Roddick enjoying time out of spotlight

NEW YORK -- Lost in the substantial sauce of Andre Agassi's imminent retirement, the burgeoning rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and the late, great ascension of James Blake is one Andrew Stephen Roddick.

He won the U.S. Open in 2003 and reached the world's No. 1 ranking, but these days his love life is getting more attention than his tennis game. Perhaps the darkest mystery of the coming fortnight is how earnestly Roddick is dating Maria Sharapova; People Magazine spotted them canoodling a few weeks ago at a resort in Santa Barbara, Calif. For the record, neither party has been willing to confirm the relationship, but the silence is deafening.

In terms of tennis, Roddick has been flying under the marquee radar. Thanks only to his win in Cincinnati, the 23-year-old American is again ranked in the top 10 -- No. 10 exactly -- and his ninth seed is his lowest in a Grand Slam since the 2003 Australian Open.

The lack of attention, Roddick insists, is just fine with him.

"I'm enjoying the role," he said on Saturday. "Obviously, there's a lot more important stories here with Andre, the Fed-Nadal. I'm somewhere down the line, which I don't mind at all."

On Monday, Roddick advanced to the second round, roasting France's Florent Serra 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 in a non-invasive 75 minutes.

The result is worth noting, for a year ago Roddick flamed out in the first round, losing to Gilles Muller in three straight tiebreakers. Suddenly, the American Express advertisements that asked, with tongue in cheek, where Andy's mojo was didn't seem so funny.

There is mounting evidence that Roddick's mojo, if not at Austin Powers, testosterone-maxium strength, seems to be on the rise.

After going nearly 10 months without winning a tournament, Roddick won six straight matches a week ago at the Tennis Masters event in Cincinnati, finishing with a flourish with victories over Andy Murray, Fernando Gonzalez and Juan Carlos Ferrero. And by reaching the final earlier in Indianapolis and advancing to the quarterfinals in Los Angeles before a twinge in his left side prompted him to withdraw, Roddick was declared the winner of the U.S. Open Series -- the man with the most momentum at the newly christened Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

There are two factors at work: First, Roddick's smoking serve and forehand have always made him a second-half player when the hard-court season begins in earnest, and, second, Jimmy Connors.

The eight-time Grand Slam champion has been onboard as his new coach since Wimbledon, where Roddick, who reached the final there two years running, lost in the third round to Murray. Does Connors' presence make Roddick hungrier?

"I think it helps," Roddick said. "I know what I'm not allowed to get away with. I have to go out there and bust it every day. That's not good; that's expected in his eyes. Just his knowledge for the game. You know, it just clicked. I'm excited about it.

"I don't think Jimmy's role plays a small part in it. That's been kind of invigorating. His passion for the game is contagious."

This turns out to be true on the court. Roddick has never been shy about showing his emotions when he makes mistakes, but lately, it seems, he is more willing to release his inner beast when something good happens.

With Serra hanging around on serve at 2-3 in the first set, Roddick finally cashed his third break point and his roaring, double-fist-pumping celebration was more suitable for a five-set victory.

"We haven't talked about that once," Roddick said on Monday. "Just felt it. I felt like, 'OK, well, now the Open's started.' I'm getting up. You know, [it] wasn't forced by any means. I was just excited to get off to a good start."

During his gradual decline in the rankings, Roddick has been surpassed by Blake as the top-ranked American. In fact, Blake beat him in the final at Indianapolis and, earlier, in the semifinal at Queen's Club.

"I know it can change in a hurry," said Blake, the No. 5 seed. "I know Andy is playing some of the best tennis right now. There's no reason why he can't go out here and win this tournament and take it over very quickly."

So who will win the title?

"I mean, I would love it to be me," Blake said. "Sentimentally, I would love to say Andre, as well. Then rationally, I'd probably say Andy."

Roger Federer, who supplanted Roddick as the world's No. 1 player in February 2004, is one among the tennis community who hasn't written off Roddick.

"Obviously, there's a lot more important stories here with Andre, the Fed-Nadal. I'm somewhere down the line, which I don't mind at all."
-- Andy Roddick

"I think not winning Cincinnati or winning Cincinnati didn't matter much for him," Federer said. "I think he was going to be one of the favorites here for the Open. He's won here before. It's in the States; this is where he usually plays his best.

"Of course, now by winning Cincinnati, I think things are looking very good for him. I always said, 'Andy's not gone.' People were laughing at me when I said he was one of the dangerous guys in Wimbledon. Just a lack of respect sometimes to a great player. He's proven himself he's back."

Roddick takes comfort in this hard-court environment. He is 27-7 this season on the smooth, stiff stuff and a spiffy 20-5 in seven years at the U.S. Open. With some confidence courtesy of Connors, he is ripping the ball the way he did in his relatively recent heyday.

"I've been playing a lot more aggressively," Roddick said. "It's a lot of fun right now. I don't think you can overemphasize how important that is.

"There's a big difference between going to the courts hoping to hit the ball well and knowing you're going to hit the ball well. In the last month, I've gone to the courts knowing that I'm going to play well -- it's just a matter of if my opponent's going to be playing better.

"That's a lot better feeling to wake up with than [that] kind of uncertainty."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.