Roddick's rockets serve big warning

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The Independent Online

A controlled explosion by the name of Andy Roddick, borne on the blast of dynamite serving that twice saw him equal his new speed record of 153 miles an hour, swept away Lleyton Hewitt 7-6 6-3 in yesterday's semi-finals of the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club to confirm that he is one of the favourites for Wimbledon. Roddick, the defending Stella champion and top seed, will find a familiar face across the net this afternoon: Sebastien Grosjean, the Frenchman he defeated 6-3 6-3 in last year's final.

A controlled explosion by the name of Andy Roddick, borne on the blast of dynamite serving that twice saw him equal his new speed record of 153 miles an hour, swept away Lleyton Hewitt 7-6 6-3 in yesterday's semi-finals of the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club to confirm that he is one of the favourites for Wimbledon. Roddick, the defending Stella champion and top seed, will find a familiar face across the net this afternoon: Sebastien Grosjean, the Frenchman he defeated 6-3 6-3 in last year's final.

Grosjean, looking at times as if he was more interested in Euro 2004 football than his day job, did well to fight back from a set and 4-1 down to defeat the Korean qualifier, Hyung-Taik Lee, 6-7 7-6 6-2, and underline his claim to be that rare product of his nation, a grass-loving French tennis player. Not only did Grosjean surge into the final here a year ago, he was also a Wimbledon semi-finalist, beating Tim Henman, incidentally, at both tournaments.

Whether he will possess the resolve, or the counter-punching skills, to resist the devastating American 21-year-old, is doubtful. Hewitt was not up to the job, but some of the blame lay in his own hands. Roddick did not start to crank up the big boomers until the second set, by which stage the Australian, three times a Stella champion from 2000-02, should have been in control.

Hewitt had won all three previous matches with Roddick, though they last met in 2001, and it looked as if the fourth win was about to be clocked up. Pinning Roddick to the baseline with the depth and accuracy of his ground strokes, Hewitt played with impressive command and served for the first set at 5-4. That he was broken was down to unforced errors on his part, rather than any Roddick fireworks. The tie-break was a riveting affair, the first 14 points going with serve until Hewitt struck a forehand into the tramlines and underlined that sloppines with a service return which flew long. "Once he got that first set under his belt, Andy became confident," said Hewitt.

That confidence soared at once as Roddick broke Hewitt at the start of the second set. Then the aces, 15 in all, began to acquire deadly speed. He went 3-1 up with a repeat of the 153mph shot he delivered in Friday's quarter-finals and the clock showed a repeat of that four games later. Both were, of course, aces, but without rubbishing their effectiveness Hewitt questioned the accuracy of the gun which recorded them.

"He has a huge serve, no doubt about that, but 153 out wide? The faster serves are going to be down the middle."

Hewitt was more in awe of Roddick's ability to come up with what he called "great shots on big points". The winner agreed, trying to downplay the importance of his rockets. "There are a lot of things I am more proud of than serving records," he said.

"If I could hold serve underhand I would be just as comfortable. My biggest stats are first serve percentage and service games won. Take care of those and you should have pretty consistent good days at the office."

However, Roddick had a warning. "I haven't reached my max at 21. I can still get stronger but I am not too concerned about that. There is more of a need to improve in other areas. I am a better player overall than when I won here last year, although I played great last year. I am better between the ears and more confident."

Grosjean and Lee, the first semi-final on court, began with swathes of empty seats as corporate lunches took priority. There seemed little incentive to abandon food and drink as the little Frenchman's greater courtcraft put him in control and he served for the first set at 5-3. Then Lee, the 28-year-old son of a potato farmer who on his debut at the US Open in 2000 was so short of finances that he lodged at the Manhattan YMCA (until he collected his fourth-round prize money), found his form and took the first set tie-break.

When Lee, striking a sequence of winners from his classical backhand, went 4-1 up in the second set it seemed Grosjean might be able to concentrate on the football fortunes of his beloved France today (he forecast a 2-1 win over England). But he buckled down to the job and poor Lee subsequently won only four more games and departed a dejected figure.

Roddick does not think the final will be a walkover. "Sebastien is a very clever player," he said. "He serves very big for someone who is not tall. There is not a whole lot he doesn't do well, there are no glaring holes in his game." Holes may appear if more 153mph serves come his way, though.

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