Roddick wins the birthday battle
American celebrates turning 26 by turning tide against powerful Gulbis on his own anniversary
Sunday 31 August 2008
Lindsay Davenport had just lost in what may have been her last match in Arthur Ashe Stadium when another American stalwart appeared to be heading towards the exit door. Andy Roddick, having lost the first set to Ernests Gulbis in a blaze of Latvian winners, smashed his racket in pent-up anger when the world No 40 broke his serve to go a set and 4-3 up.
"He was definitely outplaying me for the first two sets," Roddick said after the end of their match in the small hours of yesterday morning. "I felt like a little kid playing against him. Then the clock struck 12 and I started playing like a 26-year-old."
Roddick, who now meets the Italian Andreas Seppi, has certainly played better at Flushing Meadows, but it is debatable whether he has turned in a braver performance than his 3-6 7-5 6-2 7-5 victory over the swashbuckling Gulbis. The worldNo 8 can be outthought and outmanoeuvred by a number of opponents, but you rarelyexpect him to be outhit, as he was for long periods of a second-round match that lasted nearly three hours.
Both players celebrated birthdays as the clock turned past midnight – Roddick his 26th and Gulbis his 20th – but it was the Latvian who looked the more determined to blow all the candles out at once.
Blessed, like his opponent, with a thunderous serve and sledgehammer forehand, Gulbisclearly had little faith in his defensive game and went on the attack from the start. The French Open quarter-finalist also showed a good touch at the net, venturing forward more frequently than his opponent.
By the end, Gulbis had cracked 79 winners compared with Roddick's 42, though the unforced error count was more telling, the Latvian making 60 to the American's 21. Roddick, with a fastest serve of 143mph compared with 136mph by Gulbis, hit 21 aces to his opponent's 19.
For the best part of two sets there had looked like only one winner. Breaking Roddick in the second game, Gulbis ripped through the first set in just 29 minutes. He served for the second at 5-4 and it took wonderful play by Roddick to turn the tide. The American set up break point with the shot of the match, a running forehand pass curled just inside the line, and a Gulbis forehand error did the rest.
It was never easy thereafter, but Roddick's first break of serve proved a turning point. He won five games in a row to take the second set and control of the third, although Gulbis came back well in the fourth. Serving second, however, the Latvian was always under pressure, and on Roddick's second matchpoint in the final game he hit a forehand long.
"One thing that no one will dispute is that I pretty much leave it out there every time, and if I lose it's not for lack of effort," Roddick said afterwards.
"When he steps up and is hitting his shots, he hits so hard there's not a lot you can do. He literally just cracks the ball. I just tried sticking around and mixing up the pace a little bit. I tried to make him hit shots that I thought might be less comfortable for him and somehow I got the momentum going my way.
"When I came out here I know a lot of people didn't think I would be around for long and were expressing that. I was watching tennis today and hearing that I'm not the favourite in the match. I took a little bit of offence at that."
While Gulbis said he had enjoyed the big-night occasion under lights in front of 23,000 people, Roddick believed his experience of matches like this had counted in his favour. "One thing I've said I have over 95 per cent of the players in this tournament is playing in that atmosphere," he explained.
"I'm totally comfortable. I like that atmosphere and tonight, when people were dancing in the stands, I loved that. I was having a blast out there even watching it.
"I'm not intimidated by that stadium. I've been there plenty of times and it's probably a stadium that takes the most getting used to the first time.
"The wind is a little bit different in there. The atmosphere is a little crazier with the New York crowd. That's something that is advantageous for me."
The bottom half of the men's draw is looking highly competitive, with 14 of the 16 seedsmaking it to the third round. If Roddick reaches the quarter-finals he is likely to face Novak Djokovic.
The world No 3 beat Robert Kendrick in straight sets, though the American made him work for his victory.
Much the same could be said of Roger Federer's progress. His reward for beating Brazil's Thiago Alves is a meeting with Radek Stepanek, who beat him in Rome three months ago.
Davenport was beaten 6-1 7-6 by Marion Bartoli. Having fought back to 5-5 in the second set, the American served three double faults to hand the initiative back to Bartoli. "I guess they call it 'the yips' on your serve," Davenport said. "I don't know where it came from – probably from all my years making fun of people that had it. That was my karma coming back."
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