Sunday, September 3, 2006
How would Roddick have handled facing Agassi?
By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick had a right to be proud Sunday after toughing out an adrenalized five-set win against a player who kept pace with his passion, if not every one of his strokes.
Yet Roddick found himself dwelling not so much on what did happen as what didn't. He advanced to the U.S. Open round of 16 with his 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-2 defeat of Spain's 22nd-seeded Fernando Verdasco, but Andre Agassi's loss to Benjamin Becker scrubbed what would have been a titanic Labor Day clash.
Never mind that Agassi's deteriorating back condition probably would have made it near-impossible for him to be competitive. Roddick, the No. 9 seed in the tournament, said he would have taken the court to play his long-time role model and sometime mentor Monday with a volatile, distracting mix of angst and anticipation.
"I was so torn with that matchup," he said. "Obviously, you want to play against your idols, but then again you don't want to be the guy who shot Bambi.
"I would have gone in feeling like a foreigner here in this stadium, I'm sure. I wouldn't have been angry about it at all. But I would have had to play a very stoic match.
If I would have won, then I probably would have broken down. And if I would have lost, I would have probably broken down. It would have been a very tough match emotionally for me.
"It's got to be similar to what the NBA rookies were like playing (Michael) Jordan in his last year. I mean, he's just revolutionized the sport.
Roddick walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium for his own match moments after he and other players greeted Agassi in the locker room with a standing ovation.
"I just went up, and I shook his hand and I said, 'Thanks for teaching me,' " Roddick said.
When Roddick was still a raw pro, Agassi used to call him to offer pre-match advice. "He was unbelievable to me with how accessible he was when I was younger," Roddick said. "I don't know many people who will take time out of their day for some little punk. And then, we haven't gotten into the example that he's set off the court and that a lot of us have tried to follow."
The Roddick-Verdasco match featured see-sawing momentum, good serving on both sides and occasional explosive exchanges at the net. Verdasco had more winners in the end, but his whopping 65 unforced errors (to Roddick's 29) and failure to capitalize on break points ultimately made the difference.
After Verdasco smashed an overhead into the net in the fifth set, Roddick roared, faced the box where his family and friends were sitting and thumped his chest repeatedly. His coach and current spiritual guide, Jimmy Connors, also celebrated the point, then slumped back in his chair looking more drained than he ever did in his playing days.
If Roddick looks into his next opponent's rooting section Monday, he'll see a familiar face. Tarik Benhabiles, Roddick's first coach, now works with Becker, the 25-year-old German and Baylor University graduate catapulted out of obscurity by his win over Agassi.
Benhabiles was a true teacher, Roddick said. "As he said to my dad after he watched me play here in -- I think it was '99 in Juniors -- he goes, 'Yeah, he's a good hitter, but he has no idea how to play this game.' So I thought that was true. I don't really know how to play it much more, but he helped me with what I do know, that's for sure."
Both players have considerable firepower. Becker cracked at least a dozen serves in the 130- to 145-mph range. "He serves out of his shoes," Roddick observed.
But unlike the match-that-wasn't against Agassi, Roddick can expect to have the crowd in his pocket. He fully realizes that he and James Blake have been promoted overnight to the front rank of Players Of Whom Much Is Expected. Agassi's retirement removes what Roddick called "this nice cushion."
"Now it's time for us to step up," Roddick said. "That cushion isn't there. My training wheels are gone. I'm sure it's gonna be a little different. But it's an exciting prospect, as well."
|Roddick is torn that he won't be playing Andre Agassi Monday in the fourth round.|
Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.