Birthday boy Roddick not popular at coming-of-age party

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Celebrating his 21st birthday at the United States Open here yesterday, Andy Roddick edged into the third round amid scenes of jubilation. Whether the big-serving Nebraskan holds the key to his first Grand Slam title will be revealed this week.

After the opening days highlighted by the retirement of Pete Sampras and Michael Chang - two of America's disappearing old guard - it was encouraging to believe that Roddick will celebrate many more birthdays at Flushing Meadows and has what it takes to be a champion. That includes taking envy and resentment in his stride.

Roddick said Ivan Ljubicic, his vanquished second-round opponent, had wished him happy birthday as they passed outside the interview room. But the 24-year-old Croatian probably skipped the bit about many happy returns, having just told the assembled media how much Roddick was disliked in the locker room.

"I don't like him," said Ljubicic, who found himself on the wrong end of a 6-3 6-7 6-3 7-6 scoreline after an exciting contest in Arthur Ashe Stadium. "Nobody in the locker room likes his acting on the court. Every single player said to me, 'Good luck, kick his ass'. He's a good player. He's going to win a lot of matches. But he doesn't respect the others."

Ljubicic, who has lost to Roddick in four of their five matches, complained that his opponent had shouted "Yes!" as his cross-court forehand drive saved a fourth set point against him in the fourth set tie-break. Ljubicic, believed the ball was wide and sank to his knees in anguish when the point stood, a decision proved correct by television replays.

"If he hits the forehand, and before the ball bounces on the ground he says 'Yes', it's very difficult for the linesman to call that ball," Ljubicic persisted. "Obviously, the chair umpire is on the far side. He's not going to call it, for sure. In a match like this, that's what makes the change."

Ljubicic's tirade seemed rooted in something deeper than a pique over one point. "Some other players are going in your face and you understand that they just want to win a match," the world No 43 said. "Some players are so trying to make you mad on the court. They're saying bad words to try to take your mind away from the game, which is part of the game, obviously. But what he's doing is just pumping up the crowd. In the United States, he can do it. Fortunately for him, 70 percent of the big tournaments are played in the States. He's No 4 in the world for that."

Roddick dismissed the comments as "pretty much sour grapes," saying he would prefer to hear them to his face. "If the players are talking, they're not talking to me about it, which would be the mature thing to do," he said. "I think it's easy to come and talk to 30-odd journalists about it. He wished me a happy birthday walking down he hall just now after his press conference. I was thinking, 'That's pretty classy'."

Winning friends does not seem to extend to the locker rooms, and influencing people, within the rules, is part of the game. "We need some interesting guys out there," Ljubicic said, "but you can be interesting in a positive way. We don't like [Roddick], but who cares? If you don't like Dunkin' Doughnuts, just don't go there."

Lleyton Hewitt, who has also provoked rivals in his career, was virtually gifted a place in the fourth round when a back injury caused his Czech opponent, Radek Stepanek, to retire with the Australian sixth seed leading, 6-1 3-0. Hewitt plays Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand next.

Jennifer Capriati, the women's sixth seed, survived some critical moments against Emilie Loit in the third round before defeating the French left-hander 6-2 2-6 6-2. Mary Pierce, the 28-year-old former Australian Open and French Open champion, also advanced, with a 6-4 6-1 victory against Shinobu Asagoe, of Japan.

There was a classic example of premature joy in the third round of the women's singles. Tamarine Tanasugarn, of Thailand, serving against Daniela Hantuchova, the Slovakian ninth seed, at 6-2 4-3, won the game, leapt into the air and ran to the net, believing she was through to the fourth round. Her surprised opponent stayed on the baseline. Two games later, the 39th-ranked the Thai celebrated all over again.

"I'm very embarrassed," Tanasugarn said. "I was just so focused and thought that game was 5-4."

"It was a funny situation," Hantuchova said, "but it showed she was really there in the match, fighting hard. I was just not good enough on the day."