NEW YORK (MCT) — Just in the nick of time, just when American tennis fans were worried Andre Agassi’s re-tirement would make the sport irrelevant in this country, along comes the new-and-improved Andy Roddick, barging his way into a mouth-watering U.S. Open final on Sunday against top-ranked Roger Federer, the two-time defending champion.
Roddick has very vivid memories of sitting in the upper deck at Flushing Meadows as a child, jumping out of the bleachers as Jimmy Connors brought the fans to their feet with his shot-making, fist-pumping and passion.
On Saturday, it was the 54-year-old Connors —Roddick’s new guru —fidgeting in his seat, contorting his body with every close rally, and, finally, celebrating as Roddick pumped his fists and roared toward the clear blue sky after his 6-7 (5-7), 6-0, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 semifinal victory over unseeded Russian Mikhail Youzhny.
Federer had a much easier time against the other Russian semifinalist, No. 7 Nikolay Davydenko. He breezed through the first set in 22 minutes and won 6-1, 7-5, 6-4. Federer was probably well into his main course at dinner by the time Roddick staved off the crafty Youzhny. Federer is the first man since Rod Laver in 1961-62 to make six con-secutive Grand Slam finals.
Federer, who has beaten Roddick 10 of the 11 times they’ve played, said facing Roddick in the U.S. Open final will be far different from at Wimbledon, where he beat the American in the 2004 and 2005 finals.
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“Totally different, grass and hard court,” he said. “I think it’s obviously more difficult here because of the crowd, playing an American. The only time I lost against him 2003 in Montreal was on a hard court. So this won’t be easy.”
Whatever Connors is telling Roddick, it’s working. He is playing with more confidence, unleashing backhands down the line, coming to the net, hitting the ball on the rise, doing all the things critics have been suggesting he do for years.
Connors has shied away from media attention most of the week, saying, “It’s Andy’s time,” but he finally opened up for a few minutes Saturday when cornered by a small group of reporters in the locker room.
“Federer certainly is the No. 1 player, but there’s a third name now in the mix, which in my opinion is how it should be: Nadal, Federer, and now Roddick,” Connors said. “You guys forget, he won this tournament. He’s been in the finals of Wimbledon twice. I thought whatever he did here was a bonus. He is the quickest learner I’ve ever been around. The idea was for me to help him find a game that can go out and compete against anybody. I’m not a coach, I’m a friend who happens to know about tennis.”
It remains to be seen whether Jimbo can help Roddick beat Federer, who has won 18 of 19 sets at this U.S. Open, and is riding a 20-match win streak here. He has lost just five matches this year, four to Nadal.
“I’m just going to go out and throw it all at him,” Roddick said. “I’m just going to go for it, just play the way I have. If the guy plays too well, then he plays too well, but I’m not going to lay down. I’m going to go out there and try to win the U.S. Open.”
Asked if he thinks Roddick will beat Federer, Youzhny said: “I think it’s not too much chances. Because Roger fin-ished early and he played just one and a half hour. I think 70 percent is to Roger and 30 for Andy.”
Former American great Jim Courier has watched Roddick’s transformation from the broadcast booth, and Courier said he has never seen Roddick play better.
“I don’t know what Jimmy’s telling him, but I know what I see,” Courier said. “Jimmy’s got a wealth of informa-tion, he’s sharing it with Andy, and Andy’s willing to listen, so that’s a great trio right there. Playing Roger is the biggest challenge you can have because he tests every part of your game, but other than Nadal, Andy is the most qualified to test Roger right now. Still, he’ll need a near-perfect match.”
Sunday’s clash is exactly the final CBS, tournament executives, and Saturday’s star-studded audience wanted. The crowd of 23,942 included Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Michael J. Fox, Greg Norman, and Chevy Chase —and they were squarely in Roddick’s and Federer’s corners.
“Everybody was waiting for Roddick in final against Federer,” Davydenko said. “Nobody want final to be Youz-hny-Davydenko at U.S. Open. For the American fans, it should be Roddick playing against Federer.”
(c) 2006, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.