Updated: August 30, 2010, 9:47 PM ET

Still a piece of cake for the birthday boy?

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- It's been a tough summer for Andy Roddick.

He was running sprints in the Texas heat last month and felt oddly sluggish.

"I don't think I've ever opted out of a workout before in my life," Roddick said. "I had about two or three in a row where it just kind of felt off. It was frustrating. Had me wondering, 'Am I out of shape? What's the deal?'"

The deal? Roddick eventually tested positive for a mild case of mononucleosis. And then, in early August, he dropped out of the ATP World Tour's top 10, marking the first time no American man was represented since the rankings' inception in 1973.

Not that this overly concerned him.

"I didn't really feel much of a responsibility to be the guy in the top 10," Roddick said. "I figure that should fall maybe on some guys that have never been in the top 10."

Roddick has been the dean of men's tennis in the United States since he emphatically announced himself here at the National Tennis Center, winning the 2003 U.S. Open title. Pete Sampras had retired the year before and Andre Agassi won his last major, the Australian Open, earlier that year.

On Monday, Roddick turned 28. He celebrated by defeating Stephane Robert of France 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. It was over in 102 minutes -- something you might expect against a 30-year-old playing in his first U.S. Open. Robert, who hails from Montargis (more notable, perhaps, as the birthplace of pralines), has only one career victory in a Grand Slam event.

Roddick must be feeling better, because one of his serves was clocked at 146 mph. Better, but not quite 100 percent.

"I mean, I have my days," Roddick said in his postmatch news conference. "I feel, you know, 80 percent better than I did five, six weeks ago, that's for sure. To be honest, once you decide to play, I think you throw all the excuses and everything else out the window.

"If I decide to play, then it's up to me to give 100 percent of what I have. So it's not something I really want to discuss too much from this point forward. It's something that's there. It's not perfect, but it's fine. You know, it's going the right way."

Even with the emergence of Sam Querrey and John Isner -- and the startling resurgence of the now-svelte Mardy Fish -- Roddick remains the only American familiar with the thin air at the summit of Grand Slam finals. The last four were all losses to Roger Federer (most recently, that magnificent 2009 Wimbledon final that ended at 16-14 in the fifth set), but Roddick has continued to move stoically forward.

After withdrawing from Toronto, Roddick put together a nice week in Cincinnati, beating No. 5-ranked Robin Soderling and No. 3 Novak Djokovic before losing to Fish in the semifinals. You might be surprised to know that Roddick is the only top-10 ATP player to have a perfect record (4-0) against his peers in the top 10.

Roddick finds himself in a semifinal bracket that is populated with hot players like Fish and the No. 16 seed, Marcos Baghdatis, as well as No. 6 seed Nikolay Davydenko (potentially in the fourth round) and No. 3 Djokovic (in the quarters). He's gone 27 straight majors without winning a title, but he says he's not daunted by the Big 28.

"You wake up in the morning and you put what you can into that single day," Roddick said. "Obviously, I know I'm probably closer to finished than I am to the start. But I don't know. It's a number. I'm barely older than I was yesterday, so …"

And, as often happens at a Roddick news conference, this remark was met with laughter from the assembled media.

3 Things I KNOW I Think

1. Kei Nishikori is back: Two years ago, he reached the fourth round here (beating No. 4-ranked David Ferrer in the process), capping an amazing year for an 18-year-old. Then back and elbow injuries forced him off the court (he was hitting balls left-handed early in the rehabilitation process). He won a Challenger in Binghamton, N.Y., earlier this month and qualified for the U.S. Open main draw last week. Now, he's "100 percent" and into the second round after Evgeny Korolev retired while trailing 7-6 (0), 5-2. "My goal was to get to the main draw," Nishikori said. "Right now it's one by one." Nishikori gets No. 11 seed Marin Cilic in the second round.

2. … While Dinara Safina is not: She was the No. 1 player in the world as recently as last October (for 25 straight weeks), but Safina is still struggling after a debilitating back injury. She beat Daniela Hantuchova a week ago in New Haven, but on Monday it was Hantuchova prevailing 6-3, 6-4. Safina was broken five times and had 31 unforced errors.

3. Serena doesn't need the work: Rumors swirled Monday -- fueled by a Daily Mail report -- that Serena Williams might have undergone some surgical improvements, notably on her nose. After cutting her foot (allegedly on a beer bottle in a Munich bar), she has had more than the usual dose of free time. For the record, we liked Serena just the way she was.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Fear Factor

Andrea Petkovic, a 22-year-old German who is ranked No. 38 among Sony Ericsson WTA Tour players, is this week's guest blogger for ESPN.com's Open Book. She takes on No. 17 seed Nadia Petrova in a first-round match on Tuesday. Here is her second dispatch:

Tennis players have great lives. We stay at the best hotels all over the world, travel the most beautiful cities (New York, yeah!) and we do what we love every day. Everything could be perfect if there wasn't this one problem: We live in constant fear.

We are scared to get injured, scared to lose in the first round, scared of what people might think of us if we happen to have a bad day and play poorly, scared of admitting we are scared because people will say we don't have the mental stability of playing tennis at a high level. From my experience, I can tell you that every tennis player from every level has that subconscious fear trembling somewhere inside of them. Now the art is not trying to ignore the fear but in dealing with the impacts that fear has on our bodies and trying to embrace it as a companion.

Now I don't have to name the players that are best at this, we all know them. But I'm almost certain that even Roger Federer was at one point in his career where he feared not being the most dominant player in the world anymore. Even Rafael Nadal was probably terrified when his knees just wouldn't stop hurting that he might have to stop playing tennis forever. But they keep going; they are persistent and they manage to silence the voice that is somewhere in the back of their minds filling them with doubts.

And I have to admit that I heard the same voice yesterday right before I went to bed. I'm playing Nadia Petrova Tuesday, not only one of the top players in women's tennis, but also arriving to New York with confidence from her New Haven final. I hear the voice that is saying "I will be playing a red-hot player on a big court, that I may get smashed." It asks me, "Do I have the experience, only playing my third U.S. Open, do I have the guts to go out there and play my best?"

And you know how I handle the voice? I talk to her. I tell her that I practiced fine, that I did everything in my power to be the most prepared. I tell her that I love big crowds and I love the challenge. I tell her that Nadia is a great player, but I'm not that bad, either. And in the end she calms down, she's quiet, she tries to speak again, I give her my evil eyes and in the end I fell asleep like a little baby only thinking about how lucky I am being a tennis player.

--Andrea Petkovic

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