Andy Roddick remains on course to become a legend in a corporate lunchtime. His 6-3 2-6 6-2 semi-final victory over the Czech, Radek Stepanek, in the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club sees the American needing one more win in this afternoon's final against the unseeded Croatian, Ivo Karlovic, to clock up his third straight success at this pre-Wimbledon showcase so much favoured by the chattering classes.
If that happens, Roddick will join John McEnroe and Lleyton Hewitt in the Stella hat-trick pantheon, not bad even for a 22-year-old of high quality who has already pocketed one Grand Slam, at the US Open of 2003. Another, rather more immediate major tournament, called Wimbledon, is Roddick's priority and his fourth solid win on the grass of Queen's in five days has proved excellent morale material, even if he would not have been happy with some of his tennis yesterday, particularly in the second set.
The two had never previously met, yet Stepanek's reputation as a grumpy gamesman had clearly been noted by Roddick, who once queried what he saw as stalling tactics. Stepanek is the polar opposite of the extrovert, crowd-pleasing lad from Nebraska. To call the Czech, who has yet to win his first tour title, a dour athlete would be to flatter him. In terms of charisma, he is on a par with a net post.
That said, he can turn on eye-catching stuff at times. You know when Stepanek thinks he has done something pretty classy by the skip in his step. If particularly pleased he unleashes the sort of Daffy Duck leap patented years ago by his compatriot, Petr Korda. Roddick, a perceptive sort, was not slow to spot this quirk and on breaking for a crucial third-set lead, he launched into an excellent imitation of the Stepanek Skip. "I didn't want to miss out on all the fun," he explained.
The darker side of Stepanek is the perceived gamesmanship which has caused Tim Henman, among others, to exchange a word or two, and when the Czech began to take rather a long time between his first and second serves, Roddick pointed this out to the umpire, Fergus Murphy. "To his credit, once I mentioned it to the umpire it didn't happen again," said Roddick.
Perhaps it was the sudden coolness of the afternoon, or the corporate lunchers wandering back into the stadium, but Stepanek missed a fine chance to indulge in an early jig, missing two break points in the opening game, though Roddick, with a characteristic tug of the cap, played his part by thumping the first of his 10 aces and following up with a service winner.
At once, the American broke and moved into a 3-0 lead which guaranteed him the first set in 26 minutes, having delivered four aces and eight service winners.
If he thought the job was half done, Roddick was in for a shock. Stepanek stepped up his serving pace, matching Roddick ace for ace, and also matched his opponent's achievement by taking a 3-0 lead. Roddick could not handle the extra venom Stepanek was achieving on his delivery, on which he conceded a miserly single point in a second set he dominated. Roddick's comment that "he got on a run with his serve" was understatement indeed.
That run looked like being extended as Stepanek swept the opening game of the final set, again to love, but Roddick applied the brake in expert fashion. The skip-inducing break of serve came via a glorious forehand pass and thereafter the Czech was in deep trouble. He clung on to his next service game, which went to deuce nine times, after surviving a couple of break points, but was then washed away on a tide of Roddick winners, though one of the rallies in an otherwise biff-bang contest was extended to 18 shots.
Roddick enthused that to win the Stella for a third consecutive year "would be huge", adding, "I came in here a couple of years ago not ever having played that well on grass. To be going for a third title here is great. But the biggest thing for me is coming here to win enough matches to be prepared for Wimbledon. Regardless of what happens in the final, I feel ready."
Karlovic, the 6ft 10in giant from Zagreb who saw off Hewitt in Friday's semi-finals and whose service toss has probably been endangering the Heathrow flight path, continued his devastating run by slamming 19 aces in a 6-4 7-6 win over Sweden's Thomas Johansson in the other semi. Observing that Karlovic "serves out of a tree", Roddick forecast the final "will probably be a bore to watch". That's doubtful, with the promise of an ace barrage and a few more skips and jumps.