Andy Roddick – “Little Mo” History in the Making

Andy Roddick was nine-years-old when his parents gave him the most memorable birthday present of his young life — a trip to the US Open. Sitting high in the stands, a small speck in a sea of faces, the boy who made the trip to New York from his home in Austin, Texas set one goal for himself that day — to move down to a better seat that would take him closer to the action.

His first trip to Flushing Meadows saw Roddick scamper down from the upper deck to find a seat closer to the court.

Twelve years later, he navigated a reverse route.

Slamming three consecutive aces to finish the final with a flourish of pyrotechnic power, the fifth-seeded Roddick rolled to a 6-3, 7-6(2), 6-3 victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero to claim the 2003 US Open crown in his first Grand Slam final. Then, the 21-year-old who was once a fan scampering over the cheap seats, broke down the barrier between athlete and audience with a modified crowd surfing move.

Climbing up into the stands, high-fiving fans along the way, Roddick reached the friend’s box where he embraced his family, friends and then coach Brad Gilbert.

That Sunday afternoon in New York City nearly six years ago still says a lot about who Roddick is today.

Observers are often quick to point out what Roddick hasn’t got — he doesn’t have the superlative shotmaking skills of World No. 1 Roger Federer (who does?), he doesn’t cover the court as quickly as Rafal Nadal (who can?), he doesn’t display the innate feel for the game of Andy Murray (short of analyst John McEnroe, not many do), he is not as athletically gifted as the rest of the top 5 and his defensive skills, while much improved, will never match Novak Djokovic — but what Roddick does have in abundance is the determined desire for self improvement (and willingness to do the lung-scorching work of court to make it happen), the ability to share both his struggles and success with crowds — Roddick is one of the most expressive players in the top 10 — and the grit and stubborn self belief that powered that anonymous nine-year-old kid from the nosebleed seats so high up in the stadium he could have hit the hovering blimp with a loopy lob had he chose to a starring role on the game’s most prestigious stages.

Now a 26-year-old newlywed, Roddick no longer spends his nights with his nosed pressed in his Game Boy video game. Roddick is smart enough to understand that all the spin that occurs off the court as everyone from media en masse to fans on message boards to a Texas mailman suggesting a change of shirts may have made the difference in the gut-wrenching Wimbledon final loss to Roger Federer can slap labels on him like a carnival worker stamping temporary tatoos on a class of school kids, but they aren’t his defining moments. He has the power to define himself through his competitiveness and conduct and Roddick has done just that throughout a season you might view as a career Renaissance (without the complete coronation of the Wimbledon title that slipped away), but that he sees as another step forward in his maturation as a man and his continuing evolution as a more complete player.

A refreshing thing about Roddick in this age of feigned blissful ignorance where many players profess to intentionally ignoring their press coverage is that he’s up front about the game that goes on after the match — that ongoing rally between player and media in which both sometimes spar trying to define a match and its potential career consequences —and can challenge it at times.

“I think during my career I’ve kind of been portrayed as every single type of person: good, bad, ugly, you know, rude, nice, you know,” Roddick said earlier this week in Montreal. “This is kind of the first time it’s been presented in a light that’s kind of the hard-working, kind of everyday-Joe-type tennis player trying to make good and, you know, all the while the meat and potatoes of who I am has probably stayed the same. I think people maybe realized it’s not easy and it does take work. I think, you know, I think they realize that there has been a lot of time put in and, you know, definitely an effort to try to do the right things out there.”

Whether you enjoy Roddick’s brand of bold power-based baseline tennis or not, you have to respect the deep desire he brings to the court every time he competes. The effort evident in Roddick’s 130 mph searing serves, those desperate dashes across the Centre Court lawn in pursuit of shots, his guttural grunts and sweat soaked shirt and the class he showed in enduring a brutal defeat have earned Roddick the respect of some of his staunchest skeptics.

The problem Roddick faces in Federer is the supremely-gifted Swiss is so special he can make the toughest shot look easy, whereas with Roddick you see the wheels churning in the machinery. But watching him work to figure out solutions, fine-tune his game and show clear signs of progress — from the touch he displayed around net in beating Murray 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7), 7-6(5) in the Wimbledon semifinals to the backhand, once a liability, he boldy hit up the line to victimize Federer and win the opening set of his 7-5, 6-7(6), 6-7(5), 6-3, 14-16 loss to Federer in the final — are some of the reasons why Roddick matches have become must-see TV during this US Open Series.

Roddick isn’t the best player in the world, but he has become of the most fascinating ones. At a time where players can be carefully packaged like commodities, Roddick has actively served as an agent of his own change. And one of the top storylines of the US Open will be in seeing how Roddick picks up the pieces from the Wimbledon trauma in July and tries to put it all together in Flushing Meadows before a crowd that figures to be immensely supportive for one of its own.

He successfully made the journey from the cheap seats to the championship round of majors, can Roddick make that final climb required to master another major? He meets the fourth-seeded Djokovic in a quarterfinal clash in Montreal tonight continuing his quest to reach his third consecutive final.

Scoop Malinowski, who has endured his own competitive highs and lows playing tournament tennis at the National Tennis Center (Scoop is currently ranked career-high No. 4 in the USTA Eastern 35s) caught up with Roddick for this Biofile interview.

Childhood Heroes: “When I first got into tennis — Edberg, Becker and McEnroe. Then when I first started playing all the time, I looked up to the whole group of Americans — Agassi, Sampras, Chang, Courier, Todd Martin, David Wheaton — I loved all those guys.”

Nickname: “A-Rod.”

Hobbies/Interests: “Go out with friends on my boat. Jet ski. Poker. I love playing golf and basketball. Hang out with friends. Pool. Photography. And I’m really into music too. Burn CD’s.”

Funny Tennis Memory:
“When I was growing up, we had this rebound net in our garage that I played on. And I used to pretend I was playing McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Lendl — three out of five sets. My mom would come out and ask me the score. And I’d be like, ‘I’m winning.’ She’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s impressive.’ So that was my big thing when I was little. Playing with that rebound net and being in my own little world [smiles].”

Pre-Match Feeling: “I’m pretty relaxed before. I don’t try to get too up or down before ’em. Just kind of hang out with my coach, just kind of us two. He will feed me — remind me of this and that. I try to put the same amount of effort into any tournament I play. Just try to focus on winning one match at a time.”

Favorite Movies: “American Pie, Austin Powers II.”

Favorite TV Shows: “Lost. My Name Is Earl. I love My Name Is Earl. Don’t know if it’s because I get the trailer park humor since my parents lived in one before they got married, but I think the show is hilarious.”

Musical Tastes: “I have everything from country to rap to heavy metal to everything. I’m into everything…Nelly, Dixie Chicks, Tupac, Cold Play, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Metallica, Maroon 5, Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer.”

Favorite Meal: “Meat and potatoes.”

Favorite Breakfast Cereal: “Cocoa Puffs.”

Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: “Cookie dough.”

First Car: “1996 red Chevy Blazer.”

First Job: “Tennis.”

Greatest Sports Moment: “Tough one. I’ll say winning the U.S. Open was a really good feeling. Match point, when I looked over to my family and coach and I realized it was over and I had done it. Any time you win a Grand Slam, it’s something to be proud of.”

Most Painful Tennis Moment: “Yeah, I got tagged in doubles with an overhead in the place where it hurts a little more than the other places [smiles]. I was like 14, at a local tournament in Florida. I had to go sit down for like five minutes.”

Closest Tennis Friends: “A lot of the Americans — James Blake, Mardy Fish, the Bryan brothers.”

Funniest Player(s): “Mardy Fish is a pretty funny guy.”

Toughest Competitor(s) Encountered: “I’m (2-19) against that guy Federer.”

Early Tennis Memory: “The one match that really got me really into tennis, where I actually sat down as a little kid for three, four hours without wanting to get up and do something else, was when Chang beat Lendl in the 1989 French Open quarters. He was cramping, hitting underhand serves, all types of stuff. After watching that match, you sometimes got the feeling (that) all you want to do is go out and hit tennis balls.”

Childhood Dream: “When I decided I was going to turn pro my goals were — win the U.S. Open, be No. 1 in the world, win Wimbledon and be a part of a winning Davis Cup team. I’ve gotten a couple, I’ve come close to a couple.”

People Qualities Most Admired:
“People that start with little in life and achieve something. People like that. My parents were like that. They didn’t start out with much when they got married. They didn’t have a lot financially or socially. They worked their way up. When they first got married, they lived in a trailer home. My dad was in the military. They ended up owning about 25 Jiffy Lube stores in Nebraska and Texas.”