Roddick serves notice of intent

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The Independent Online

It is Andy Roddick's self-inflicted dilemma that losing is no longer an alternative. It has been this way since he won his domestic Grand Slam event, the US Open, in 2003.

Since then, six Grand Slam have passed without success, and Roddick, this fortnight's No2 seed, has dropped two places from being the best player in the world. To some, this represents a bathetic fall from grace.

"It's a tough situation to be in, to finish No 2 in the world [as he did last season] and have people speculating what's wrong," Roddick said yesterday. "If you guys were the second best journalists in the world I'd bet you'd be pretty happy. It's a fine line, but it's almost like a backhanded compliment. I guess that's the level I've set."

It is pressure of a sort, but pressure comes with tennis. Roddick recognises that if he does not like it he can get out of the kitchen, because there are some fairly onerous jobs in there as well.

"There's not one person at this tournament who doesn't have pressure on him," the 22-year-old added. "That's part of the whole thing. I mean, if I didn't want pressure I could go make the sandwiches somewhere. There could even be pressure in that. Maybe too much mustard."

This then was the vista facing the man known alternatively as the "Sexiest Athlete" or the "Hottest Bachelor", depending on your choice of American magazine, as he walked out for the first match on No 1 court yesterday. There were plenty of empty seats about as the corporate junketeers were fighting their way through the menu.

Both Roddick and his opponent, Jiri Vanek of the Czech Republic, were wearing shirts outside their long shorts and white baseball caps. It was possible to get them confused for a while. The distinction became clearer when the match started.

The history book told us that the first and last time they played, at Delray Beach in 2001, J Vanek had beaten A Roddick. It must have been Anita. Vanek had lost in the first round of his last 10 Grand Slams and never won a main draw grass court match at any level. He should have been led to the back of the court blindfold and offered a final cigarette before the Roddick bullets came his way.

This is the third year running Roddick has run in his grass-court game with victory at Queen's Club and his twin gifts were soon on display. At times it appears he possesses just two simple options. Both, though, are nuclear, the paramount service and the flashing forehand, most potent when played inside out.

The rhinoceros delivery is a thing of awesome power rather than beauty, a two-footed leap, as if clapped in leg irons, followed by a bludgeon. Only the truly wicked would come back as one of his tennis balls.

It is a high-performance delivery but then Roddick does not have to get it out of the garage that often. The American gets through a lot of easy points. One of his service games here can be over quicker than a single point at Roland Garros.

The scorching figures to watch out for yesterday were the mercury level (over 30C) and Roddick's fastest serve (141mph), which was relatively benign compared to his world record of 155mph.

Vanek soon found himself serving most of the time and 5-1 down in the first set. Even then Roddick was admonishing himself at any slip. When he has his opponent walking the plank, he does not countenance a single backward step.

The first set disappeared in 20 minutes and, at the beginning of the second, Roddick experimented with a volleying strategy. He paid for this impertinence with a collector's item, a service game dropped to love, and Vanek led 3-1. That, however, was the final draw. Roddick loaded his rifle and the drumbeat stopped. The No 2 seed collected the next three games and the subsequent tie-break on his way to a 6-1, 7-6, 6-2 victory. Like the sandwiches, this was revenge best served cold.

"I must have been No 140 or 150 in the world when I last played him," Roddick said. "When I lost, in my home-town tournament, I was so upset that I left the [newspaper] article in my room. A couple of weeks later, I beat Pete [Sampras] for the first time."

Sampras has now gone, so too many of his contemporary Americans, as the man from Omaha, Nebraska, marches on, an army of one. "I wish it wasn't like that," he said.

"Not only for the US, but for those guys. They are my friends. But you can't worry too much about stuff that you have no control over. I'm busy enough worrying about the stuff that I do have control over."

Roddick does at least have the progressive form figures to win an All England title. He reached the semi-finals in 2003, and took a set off Roger Federer in the final 12 months ago.

Like Lleyton Hewitt, the world No 2, he has come in under the radar here, the attention deflected by Federer, Tim Henman and Rafael Nadal. "I feel like I have a good shot here on this surface," he said. "I want to win this tournament.

"I'm hungry to win this tournament. I feel like I've played great on grass the last couple of years. Obviously that's the next step for me on this surface and at this tournament. Easier said than done. If it was easy, we would all have done it. I felt like I gave it a great go last year and played well throughout and came up a little bit short."

Next up is a Daniele Bracciali of Italy. Pheidippides brought news back from court No 13 on the Italian's encounter with Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, which, after four hours and 17 minutes, finished 6-7, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 12-10.

Karlovic won the statistical comparison, collecting 104 points to his opponent's 82 and firing 51 aces against 31 (an aggregate record for a match at Wimbledon). Bracciali, though, won the match and can now look forward to another day in the coconut shy.