Andy Roddick's withdrawal from the recent Monte Carlo Masters prompted the tournament director, Patrice Dominguez, to say that Brad Gilbert, the US Open champion's coach, "who never won a match on clay," did not believe that Roddick could win the French Open.
That remains to be seen, but Roddick, the second seed, made a sorry start on the road to Roland Garros yesterday, losing to Guillermo Canas, of Argentina, in the first round of the Rome Masters, 7-6, 6-1.
Having been hailed as a hero on Saturday, after helping guests to safety from a fire at the Parc dei Principi, the official players' hotel, the 21-year-old Roddick was unable to make his mark on the Centre Court at the Foro Italico.
"I wasn't concentrating for one reason or another, but I don't think it was because of [the fire," Roddick said. "It's tough to put that out of your mind, but the point is I had plenty of days to get ready. I had a tennis match to play, and I didn't do that. I was rushing things [today]."
Although evidently off form, Roddick fought hard throughout the opening set. He saved four set points as Canas served at 5-4, and created three set points in the tie-break before netting a service return on his opponent's fifth set point to lose the shoot-out, 9-7.
As Canas grew in confidence, Roddick began to wilt. The American had treatment to his left knee after losing the opening three games of the second set, and never looked capable of stalling Canas' advance to a second-round match against David Sanchez, of Spain.
"The [pain] in the knee is something that comes from time to time from playing from week to week," Roddick said. "Nothing serious."
The top seed, Roger Federer, who was defeated in straight sets by Felix Mantilla in last year's final, struggled to find form in windy conditions against Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden. But the Swiss Wimbledon champion, who prevailed, 7-6, 6-3, had an easy time compared to Mantilla, who saved four match points in recovering from 7-5, 5-1 down to win 12 games in a row against the American Robby Ginepri.
Mantilla attributed his comeback to divine intervention. "I saw a vision of the Virgin Mary," he said. "After that I was able to give one hundred per cent."
On an afternoon of topsy-turvy contests, Filippo Volandri, the Italian No 1, who lost to Federer in the quarter-finals last year, gave home supporters hope of another inspiring run by defeating Nicolas Kiefer, 6-4, 0-6, 6-0, capitalising on the German's errors on the final set.
Federer, back in action after taking a three-week break, explained his poor start to the match thus: "You can hit freely during two weeks in practice, then you get to the match and suddenly you think twice if you should really go for that shot or not."
Although Federer had two opportunities at 2-2 in the first set, Bjorkman was a threat until he hit a forehand long on the eighth point of the tie-break. Federer won the shoot-out, 7-4, and was relieved to see the back of the set after 54 minutes.
Federer netted a backhand volley to present Bjorkman with a break point in the third game of the second set, only for the Swede to net a forehand while attempting to convert. Federer threw his racket to the ground in frustration after netting a shot on the concluding point of the next game. Asked in the interview room when he had last vented his frustration in such a way, Federer replied: "Against [Tim] Henman in Rotterdam [in February]."
A magnificent backhand whisked across the court enabled the world No 1 to make the decisive break for 4-2.
* The former world No 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario has come out of retirement in an attempt to become the first player to take part in five Olympics. "It's a personal challenge and something I'm really looking forward to," the 32-year-old said at the German Open in Berlin yesterday, where she is playing her first tournament since announcing her retirement from competitive tennis in November 2002.Reuse content