Roddick finds the confidence to match power game

When he was eight years old, Andy Roddick wrote his name on four tennis balls and gave them to his mother and father and two elder brothers. He advised careful storage. They might be valuable one day.

A day, perhaps, like a week tomorrow - men's final day at Wimbledon.

Yesterday the boy from Omaha, Nebraska, produced the most compelling evidence so far that he might just confirm some of the wilder predictions made on his behalf. The most dramatic of these came in Key Biscayne, Florida, three years ago when, as a 17-year-old, he thrashed Pete Sampras.

"That kid," said a rueful Pistol Pete, "is the future of American tennis." Now, after the excellent 21-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo has joined Greg Rusedski and Davide Sanguinetti as victims of the "A-Rod" power game, another American tennis icon, John McEnroe, offers his own endorsement.

"There were times today," said McEnroe, "when Andy Roddick showed the style and the bearing of a champion." McEnroe, like the rest of the Centre Court, was caught in the tide of the 20-year-old's new found authority when Robredo, a player of touch and power and fine instinct, was simply engulfed, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 in less than two hours.

Some astonishing statistics marked the rise of the Nebraskan in the vacuum left by the fall of the champion, Lleyton Hewitt. From the start of the ninth game in the first set to his winning tie-break, Roddick won 17 straight points. In his three matches in the tournament, he has lost just one of 46 service games and surrendered one of just five break points against him. In three winning tie-breaks, the other two coming in the second-round victory over a tired and emotional Rusedski - he lost just one of 16 points on his service. His ground game has acquired the impact of a well-aimed howitzer.

Later, he was further warmed by the approval of McEnroe. "All right!" he said when he was told of the vote of confidence. "I think I do have a growing sense that I can really be a champion. You know, I'm starting to have a little more confidence in my abilities on a day-to-day basis. You know the biggest thing is that the first one is always the toughest to get. The biggest fear is the fear of the unknown. If you haven't done it before, you don't know if it can be done. That nags at you. But I'm starting to believe in myself and I'm definitely here to try to win this tournament, and not, just, go round by round. I know you have to go round-by-round, the ultimate goal is to try to get the win - the big win.

"I'm happy because I'm playing some of the best tennis I've ever played at a Grand Slam. You take what you get, always, but it's better to get it when the stakes are at their highest." So far the rush of Roddick, his win at Queen's and his dramatically developing momentum here, is a blazing validation of his decision to fire his well-liked French coach Tarik Benhabiles in favour of the quirky force of his fellow American Brad Gilbert, the former Svengali of Andre Agassi.

"I did it because I wanted something fresh and exciting. Tarik did a good job for me, and he's the reason I've been talking to you guys for the past few years. But Brad's work excited me and there's no doubt we can talk about a lot of things off the court as well as on it. Brad talks about a lot of stuff but when he comes to the game he's very focused, very precise."

Certainly there has been precision along with the power as Roddick has moved from the rubble of defeat in Paris to victory at Queen's and his current surge here at Wimbledon. Gilbert has unlocked a few of the doors that seemed to be barring Roddick's way to a natural fulfilment of his extraordinary talent.

"In the past it was a problem that so much was expected of me. My goal has always been do my own thing, and I have a feeling now that I'm better able to do this." Yesterday he absorbed the best of the impressive Robredo, which is to say much subtle movement and some feathery skill, with a game that had a sustained and withering impact. On Monday he faces the formidable Thai Paradorn Srichaphan, who ambushed another exciting young Spaniard, the teenager Rafael Nadal.

"Paradorn demands all my respect," said Roddick. "He is a strong player and is a big hitter from both wings of the court. It could be quite a shoot-out.'' It will be one that will certainly claim all the attention of Omaha, the town on the prairie which expects much of its sons. Henry Ford, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Fred Astaire all left town with a determination to conquer the world. Roddick's ambition was a little more subdued, but now his confidence blows like the wind through the cornfields.

When he signed those tennis balls, he had an idea of his value and now it has resurfaced. Wimbledon has reason to prepare for the rise of a prairie storm.

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