Time to grow up for Roddick the racket-breaker

Fiery American with fearsome serve ready to pose serious threat to established names at Australian Open
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The last time that Andy Roddick was seen in Grand Slam action, he was spitting like an adder after having a line call overruled at a crucial moment of his US Open quarter-final against Lleyton Hewitt. The 19-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, hurled his racket to the ground and raged at the umpire before losing to Hewitt, the eventual champion.

The histrionics earned him the inevitable comparisons with John McEnroe, but Roddick – hailed as an awesome new talent after bursting on to the men's circuit last year – has no wish to be the next tennis superbrat. After reaching the semi-finals of last week's adidas International in Sydney as he prepared for his first Australian Open, which began here this morning, he said he had grown up since his outburst four months ago.

"I look at it as a valuable learning experience," he said. "I'm glad it happened early in my career rather than down the line. If I get put in that position again, I won't do it."

Being acclaimed as the Next Big Thing can be the kiss of death, as many a sporting prodigy would attest, but the fresh-faced Roddick – the world No 1 junior in 2000 – seems remarkably unaffected by the hyperbole. In Sydney, he good-naturedly subjected himself to a stream of media interviews and eschewed the offer of a courtesy car, instead catching a shuttle bus back to the tournament hotel.

"A-Rod", as he is nicknamed, is not just a likeable and gregarious young man. With Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in the twilight of their careers, there has been much talk of him stepping into their shoes. But the No 13 seed in Melbourne dismisses the notion as absurd, pointing out that the two veterans – his childhood idols – have 20 Grand Slam titles between them.

"No one can replace that, so I just kind of disregard that," Roddick said at the weekend. "It's just not realistic for one player to do that. I would be happy to get a couple [of Grand Slams] maybe somewhere down the road."

While that relatively modest assessment of his potential is refreshing, few people share it. Sampras called him "the future of American tennis" after Roddick sensationally beat him in straight sets in the Ericsson Cup at Key Biscayne, Florida, last March. McEnroe, Jim Courier and Pat Cash are among his other admirers.

The US national team coach, Greg Patton, says: "He's the real deal, one hungry coyote." Agassi has gone out of his way to encourage him, joining him for practice sessions at his home in Boca Rouge, Florida. "Andy has a great presence on the court," the elder American said last year. "He does a lot of things well and has a long ways to improve, which is a great sign seeing that he's already competing at this level. And he's a good guy, a quality person who is very considerate of people around him."

Roddick comes from a sporting family and seemed destined to become an athlete. One of his brothers, John, was a leading junior who retired from the professional circuit because of a bad back, while his other brother, Lawrence, was a member of the US national diving team. He was not, however, raised to be a tennis player, he says. He fell into it while tagging along with John.

"When you're around something that much, it's kind of just natural to take it up or be curious and want to try it," he said. "I'm not one of those kids that was a prodigy from eight years old. I just enjoyed the game and just got better and better somehow."

Roddick has made huge leaps since he won the junior slams in Australia and the United States in 2000. Last year, after humiliating Sampras, he beat Michael Chang at the French Open and made his Centre Court debut at Wimbledon, where he defeated the No 11 seed, Thomas Johansson. He won three ATP tournaments including back-to-back clay-court titles in Atlanta and Houston and finished the year at No 16, from No 160 at the end of 2000.

Much is made of his big serve, which reaches 141mph, but he is not a one-trick horse. He has a blistering forehand and plays with patience and intelligence. Grass, clay, carpet and hard court all suit him.

"I don't think about the surface too much," he says. "I just go out and play my game regardless. I just like competing."

Roddick, whose opening match here tomorrow is against Mariano Zabaleta, of Argentina, is in the top-heavy half of the draw together with Agassi, Sampras, Hewitt and Marat Safin. While there is no prospect this time of a re-match with Hewitt, the pundits are predicting a long-term rivalry between the two young guns.

The 6ft 1in American wears his heart on his sleeve and is unashamed of it. "I'm pretty fiery out there," he says. "I always play with a bunch of emotion. I won't put up a front. I don't want to hide anything."

At Flushing Meadows, though, he blew his top. "The freaking ball was on the line," he yelled at the chair umpire, Jorge Dias. "Are you an absolute moron?" He said later that the rest of the match had been a blur. "You just feel like someone reaches inside you and just takes something."

While he has consulted a sports psychologist about keeping his temper in check, he is convinced that there is a place in the game for flamboyance. "I don't understand why you get in trouble for breaking your own racket," he says. "It's your racket and it gives the fans something to look at."

Of his future, he says: "I'm the same person that I always have been. I'm just a tennis player. I'm not going to replace Pete and Andre. I'm going to try to do my own thing and hope it works out well."