Roddick ready for right of succession

US Open: An American teenager could make a big impact at this year's tournament as Sampras and Agassi's stars wane
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The Independent Online

Youngsters continue to command attention, only this time the males are taking centre stage. Saturday brought cheers for the "Little Prince of Pop", Aaron Carter, and the rapper Lil' Bow Wow, two 14-year-olds who topped the bill on Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the National Tennis Centre, and tears for the "Baby Bronx Bombers" of baseball, who lost to Apopka, Florida, 8-2, in the Little League World Series.

As the US Open gets under way today, the focus switches to "A-Rod", aka Andy Roddick, and his attempt to become the first player to win the boys' singles championship one year and the men's singles title the next. Should Roddick succeed, he would become the tournament's youngest ever men's champion, aged 19 and 10 days – 18 days younger than Pete Sampras was in 1990.

One reason for such excitement and anticipation is the memory of Marat Safin's demolition of Sampras in last year's final, when the 20-year-old Russian seemed to materialise from nowhere to blow away one of the greatest players in history. Safin, in fact, had been primed to unleash his awesome power for longer than many people imagined, but was prone to self-destruction.

While Safin was putting his act together, Roddick had a walk-on part. Given a wild card, he lost in the first round to Albert Costa, of Spain, and then took his place as top seed in the junior event, defeating an American compatriot, Robby Ginepri, in the final.

Since then, Roddick has made a huge impact on the ATP Tour, swatting Sampras at the Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida, in March, and overcoming cramp and Michael Chang in an amazing second round match at the French Open, before having to retire against Lleyton Hewitt in the third round. At Wimbledon, Roddick pushed Goran Ivanisevic, the eventual champion, to four sets in the third round.

The Americans are entitled to dream that they are about to be given proof that Roddick is the latest in their line of great players, arriving in the nick of time before Sampras and Andre Agassi become past tense. But it is perhaps too soon for Roddick to raise his game for seven matches in a Grand Slam. Mind you, that is precisely what Sampras did here in 1990, recalling that he "just got hot for two weeks".

Now 30, Sampras has been striving to get hot again. Having failed to win a title since defeating Pat Rafter in last year's Wimbledon final – his record 13th Grand Slam triumph – the Californian spent the week leading up to Flushing Meadows competing in the Hamlet Cup in Long Island. Going into yesterday's final against Tommy Haas, of Germany, Sampras was pleased with his form. "Everything is in place," he said. "I feel my game is coming on."

Agassi, 31, is looking forward to fatherhood and marriage to Steffi Graf and insists that he is still committed to adding to his success on the court. If he is in the right frame of mind, Agassi, the second seed, is capable of keeping the younger players waiting.

Gustavo Kuerten, the top seed, has been busy since resting during Wimbledon. Since the start of his successful defence on the French Open title in June, the Brazilian world No 1 has won 27 of his last 30 matches. The only time he has lost before the semi-finals in the last three months was in Montreal three weeks ago, when he was defeated by Roddick in the third round. A strained rib muscle, which caused Kuerten to retire against Rafter in their recent final in Indianapolis, is the Brazilian's chief problem.

Rafter has reached the final in his last four tournaments – including his agonisingly close defeat by Ivanisevic at Wimbledon – and was particularly encouraged by his form in Indianapolis. The Australian is concerned that his dodgy right shoulder may not withstand the strain of a campaign for his third US Open title.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, who may meet in the fourth round, are both pleased with their preparation. Rusedski, a finalist in 1997, plays Morocco's Younes El Aynoui in the first round. Henman, the ninth seed, opens against Jan Vacek, a qualifier from the Czech Republic who is ranked No 109 in the ATP entry system.

Vacek, 25, has played only one match previously in the main draw of a Grand Slam championship. He qualified for Wimbledon as a lucky loser, and lost to a compatriot, Slava Dosedel, in the first round. "He's a bit of an unknown," Henman said, "but qualifiers can be dangerous."

The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who have each held the women's singles title in the past two years, are determined to add to America's success in winning eight of the last nine Grand Slam singles championships. Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport are equally keen to fend off the European challenge. The last player to break the American domination was Mary Pierce at last year's French Open.