Right answers for Roddick in charm offensive

"A letter of the alphabet which is a female sheep? Come on, come on... " It may seem like a simple enough question when you know that the answer is U (ewe, geddit?), but for Andy Roddick, when it was put to him by the gimlet-eyed Robinson woman in a special tennis version of
The Weakest Link, the correct response was not immediately forthcoming.

"A letter of the alphabet which is a female sheep? Come on, come on... " It may seem like a simple enough question when you know that the answer is U (ewe, geddit?), but for Andy Roddick, when it was put to him by the gimlet-eyed Robinson woman in a special tennis version of The Weakest Link, the correct response was not immediately forthcoming.

Sensing defeat, he got out with a measure of grace by suggesting, "Baa?" Half an hour after winning his rain-delayed first-round match against Chinese Taipei's Yeu-Tzuoo Wang yesterday, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, the reigning US Open champion and Wimbledon No 2 seed discovered that it was his recent TV appearance which topped the press agenda.

The rash, brash Roddick who emerged at SW19 four years ago might have reacted, shall we say, adversely to such a line of questioning. But Roddick 2004, coached ­ and calmed ­ by the experienced Brad Gilbert, responded to the inevitable ribbing with charm.

Asked if Wang was now the weakest link, a ready smile appeared somewhere under the very long brim of his very white baseball cap. "It was probably me again," he responded, to general laughter. In the course of the last couple of years, Roddick's status has altered. Where once he was the latest American kid on the block with a monster serve, he is becoming a celebrity. With a monster serve.

His mighty powerful exploits are saluted this week in no lesser organ than The Beano, where he appears as an opponent for Dennis the Menace, eventually succumbing to the spiky-haired contender in the red and black hooped strip.

"My PR people came to me and said they wanted to do a cartoon," he said. "It sounded like a cool thing. It was for kids." As for his choice of opponent ­ well, there were no problems about that. "That's what I was called when I was a youngster," Roddick recalled. "It's fitting."

There is better news for the cartoon Roddick when he appears in a forthcoming edition of the comic. This time he manages a win, against Billy Whizz, after parachuting from an aircraft ­ something he actually likes to do ­ and delivering an extra special serve upon landing on the court.

So much for the comic cuts. Events elsewhere last month illuminated the serious side of Roddick's character as he reacted with courage and composure to help shepherd guests from a fire, which burnt out the hotel he was staying at in Rome and claimed several lives.

Coincidentally, as Roddick was concluding his first round match against a 19-year-old qualifier making his Grand Slam debut, one of those whom he enabled to jump down onto his balcony by dragging his bed out of the room, Seng Schalken of the Netherlands, was also progressing to the second round. Roddick accepted that the events had created some kind of a special feeling between the two of them.

"Anytime you share an experience that's pretty traumatic there's always something there," he said. "I don't know what that bond is, but there's something a little different there, and that's kind of neat."

Despite winning the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club by way of preparation for what is his fourth successive Wimbledon, the 22-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, birthplace of that other celebrated virtuoso of the volatile Marlon Brando, was not entirely at ease in finishing off a task that had been left hanging at 4-2 in the first set since Tuesday.

"It was tough out there," he said. "The wind was swirling, and I was not feeling comfortable. I got through it, but I feel there's a lot of room for improvement."

Roddick's trademark serve boomed to good advantage, regularly reaching 130 mph and, on one occasion, registering 144mph. But the aces and unreturnable deliveries were mixed up with an uncomfortable proportion of double faults, and as the younger player mixed up volleys, drop-shots and lobs, Roddick occasionally found himself outmanoeuvred. "Get rid of that shot! Just put it away!" he berated himself as one forehand went weakly wide.

Some of his fitfulness may have stemmed from his enforced confinement of the previous day, when the elements prevented any play. "I got in about 10 and left at 7.30," Roddick said. "I'm not good for sitting around with nothing to do. My boredom was killing me."

As he looks ahead to a tournament where he is seeded to meet the man who beat him in last year's semi-final en route to winning, Switzerland's Roger Federer, Roddick ­ who next plays Austria's 128th-ranked Alexander Peya ­ knows he will encounter increasing pressure of a more active kind.

What will help him to respond, however, is the memory of how he rose to the challenge of being favourite for the last US Open title.

For all that, he did not hesitate when asked to say who has the harder task in tennis: himself at the US Open or Tim Henman at Wimbledon. "Oh, hands down, Tim," he said. Which is less than comforting for the British No 1 who is due to meet him at the semi-final stage.

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