Andy Roddick can't find the remote either. He, too, tries to
convince himself that those potato chips aren't really so
fattening because they're baked. His favorite jeans are
ventilated with holes, his hair is terminally tousled. He just
bought a modest home not in a beautiful people enclave--Soho or
South Beach or Bel-Air--but in Austin, largely so he can be near
his two older brothers, John and Lawrence. This is the rare
premier athlete who lives not in a parallel universe but in our
universe. ¬∂ True, you and I might not be blessed with the ability
to serve a tennis ball at 149 mph. And we won't be playing for the
year-end No. 1 ranking in men's tennis next week at the Masters
Cup in Houston. We don't necessarily date the hottie du jour or
get asked to host Saturday Night Live. But the point is that
Roddick, at his core, is one of us. Watching last month's
baseball playoffs, he mused, "Man, it must be the best feeling
to hit a home run, just rip back and friggin' send one." When
it was suggested that the batter probably wishes he could hit a
concussive serve or a screaming forehand that stabs the line,
the 21-year-old Roddick's eyes went as wide as quarters. "You
think?" he asked. "I never looked at it that way."
So forgive the guy if he still thinks he might be hallucinating.
Did he really win the U.S. Open in September and upgrade his
billing from the future of American tennis to its present? Is
that really his name that keeps crawling across the bottom of the
screen as he watches ESPN? Was he really hanging out in Las Vegas
last month with Robin Williams? The singer-actress Mandy Moore,
is she really his girlfriend of 15 months? "I'll be the first to
admit it, the life I'm leading is basically a joke," says
Roddick. "I should probably be cooler about it, but I can't fake
it, you know?"
The Nebraska-born Roddick and his Everyman sensibilities may
ultimately do just as much as the Williams sisters have done to
splinter the stereotypes that bedevil their sport. Put it this
way: Although he turned it down, Roddick is the first tennis
player ever to have fielded an endorsement offer from Red Bull.
"He's a breath of fresh air, because there's no pretense about
him," says Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing expert.
"He makes no attempt to fit into a tennis-player mold."
Which is to say that it's hard to call Roddick "preppy" or
"elitist" as long as his preferred attire is campy T-shirts
adorned with such witticisms as don't sweat the petty. pet the
sweaty. ("Dude, it was on a wardrobe rack at a photo shoot and I
totally five-finger-discounted it," Roddick says.) As for the
notion that you can't make it as a tennis pro unless you learn
the Western grip in the crib and sacrifice your adolescence at
the altar of Bollettieri or at some other Florida hothouse: It
wasn't all that long ago that Roddick was a scrawny kid in Austin
taking group lessons with Chris Mihm and Drew Brees--today a
forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the quarterback of the
San Diego Chargers, respectively. "They both kicked my ass,"
Roddick recalls. By age 14 he had showed enough potential to be
invited to attend a tennis academy near Tampa. Within weeks he
was back home. "I realized I loved tennis," he says, "just not at
the expense of everything else." He ended up at Boca Prep Academy
in Boca Raton, Fla., where his parents had moved, and even played
on the school's basketball team.
The dark backstory that is all but required of professional
tennis players? Suffice it to say that if a Behind the Music-type
feature were ever done on Roddick, the obligatory "downfall"
segment would be hopelessly lame. Coming up next: Andy can't go
to the slumber party, because he didn't give his parents advance
The third son of Blanche and Jerry Roddick, who were teenage
sweethearts in Wisconsin and have been married nearly 40 years,
Andy had a childhood that could have been illustrated by Norman
Rockwell. The closest thing to a crisis came in the mid-1990s
when his brother John, now 27, had to forsake a promising tennis
career because of a back injury. Instead, John graduated from
Georgia, got married and now runs a successful tennis academy in
The entourage that flanks even the most marginal player? Roddick
usually travels only with his coach, Brad Gilbert. The three or
four times a year that Blanche (a homemaker) and Jerry (an
entrepreneur who made a fortune buying Jiffy Lube franchises)
attend tournaments, they sit camouflaged in the crowd so neither
their son nor the television cameras can find them.
The self-absorption that defines most top players?
Notwithstanding the complaints of a few sore losers who resent
Roddick's on-court emoting, the kid is popular among his peers, a
merry prankster who treats other players like frat brothers. When
his Davis Cup teammate James Blake appeared in a New York Times
Magazine fashion spread before the U.S. Open, Roddick wallpapered
the locker room with the photos. "For a top player, Andy is
amazingly low-maintenance," says Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis
Roddick's game isn't derivative either. He lacks the elegant
strokes of Pete Sampras; if there's one thing Roddick is not,
it's a skilled technician. Nor does he possess Andre Agassi's
ability to hit the ball crisply almost before it bounces. Roddick
competes with the passion of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe but
has neither Connors's gritty return game nor McEnroe's stiletto
volleys. Roddick is a player for the new millennium who, aided by
both his 6'3" frame and space-age racket technology, doesn't hit
the ball so much as he pulverizes it, and he plays matches at the
pace of speed chess. He also has a competitive streak to match
his turbo game. "Every point, Andy is imposing his will on you,"
says the 36th-ranked Blake. "That's why he is where he is."
Roddick's current status as the hottest act in tennis was almost
inconceivable six months ago. Beset by spotty conditioning and,
as a result, an assortment of minor injuries, Roddick was a work
in progress--if not regress. Rock bottom came at the French Open
last May. Looking clueless on his least favorite surface, he lost
his first match to a marginal player, Sargis Sargsian. With a
heavy heart, Roddick parted ways with his longtime coach, Tarik
Benhabiles. "Our friendship was getting scarred," says Roddick,
"because we weren't getting along tenniswise."
Benhabiles, a tightly wound Frenchman, was the ideal coach when
Roddick was a talented teenager capable of, by his own admission,
"some fierce slacking." Benhabiles built up Roddick's confidence
and imbued in him a sense of professionalism. But by the time
Roddick was 20 and ranked fifth in the world, the coach's leash
was feeling too short. Rigid match preparation only added to the
burden of expectation Roddick felt from American fans.
Gilbert, meanwhile, hadn't coached consistently since parting
ways with Agassi in February 2002. He was home in San Rafael,
Calif., preparing to take his family on a Winnebago trip through
the Rockies when Roddick called him. Says Gilbert, "I felt like
Phil Jackson getting asked to coach the Lakers."
At first blush Roddick-Gilbert is a curious coupling. As a pro
Gilbert played chintzy tennis, an unsightly Punch-and-Judy style
aimed at annoying opponents into submission. Roddick's game is
the polar opposite. "Andy," says Gilbert, "is all about hitting a
home run every time." Temperamentally, Roddick takes pride in his
arrested development and, as the shirt says, doesn't sweat the
petty. Gilbert, 42, is a father of three who projects California
insouciance, but as a coach he's almost neurotically attentive to
detail. Nevertheless, they have clicked, relying on a male lingua
franca of sports, Tom Petty and good-natured mutual dissing.
When Gilbert says he wants Roddick to play more like Ivan Lendl,
Roddick smirks. "If people want to know why Brad loves Lendl so
much, tell them to check out Brad's record against him," Roddick
says. (We'll save you the trouble. Gilbert was 0-16.) Gilbert
flips through the 1,254 songs on Roddick's iPod and offers a
filibuster on schlocky contemporary music. "It's called taste,
Andy," Gilbert concludes. "Get some."
Gilbert's calling card is that of a nonpareil tactician, but his
real gift to Roddick has been his calming influence. On the drive
to the U.S. Open final--far and away the biggest match of
Roddick's career--Gilbert imparted the following gems of wisdom.
--The Golden State Warriors need to shore up their backcourt.
--Siskel & Ebert sounded better than Ebert & Roeper does.
--Chinese food is easier to cook than you might think.
Yet the underlying message was pitch perfect: Don't treat today
any differently--this may as well be a Tuesday match in Memphis.
Roddick took the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium in a carapace of
calm and ran roughshod over Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets.
"This is the anti-'stay in your room and focus,'" says Roddick,
in a thinly cloaked reference to Benhabiles's approach. "This is,
'Hey, chill out, play video games before your U.S. Open match.
Save all that intensity and energy for when you go on the
Now that Gilbert has helped take Roddick to the summit--earlier
this week the kid took the top spot in the ATP rankings--the
trick, of course, is to set up camp there. Roddick's game still
has significant room for improvement. "There's nothing he can't
do 20 percent better," says Gilbert. In particular Roddick has to
continue to fortify his backhand and to improve his court
positioning so he's not hitting from the seats behind the
baseline. But as Gilbert knows from the time he spent with the
chronically up-and-down Agassi, sustaining focus is not always
easy, especially for an ascending star.
The credits had barely finished rolling on the U.S. Open when
Roddick boarded a flight to Slovakia to play a Davis Cup tie.
Then, citing hamstring and knee injuries, he pulled out of events
in Bangkok and Tokyo, to the dismay of promoters who had been
prepared to lavish fat appearance fees on him. After a week or so
of training with Gilbert in the Bay Area, Roddick headed back to
Europe for three weeks of indoor events. His last tournament of
2003 will be next week in Houston, but his off-season, such as it
is, is already booked with exhibitions and benefits and
commitments to his sponsors.
"Dude, you gotta chill out," Gilbert tells Roddick sternly.
It's not going to happen. Having witnessed the fate of his
brother John--who had a top 10 world ranking as a junior but
never won an ATP match--Andy knows he could wake up tomorrow with
a slipped disk, and the ride could end. He also knows that,
particularly in the U.S., he can do wonders to boost the appeal
of his sputtering sport. "There's no home team in tennis, no
built-in fan base," Roddick says, "so the players have to step up
and do their fair share."
Above all, Roddick is having too much fun to dial it back. So the
Everyman Champ will throw out the first pitch at the baseball
game and go on The Today Show and play a full schedule of
tournaments. The kid, as Tom Petty put it, is running down a
More tennis coverage, including Davis Cup and tournament results
and L. Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag, at si.com/tennis.
HIM," says Bonham. "He makes no attempt to fit into a
FELT LIKE PHIL JACKSON getting asked to coach the Lakers."