouldn't blame Andy Roddick for looking for a place to hide.
Before an eerily quiet near-capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the No. 68-ranked player among ATP players destroyed and stunned the No. 4-seeded Roddick, prevailing in three consecutive tiebreakers, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 7-6 (1). Muller won seven of the last eight points in a upset of epic proportion.
Villanova over Georgetown in 1985? The New York Jets in Super Bowl III? Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson? In its modest first-round way, this match was right up there on the scale of surprise.
Muller hit 24 aces -- seven more than Roddick -- and a fairly hysterical 65 winners. Muller never really seemed to understand where he was or what he was doing. They each managed one break of service, but Muller played the big points better.
How did he do it?
"I have no idea," Muller said. "I told myself to enjoy it -- and I did, every minute."
Afterward, Roddick was stoic.
"I don't really remember a loss where I felt that bad afterwards," he said. "I just felt like the whole time I was trying to find something, as opposed to just having it."
The USA Network had some jingoistic fun at Muller's expense early in the match, wondering who the second-ranked Luxumbourgian was -- the answer: Laurent Bram and Gilles Kremer, tied at No. 1414. And while Luxumbourg, a country tucked in among Belgium, France and Germany, is smaller than Rhode Island and has a population of less than a half million, it produced a massive result.
Muller was 0-3 in career Grand Slam singles matches until breaking through earlier this year in the first round at Wimbledon. In the second round he took out Rafael Nadal -- the second seed here -- in four sets. Last year he beat Andre Agassi in a run to the final in Washington, the closest he has come to a significant title.
The pivotal game was the ninth of the match. Roddick was serving, predictably, for the set and seemed destined to enjoy a typical straight-sets first-round victory, like ones authored earlier by Roger Federer, Nadal and Agassi. But Roddick was broken and Muller seemed to steady his game.
In the tie-break he ran out to a 4-0 lead, but even when Roddick came back to narrow the margin to 5-4 he didn't flinch. In fact, he had the audacity to try a drop shot at that critical juncture -- and it succeeded.
"I let him back in," Roddick allowed, "and he started playing really well after that."
Roddick's serve was serviceable enough, it was his backhand that betrayed him. Muller said his strategy going in was to work the backhand -- Roddick's weakest shot -- and, when it never seemed to materialize, he attacked it. At one point in the third set, USA commentator John McEnroe called it "beyond abysmal."
The second-set tiebreaker was a thrilling display of good tennis. Muller erased a set point at 5-6, then Roddick did the same at 6-7. With Roddick leading 8-7, Muller laced an unreturnable forehand. At 8-all, a lunging forehand volley dropped for a clean winner. With Roddick serving at 8-9, a weak volley allowed Muller to push a backhand down the line.
The third-set tiebreaker was a disaster for Roddick. Down 5-1, he walked to the other side of the court with his white Lacoste shirt in his mouth. A final, laconic (and appropriate) backhand into the net.
And so, the eager, brown-eyed Muller -- officially, the best male player in the history of Luxembourg -- heads into the second round of the tournament, where he will play Robby Ginepri on Thursday. But first, he will play with Ginepri in doubles, against the Czech team of Frantosek Cermak and Leos Freidl in the relative obscurity of Court 14.
Muller insisted it wasn't the best match he ever played.
"I don't think I was playing unreal," he said. "I was playing good. The most important thing was that I stayed focused and calm the whole match. I told myself, 'Don't be nervous, it's a big chance to play. The whole world is watching.'
"I was also sometimes lucky. In the tiebreak in the last set, I hit some balls like to the line, with the frame to the line on one return."
Roddick won this event in 2003 and finished the year ranked No. 1. He was 21. Considering the expectation that he created, the subsequent two years, despite a steady flow of titles and prize money, have been vaguely disappointing.
Roddick lost in last year's Open quarterfinals to Joachim Johansson in five sets, and now this loss will live with him or a long, long time. Will it spur him to the level of a multi-Grand Slam winner or is he a one-hit wonder?
"Twenty-four hours ago, I was really optimistic about my chances here," Roddick said. "I had the best week of practice I've ever had before a Grand Slam. I'm in a little bit of shock right now.
"I'd give anything to go back four hours right now."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.