It's a tough racket, this business of raising a tennis prodigy.
Play a big role in your child's fledgling career and you risk
being yet another Tennis Parent from Hell. Maintain a healthy
detachment and you end up like Blanche and Jerry Roddick. The
parents of Andy Roddick, the world's second-ranked junior
player, abided by their youngest son's wishes and stayed home in
Boca Raton, Fla., last month while Andy played the Australian
Open juniors. "It was just a gut thing," shrugs Andy. "I didn't
want them to watch me."
As Andy laid waste to the draw and became the first U.S. junior
boy to win Down Under since Butch Buchholtz in 1959, his
bleary-eyed parents had to follow his matches in real time on the
Internet. "It was agony," says Jerry, a private investor. "They
gave the updated score, but other than that, we had no idea what
was happening. Also, with the time difference, some of his
matches didn't end until 3 a.m."
Andy's grandmother got into the act as well. In Boca visiting
from Wisconsin, 89-year-old Hazel Corell wore her "lucky
socks"--red stockings adorned with brass bells--whenever Andy
played. On crucial points she would raise her feet toward the
monitor and wiggle her toes. "Those socks are what helped Andy
win," she maintains. "I had them on my feet the whole week."
Sweeter smelling is Andy's future. The brightest U.S. tennis
prospect to rush the net in years, Roddick is on a remarkable
run. In December he won two prestigious events in Florida: the
Orange Bowl championship and the Eddie Herr International. "With
the results Andy has had lately, he shows great promise of a pro
career," says Bobby Bernstein, the boys' 18-and-under national
development coach for the U.S. Tennis Association.
The affable Roddick is your quintessential
baseball-cap-on-backward all-American 17-year-old. His game,
though, is anything but the unimaginative, topspin-heavy baseline
tennis that, lamentably, has characterized the U.S. juniors over
the past 15 years. A native of Omaha whose bathroom is covered
with Nebraska Cornhuskers wallpaper, Roddick plays Smash Mouth
tennis. Armed with a bludgeon for a forehand and with a serve
that regularly eclipses 125 mph, he just, as he puts it, "whales
away out there."
What's more, his natural ability is matched by his competitive
resolve and court smarts. Up match point in a tight semifinal at
the Australian Open, Roddick anticipated that his opponent,
Sweden's Joachim Johansson, was going to smack a down-the-line
backhand passing shot. Just as Johansson was sizing up the shot,
Roddick moved to guard the line. Distracted, Johansson went for
the open court and shanked the crosscourt backhand wide. Game,
set, match to Roddick.
In the finals against Mario Ancic of Croatia, Roddick played
fearlessly in a first-set tiebreaker and cruised home 7-6, 6-3.
"For whatever reason, I play well when it matters most," says
Roddick, whose older brother, John, was a three-time All-America
at Georgia. "Toughness has never been a weakness of mine."
As a senior at Boca Prep, Roddick admits, "I'm not the most
studious guy in the world." Nevertheless, he maintains a 3.4
average and has enough credits toward graduation this spring to
leave school every day at noon. After lunch, he and his coach,
Tarik Benhabiles, drill and play points on the Roddicks' backyard
court. "Andy's work ethic and his intensity level are tremendous
for a kid his age," says Benhabiles, a former touring pro who
coached fellow Frenchmen Cedric Pioline and Nicolas Escude into
the Top 20. "I tell him not to worry about the future, because if
his dedication stays the same, there's no limit."
Roddick knows that success in the juniors doesn't necessarily
presage success in the pros; for every Andre Agassi and Pete
Sampras there are dozens of former studs like Al Parker, Ivan
Baron and Ty Tucker who never made it on the ATP tour. Still,
Roddick won't even entertain calls from college coaches trying to
recruit him. "I know I need to get stronger and better in every
area, but I want to give the pros a shot," says Roddick, who
recently retained SFX Sports Group to represent him. "I'll make
the jump when my coach thinks I'm ready."
His debut may well come this summer at the U.S. Open. Roddick
will turn 18 on Aug. 30 and is an obvious candidate to receive a
wild-card entry into the Open's main draw--a $10,000 payday even
if he loses in the first round. It remains to be seen whether
he'll permit his family to venture to Flushing Meadows to watch
him play. But at least then he can spring for a new pair of lucky
socks for Grandma.