It was a few minutes before six o'clock last Saturday evening, and
the U.S. Open was on the verge of being officially transformed
from Grand Slam to Grand Guignol. Earlier in the week persistent
rain had all but washed out three sessions, constipating the
scheduling and igniting calls for a retractable roof over Arthur
Ashe Stadium. But an even darker cloud hovered over the National
Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow. Looking all of his 33 years,
Andre Agassi had been soundly beaten by Spain's Juan Carlos
Ferrero in the first men's semifinal match. Now the young
American, Andy Roddick, was down match point in a third-set
tiebreaker to Argentina's David Nalbandian. "Save CBS, Andy!" a
fan yelled, aware that the audience for a Ferrero-Nalbandian
final would rival the audience for Gigli. But the fan might as
well have bellowed, "Save American tennis, Andy!"
The kid stayed in the picture. Roddick spanked a 138-mph service
winner to remain alive. He ended up winning the tiebreaker. As so
often happens, there was an about-face in momentum, and within an
hour Roddick had closed out the match. He had labored for nearly
four hours, his feet were caked in gnarly (his word) blisters,
and he had to return for the final the next afternoon. But by
then it was clear that the fates had already written the script.
The 2003 Open won't be remembered for the rain, the dubious
scheduling or the retirement of the best male player of the Open
era. No, this was destined to be Roddick's personal debutants'
ball. Roddick was barely old enough to see over the net when his
name began riding tandem with the phrase great American tennis
hope. Even though he had gone on to win 100 professional matches
faster than either Pete Sampras or Agassi had, the weight of
expectations hung on him uncomfortably. Now the weight is gone.
On Sunday, Roddick pasted Ferrero 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, justifying all
the years of hype. "Did I win this thing? Was the scoreboard
really right?" asked Roddick, still in disbelief two hours later
as he returned to the court and sat in a line judge's chair. "If
so, I'd say it was a good tournament for me."
So, too, for men's tennis. The relentless parity that has racked
the ATP in recent years was mercifully absent in New York. The
eight highest seeds all reached the round of 16, and the
distinction between pretenders and contenders was readily
apparent. In the latter camp a half-dozen players--each in his
early 20s, each with a distinct persona--have risen to the fore.
Roddick, Ferrero and Nalbandian join Switzerland's Roger Federer,
Argentina's Guillermo Coria and the contrarian Australian,
Lleyton Hewitt, as players who should be firmly embedded in the
top 10 for years. "It's shaping up to be a really good group,
huh?" says Roddick, who's now ranked No. 2. "We're all pretty
Roddick, though, might be the best of the bunch. This summer on
the hard courts, the most democratic of surfaces, he ran
roughshod over the competition, winning four events and 27 of 28
matches. His lock-and-load serve is the cornerstone of his game.
At the Open he fired a tournament-high 123 aces and routinely
struck serves that violated New York City's antismoking law. And
the rest of his game has caught up to his delivery. His backhand
is no longer a liability. His volley no longer resembles a
Tomahawk Chop. He no longer plays with the subtlety of a
blacksmith. Against players with divergent games Roddick called
upon an ever-expanding vocabulary of skills. "That was the
ultimate, beating seven guys in seven ways," says his coach, Brad
Gilbert. "He was able to make all the adjustments."
For Roddick and many other players at the Open, the most vexing
adversary may have been the second-week drizzle--Weather of Mass
Disruption, as it were. That the rains were hardly Biblical made
the delays all the more maddening. Across the tracks at Shea
Stadium the Mets were able to get in three nine-inning games, but
the slightest droplets rendered the hard courts unplayable, and
even when the skies cleared, a dense fog glazed the courts.
"Finally it stopped raining, and you're so ready to roll," says
Roddick. "Then you couldn't play because of the mist? Arrrgghh."
From mist opportunities to missed opportunities: When Venus and
Serena Williams--winners of every U.S. Open since 1999 and
finalists in five of the previous six majors--withdrew because of
an abdominal strain and left-knee surgery, respectively, the
women's draw opened up dramatically. None other than Jennifer
Capriati proclaimed that winning a Williamsless tournament might
come with an asterisk. Still, the sisters' absence was a terrific
chance for another player to seize the occasion, to say nothing
of the $1 million winner's check.
A prime candidate was Capriati herself, who, at age 27, came into
the event playing her best tennis in recent memory. In the
semifinals J-Cap and Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne engaged in
tennis's answer to a roadhouse brawl. As both players slugged
away, Capriati took a 6-4, 5-3 lead. On the brink of reaching the
final she wilted, and Henin-Hardenne, smelling blood, found the
radar on her explosive strokes. In the third set Capriati led
even more commandingly, 5-2, but again she took her foot off her
opponent's throat. Finally, Henin-Hardenne prevailed 4-6, 7-5,
7-6 in a 183-minute psychodrama--the match of the tournament, if
not the year. As she left the court, she doubled over in pain and
was so spent that she couldn't carry her rackets. She walked
gingerly to the locker room, where Capriati was curled on a bench
sobbing, her best, last chance to win another major having
slipped through her callused fingers. After taking an IV,
Henin-Hardenne didn't return to her Manhattan hotel until 3 a.m.
Saturday and declared herself "questionable" for the women's
final that night against her countrywoman Kim Clijsters.
The table was set for Clijsters to win her first Grand Slam event
and legitimize the top ranking she inherited from Serena Williams
last month. But she too let the moment slip away. Clijsters is
the most gracious player in tennis, but that works against her in
high-pressure matches. Her rivalry with Henin-Hardenne--the
so-called Battle of the Belgians--is redolent of
Williams-Williams encounters: awkward affairs in which the more
sensitive player (Clijsters) is trounced by the more
Machiavellian one. Henin-Hardenne showed up on Saturday looking
no worse for wear from her grueling semifinal and, in a virtual
replay of the French Open final three months ago, took full
advantage of Clijsters's nerves to run away with the match 7-5,
Though her strokes are fluid, even rococo, Henin-Hardenne's
personality is gritty. In New York she simply outfought the field
to grab her second major of the year. Not only was her title free
of an asterisk, but one wonders how Venus and Serena felt as they
watched. That the 5'6", 126-pound Henin-Hardenne can match the
sisters' firepower is one thing; that she is utterly fearless is
something altogether different. "Look, if I want to win, I have
to be [ruthless]," Henin-Hardenne says. "I try to be very
businesslike and serious on the court, but that's also who I am
as a person."
On the surface Roddick's constitution is the polar opposite. He
is the quintessential dude who shops at Abercrombie & Fitch,
watches Jackass, uses phrases like mega-amped and wickedly
far-fetched, kept a copy of Maxim in his U.S. Open locker and was
stoked to receive a good-luck call from Elton John before the
final. He has an insouciance and a generosity of spirit that are
rare in tennis. What other player, midway through the fifth set
of a Grand Slam semifinal, would have the stage presence to catch
an errant ball in his hat, as Roddick did? Before taking
questions at Sunday's postmatch press conference, Roddick grabbed
the mike and said gleefully, "No more 'What's it feel like to be
the future of American tennis?' crap!" In short, he is very much
in touch with his inner class clown.
But underneath the impishness and the crowd-pleasing histrionics
is a deep reserve of maturity and polish. When Croatia's Ivan
Ljubicic lost to Roddick in the second round and then made the
shabby (and absurd) allegation that Roddick is universally
disliked on tour, the American didn't fire back publicly but
instead called Ljubicic in his hotel room so they could iron out
their differences. (They did.) When Nalbandian grumpily blamed
his semifinal loss on an injury, Roddick responded coyly, "I
thought he did a hell of a job playing with it." While Ferrero,
the reigning French Open champion, was jangle-nerved in the
final, Roddick was enveloped in calm.
Some of Roddick's evolution is natural. "The more you play, the
more you learn," he says with a shrug. "You don't have all the
answers when you come out here at 18." Still, it's no coincidence
that Roddick has elevated his tennis since retaining Gilbert
earlier this summer. More guru than coach, Gilbert hasn't
retooled Roddick's game or changed his off-court training. But as
he did with his former charge, Agassi, Gilbert has made tennis
blissfully simple for Roddick. His sage advice before the final?
"Win three sets before the other guy does."
Whatever, it worked. The sun was slinking beneath the horizon
when Roddick held match point and calmly smote his 23rd ace of
the day. Within seconds, he knelt inside the service box--one of
the four he had been scorching throughout the tournament--and
leaked tears. On Roddick's ninth birthday his present was a trip
to the U.S. Open. ("He would wear tennis clothes every day he
came here," recalls his mother, Blanche. "He got into the
players' lounge with no credentials.") Barely a week after his
21st birthday he won the whole tournament.
It was all so fitting. On the first night of the Open, Pete
Sampras formally retired from tennis. On the last night the
newest U.S. star officially arrived. As flashbulbs blitzed around
him, Roddick clung to a trophy that might as well have been a
torch. Finally he had accomplished what the sun seldom managed to
do during this waterlogged tournament. He had broken through.
That Henin-Hardenne can match the Williams sisters' firepower is
one thing; that SHE IS UTTERLY FEARLESS is something altogether
L. Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag, every Monday at si.com/tennis.