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Monday, January 26, 2009
Roddick ready to crash Djoker's party

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

Andy Roddick
Though it's been five-plus years since his U.S. Open title, Andy Roddick remains focused.

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It would be easy to regard Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic, whose paths will intersect in Tuesday's Australian Open quarterfinals, as two players on very different career trajectories. Yet they remain tied in one very important statistical category, with one Grand Slam win each.

At 26, world No. 9 Roddick is middle-aged in tennis terms. He arrived in Melbourne 15 pounds leaner, with new coach Larry Stefanki in his corner, looking for every possible way to gate-crash his way back into competition for another major.

"Whatever happens this year, I didn't want it to be for lack of preparation or for lack of anything, any work left on the table during the offseason," said Roddick, who is well aware that the game hinges more on running and less on gunning these days.

Defending Aussie Open champion and world No. 3 Djokovic is five years younger, still a newbie among the elite. His career yawns in front of him like so much open road, while Roddick's room to maneuver through the draw at Slams probably will get narrower every year.

So it seems. But the game is funny that way.

Yes, it's easy to look at Djokovic's youth and his more balanced game and say there's no way he'll get stuck at a single Slam. But at that moment in September 2003 when Roddick doubled over in joy and disbelief in Arthur Ashe Stadium, having won the U.S. Open the week after his 21st birthday, who would have predicted that his odometer would remain there?

Stuff happens. Life happens. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal happen. Surfaces slow down as a reaction to the rock 'em-sock em serve-a-thons that marked the turn of the millennium, and the game takes what Roddick once described as a big left turn that has sometimes left him flat-footed.

Djokovic won his maiden Slam here in Melbourne last year when he was four months shy of 21, not that far off Roddick's age at the same milestone. Now he's part of a club from which Roddick candidly excluded himself after his first-round match here. "Not until I earn my spot back," Roddick said. "They absolutely deserve to be the four that get talked about right now. My results last year, especially in Slams, don't warrant me being talked about."

"They" refers to Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray. Djokovic has been a racket-carrying member since he won here last year, and he has let it be known that he thinks someone sneaked Murray in through the back door.

"What's his ranking and my ranking?" Djokovic asked pointedly in a press conference last week. "I mean, all the respect to [Murray], I like him as a person and as a player. He's done a lot in the last couple months, and he's a very talented player and we can expect him to win some Grand Slams in the future. But you cannot put him as the favorite next to Roger and Rafa and myself here at Australian Open." Djokovic looked right in hindsight Monday when Murray fell in five sets before a fusillade of shot-making by Spain's Fernando Verdasco.

The Serbian's fierce territoriality about his perch contrasts strikingly with Roddick's realism about where he stands, looking up and remembering what it's like. Roddick has been through a lot that Djokovic hasn't experienced yet, most significantly the rigors of playing consistently well at high altitude in the rankings.

Roddick has finished in the ATP's year-end top 10 for seven years running, something only a dozen men can say. He has won at least one tournament for the last eight years, a distinction he shares with only one man: Federer.

"I think that is a testament to me being able to compete week to week, even when I don't have my best stuff or I'm coming back from whatever," said Roddick, the No. 7 seed in Melbourne.

Roddick has also fired coaches and de- and reconstructed practically every stroke in his repertoire, all while keeping the competitive pilot light from going out. He would never dream of giving back his U.S. Open trophy, but having it also meant he had to deal with withering criticism after raising a country's expectations.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic is trying vehemently to not only repeat Down Under, but to distance himself from last year's PR disaster.
Djokovic, the pride of his small nation, has yet to deal with all that. But his learning curve last year began to get mighty steep even before the Australian Open final was over, when he found out that he might be entitled to the match but not necessarily to the crowd's support.

Other alienating incidents followed here and there, culminating with a massive PR blunder at the U.S. Open, when Djokovic beat Roddick and then blasted him for poking fun at Djokovic's proclivity for medical drama during matches.

"Of course, there are some moments in our careers when the emotions are, you know, too big," the third-seeded Djokovic said. "Then you react the way you shouldn't and you don't think rationally, which sometimes happens. But we learn from our mistakes.

"I think it was a very specific situation I had in [the] U.S. Open, but it's a good lesson for me. I look at it as the past, and now I just focus myself on the future and try to improve as a person and as a player."

It's a little too early in 2009 to figure out what side of the bed Djokovic got up on this season. He has had issues adjusting to a new racket, and he blew a chance to overtake Federer for the No. 2 spot two weeks ago in Sydney when he lost to Jarkko Nieminen -- the third time he has failed to take advantage of that opportunity. For the first time in recent memory, his normally very visible family is not with him at a major event. Djokovic's media liaison, Benito Perez, said Djokovic's parents are busy with his younger brother Marko's career and are working on launching the tournament they now own, with a May tournament planned in Belgrade.

Roddick has cruised through his matches here as quietly as a patrol boat, but that will end against Djokovic. Every match against one of the top three (or four) is a knock at the door, and if he's playing well, it won't be a polite one.

"The thing about sports is no one really remembers yesterday, and that's fair," Roddick said. "You have to go out and prove yourself on a daily basis. I have no problem with that."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.