Former New York Yankees catcher and resident baseball philosopher Yogi Berra once said that "the future aint what it used to be". That sentiment was reflected just a few short years ago within the ATP as many executives publicly bemoaned the lack of American tennis talent coming up through the junior ranks. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang comprised the "Greatest Generation" of American tennis talent in at least the last 30 years. In tennis-speak, they were getting old and retiring at an alarming rate. Sampras recently announced that he was content with his career and was leaving the game behind. Courier walked away in the spring of 2000 and Michael Chang has also recently left the pro circuit. Of the four, only Andre Agassi is still going strong at the senior citizen-like age of 33. Together, that generation accounted for 26 Grand Slam singles championships. For his part, Agassi pulled out of this event just after the draw was announced (he was scheduled to play Thomas Enqvist in the first round) and was fined $60,000. It was the first time since 1994 that neither Sampras nor Agassi played here.
It is no secret that at least in the United States, Americans dont watch a lot of tennis, regardless of the event, if no Americans are left playing. Last years US Open final between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi generated the highest ratings in the U.S. in the last several years. At this years French Open, you would have needed an electron microscope to detect American television ratings for the final between Spains Juan Carlos Ferrero and the Netherlands Martin Verkerk.
Tennis executives are right to be concerned about the future of the game in the U.S. because higher TV ratings drive increased advertising revenues and fuel interest in the sport. However, if the results of the 2003 Western & Southern Financial Group Masters tournament are indicative of what the future of the game may look like within the U.S., everyone can take a deep breath and relax. After all, as Yogi said "You can observe a lot by watching." The Round of 16 featured relatively new American tennis talent in the likes of James Blake, Robby Ginepri, Mardy Fish and of course, Andy Roddick. And as it turned out, the final here featured two of those young Americans; the last time that happened was back in 1996 when Agassi and Chang squared off here in their second consecutive final in Cincinnati.
The story of the week had to be The Roddick Express, which rolled through the field of the 2003 Western & Southern Financial Group Masters tennis tournament, held each year near Cincinnati, Ohio. To say that the young Mr. Roddick has been on a roll is a significant understatement. Including his third round win at the US Open this year, he is an amazing 33-2 since changing coaches (letting Tarik Benhabiles go in favor of Brad Gilbert) after suffering a first round loss at the French Open. "What I told Tarik was that I needed a new spark, and I needed something to kind of kick me in the butt and get me going," Roddick said. "And you know, it worked." In his last six tournaments he has entered, Roddick has won four of them and advanced to the semifinals of the other two he did not win. Prior to coming to Cincinnati, Roddick defeated Argentinas David Nalbandian in the finals of the du Maurier tennis tournament in Montreal. The last person to win both Canada and Cincinnati in the same year (Patrick Rafter) also won the US Open, back in 1998.
Both of Roddicks losses under Gilbert have been quickly avenged within a few short weeks of each other. He lost to Swiss sensation (and Wimbledon champion) Roger Federer at the Wimbledon semifinals but beat him a few weeks later in the semifinals of the du Maurier in Montreal. His loss to Tim Henman at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. was rectified in the first round of the U.S. Open.
In any event, Roddick had an easy first round opponent here in Fernando Verdasco, winning 6-3, 6-2 in just over 53 minutes. Despite Verdascos decent first serve percentage (69% for the match), he was unable to keep pace with Roddicks serve and was able to break him once in his only opportunity of the night. Verdascos return game was also not very good, winning only 10 of 44 points between the first and second returns (22.7%). Of course, Roddicks service game probably had a little bit to do with that statistic since he won 77% of all his service points. Roddick was asked about his fatigue level since he had been going deep into tournaments with very little recovery time. "Im not feeling the effects of having played three strong weeks in a row
Even though Ive played a lot of matches, a lot of them havent been too long. So, you know, thats helped."
Andys next opponent was Croatias Ivan Ljubicic, which took Roddick a mere 57 minutes to get through as he won easily 6-1, 6-4. The next night, Roddick played fellow American James Blake and it was one of the better matches of the week. There were no breaks of serve in the first set, which went to a tiebreaker. Going into that match, Blake had lost six consecutive matches to Roddick. However, in the end, Andy managed to get by with a 7-6 (2), 6-2 win in the Round of 16. "I thought James came out and definitely played a better first set than I did up til 6-all," Roddick said. "He gave me a couple of points in the tiebreaker forehand went wide on him and the double fault. He came out in the first set with nothing to lose. I really didnt have a sniff on his serve. He was in a lot of my service games. I was just hoping to get into a tiebreaker and hope that (I could win the set there)."
For his part, Blake thought that "(I) could have played better in the tiebreaker and break points (he was 0-4 on Roddicks serve). Its kind of frustrating because I really felt like I did play well. I had those break points. I didnt go for what I felt like I should have. I played a little tentative, waiting for him to miss. You cant do that against a player that good. (However) he stepped his game up. I had another break point and he came up with a huge serve. Its a great weapon to have. Anytime he gets in trouble, he seems to come up with big serves." James was then asked about how Roddicks game had improved since that was the first match they had played against each other in over a year. "(His serve isnt) 140 every time. Its 120 and more effective than that 140 serve because hes changing it up more. I think hes going to get even better, which is a little scary. Hes going to make us all get back out to the practice court even more so we can compete with him."
Roddicks next match was against Mariano Zabaleta, which took him exactly one hour in a 6-1, 6-2 pasting of the Argentinian. Roddick was never broken in the match while Zabaleta was broken twice in each set. Zabaletas return game was off, converting only on 25.6% of the return points vs. 52.8% for Roddick. Max Mirnyi provided the competition for Roddick in the semifinal and it was a very close encounter with Roddick winning 7-6 (5), 6-4 in one hour and 21 minutes. Again, there were no breaks of serve in the first set and amazingly enough, Roddick was able to recover from a 5-1 hole in that tiebreaker. Both players were serving well (Roddick at 73% 1st serve percentage, Miryni at 69%). This was the first time the two had played each other and Roddick was asked about Mirynis game. "(In the) first set, he was serving great. If someone serves as big as he does and (hits) 75%, youre not going to get a lot of looks and I didnt. As far as the second serve, it gets up high on you. He has a lot of action." For the Miryni match, Roddick had only one unforced error and he remembered it "Forehand passing shot. He hit it like a little bad drop volley, and I hit it in the middle. I missed it, " Roddick lamented.
The final featured a match of contrasting styles between two Americans that had been given wildcards into the main draw just three years ago: Andy Roddick vs. Mardy Fish. Although this rivalry is not (yet) on the level of an Agassi Sampras title bout, it very well could be within a few years. Mardy actually lived in Andys house in Boca Raton, Florida, when they were both high school juniors and played tennis and boys basketball together. "Weve been playing junior tennis together since I was 10 and he was probably 11 or 12. So weve known each other a long time," Roddick explained.
Fish had a raucous contingent of loyal fans in the upper deck of the stadium who cheered "GO FISH!!" every chance they got. And Fish had been serving well all week long. In fact, since he was broken three times in his first set against Mark Philippoussis in the first round, Fish held serve for 74 consecutive games. Additionally, Roddick and Fish were tied up at 1-1 in career head to head matches with Fish winning at Delray Beach and Roddick beating him in the quarterfinals at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. a few weeks prior to their final in Cincinnati.
Mardy drew first blood. He broke Roddicks powerful serve in his 3rd service game of the first set to eventually take that set, 6-4. It was the first set Andy lost the entire week. The second set took 57 minutes alone to play (which was longer than a couple of his matches earlier in the week) with a tiebreaker that Roddick managed to win, 7-3. The third set took 55 minutes and also went to a tiebreak that Roddick won 7-4. Roddick cited his ability to play under greater composure as the key to winning this match. "I was still kind of frustrated out there, but I didnt let it take over me. I thought (I need to) somehow get to a breaker, and anything can happen in a breaker, so that was my strategy in the second. And I thought I started playing a little bit better in the third set." Andy admitted feeling kind of flat but gave credit to Fish for some of the problems he was experiencing early on. "I definitely felt like he was dictating play and was in control of the match early on," Roddick said. He also changed his strategy somewhat during the match. "To get myself into the second set, I was just trying to put a lot of balls in the court, even if it meant being less aggressive or playing a little differently than I had the rest of the week. He has a great backhand return but he kind of got grooved in on his forehand, too, so in the second set, I kind of went to his forehand a bunch and then I mixed it up a little bit in the third."
With the win, Roddick went into the US Open ranked Number 1 in the Champions Race and Number 4 in the entry system. He also pocketed $400,000 for his efforts, which isnt too bad for a weeks work. If he can win the Open, hell get a winners check for a cool $1 Million, which is the first time that has happened (last years winner Pete Sampras walked away with "only" $900,000).