Class emerges beyond the clubbing serve

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The Independent Online

Whirlwinds can be destructive forces, but wait long enough and they blow themselves out, leaving everything in their vicinity to return to the natural order of things. In the context of yesterday's first semi-final here we quite expected Andre Agassi, the man newly promoted to Wimbledon No 1 seed, would pick himself up from the debris of a phenomenal first set from Andy Roddick and emerge the ultimate survivor of this collision of the generations. Tennis institutions, particularly ones approaching their peak of performance, aren't destroyed that easily. Are they?

That rationale proved false yesterday in this west London sun-trap where the 20-year-old from Nebraska, in only his second appearance at the pre-Wimbledon event, issued a defiant retort to those who prefer to observe little in his game beyond a devilish serve. Not that the particular weapon failed him. The extreme edges of the speed-clock calibrations were tested with monotonous regularity as he delivered 29 aces, including 11 in one bout of 15 serves during the second set, which he actually lost.

Earlier in the week, Roddick had delivered a 148mph effort, one short of Greg Rusedski's record established at Indian Wells in 1998. Yesterday, he equalled it, though strangely not with an ace. His compatriot actually got his racket to the ball, but like so many others failed to return it.

With the crowd willing on the older man to instigate the possibility of a final against Tim Henman - a futile wish, as it transpired - it produced an intriguing contest, watched by Brad Gilbert, formerly Agassi's coach, now Roddick's. Indeed, he even managed an active role, managing a rueful grin after he had risen at the back of the stands to catch a loose ball like an outfield fielder.

On a rather more educational note, Gilbert would have been gratified with the progress his protégé has made on grass - if maybe not on demeanour. But then bad manners maketh the man. Midway through the final set, Roddick hurled down his towel, and metaphorically it looked as though he had thrown it in, too. One bad call had turned his 6ft 2in frame into a stalking hulk of fury. He was angry with the crowd, the umpire - whom he deemed an "idiot" - but mostly with himself. Turning his white baseball cap around, for a second he metamorphosed into the all-American brat.

Fortunately, just as quickly, normality prevailed. "I got my frustration out on the garbage can next to my chair," he explained afterwards, all charm personified. Having been broken by Agassi, who appeared on the cusp of restoring his rightful position of dominance, yet somehow never quite managed it despite clawing back Roddick's initial advantage, the younger man responded and though the set went to a tie-break there was a new-found ebullience about his spirit.

The pleasure with which he struck some of his volleys was evident for all to observe, although Roddick is still too prone to over-ambitious shots, particularly against the scuttling Agassi who, to put it kindly, does not cover the court with the greatest alacrity.

For stamina Roddick lacks for nothing. This was the character, remember, who discovered the reserves necessary to endure that historic five-hour match with Younes El Aynaoui in the Australian Open, resulting in a victory which earned him his first single-digit world ranking. Yesterday's encounter involved a mere three sets, and the first of those was captured by Roddick 6-1 with almost embarrassing swiftness.

"Not the most convincing win ever," conceded Roddick. "I was pretty faultless in the first set, it was close in the second, but the third I shouldn't have won. I got a little lucky." Now Wimbledon beckons for a man who still regards such a surface as alien terrain. "I'm feeling better on grass. I'm getting there. Now I need to go for it," he replied when asked about his approach to the Championships." Whatever today brings, he has announced himself as a potent contender with the elimination of a countryman, who in their four previous encounters had always prevailed.

Agassi will remain a Wimbledon favourite, in both senses of the word. But just maybe, where Roddick is concerned, there is a change in the wind.

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