It's go time for Roddick

Updated: January 16, 2004, 8:00 PM ET
By Cynthia Faulkner | ESPN.com

Andy Roddick, Olympic diver? Could have happened. Roddick's oldest brother, Lawrence, was a member of the U.S. national diving team. But it was his brother John, only six years older, who was interested in tennis.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick says there isn't any shot in his arsenal that he can't improve.

"Had I been around diving at 8 years old, who knows?" Roddick said.

Instead, Roddick, now the No. 1 player in the world, began playing tennis at age 7. Life is full of such crucial turning points, and if you look closely, last year's Australian Open marks where Andy Roddick finally began to turn hype into promise.

After surviving a record marathon match in Melbourne to reach the semifinals -- a personal best at a Grand Slam tournament -- Roddick arrived at the French Open expecting more. Instead he fell in the first round at Roland Garros, prompting him to hire Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert before Wimbledon.

With Gilbert helping to adjust his mental outlook, Roddick went on a tear, winning five of his six titles for the year, including his first major title at the U.S. Open, to finish the season at the top of the rankings.

Although the journey has been longer than one season -- with Roddick being touted as the future of American tennis as early as his years as a junior player -- it wasn't until after he won the U.S. Open that he had, in his own mind, done something to deserve that focus.

"It's just, you know, having deserved that attention, for a while, as opposed to just having it be hype, and that has been a pretty good feeling," Roddick said.

There has been a lot of attention since. Roddick appeared on a long list of shows, hosted Saturday Night Live and posed for magazine layouts. His personal life -- he dates singer and actress Mandy Moore -- is fair game. So far, it doesn't seem to be changing the level-headed (off-court anyway) all-American kid persona he's always displayed.

"Yeah, that stuff absolutely means zero to me," he said. "It means nothing. That stuff is just people talking. And it kind of rolls off my back."

When he goes out in public, he's no longer anonymous.

"I don't see it as too much of a hassle," Roddick said. "When I do go out people come up and, you know, say 'Well done,' or, you know, want to chat for a second, but that's fine. For the most part, I get to hang out with my friends with no problem."

"There's a lot more demands on him," Gilbert told ESPN.com in a phone call from Melbourne this week. "A lot more pressure and expectation. He can't just walk around whimsical anymore."

Gilbert said that at every tournament now, Roddick is the guy the focus is on and it's a lot of responsibility.

"People do forget he is a kid," Gilbert said.

The victory in New York gave Roddick more confidence, but Gilbert inspires a desire for improvement.

"Brad keeps telling me, OK, we did good things, but, you know, you still have a lot to improve on," Roddick said. "So that kind of sticks with you, you don't have time to think about what you have done because there's always maybe a new challenge ahead."

Roddick, with one of the fastest serves on the ATP Tour, said there isn't a shot he cannot improve on.

"I think you've just got to keep working hard," he said. "I don't think there's some magic potion and, you know, obviously I have always heard that it's tougher to stay No. 1. I haven't experienced it yet, but I am definitely going to take that as fact. I am just going to have to keep playing. I am not going to psych myself out by numbers. I am just going to try and go out there and keep improving and doing the things that I have been doing the last couple of months."

During the offseason, Roddick moved into a new house in Austin, Texas, where he'll stay in an effort to be closer to his brother when he's not traveling or training in Flordia. Roddick also spent some time doing heavy conditioning off the court.

The offseason was Gilbert's first chance to work with Roddick away from a tournament. Although overall improvement is the goal, they also worked on Roddick's return of serve and his serve-volley game. But neither player nor coach is ready to share specific goals for this year -- other than winning.

"It was just working on little things, and I am not going to tell everybody because then they'd all know," Roddick said laughing. "But, you know, it was good maybe to get away from the Tour and just have it kind of be us in training."

Last season Serena Williams publicly said she wanted to go undefeated. Gilbert says although it seemed a possibility on the women's side, such statements set you up for criticism.

"It's good to have dreams but when you blow out the candles you don't tell people what your wish is," Gilbert said.

"It's pretty rough to just say it," he added. "If you say you're going to go undefeated every person is gunning for you."

But perhaps the lessons learned last year will help him when they do. Despite the grueling nature of the five-hour 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19 match with Younes El Aynaoui in Australia, Roddick feels that his most difficult match of the year was against David Nalbandian at the U.S. Open semifinals.

"I guess it depends on how you look at it because testing my physical reserves, by far, that was the biggest, but the (David) Nalbandian match at the U.S. Open was pretty crucial for me, too," Roddick said. "I think there was a lot more on the line. Maybe I thought -- I knew that I could maybe win the U.S. Open, and so, you know, that one was big for me."

It was definitely a learning experience. In the quarterfinals, Roddick displayed the effort put in with Gilbert. He varied the pace and placement of his serve to beat Sjeng Schalken 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. In the semis against Nalbandian, who flattened out the ball to take the pace out of the match, Roddick got in trouble. He fell back to old ways. He tried to bang his way out of trouble with his serve to the visible discomfort of a helpless Gilbert. Roddick managed to win after being down match point. But in the U.S. Open final, the mature, more consistent player returned as Roddick beat Ferrero 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

Now the challenge is holding onto No. 1, doing well at other Grand Slam events and defending his U.S. Open title.

"They'd all love to beat the guy who is ranked No. 1," Roddick said. "I know I have the couple of times that I have done it in the past, so it does make it harder, but I enjoy a challenge like that."

But just because he's top dog right now doesn't mean that Roddick is proclaiming his greatness.

"I feel like I am on top of the rankings, but I don't think there's any player that's clearly head and shoulders above the rest right now," he said. "So I was just the one who was lucky enough to be on top of the points standings. So I definitely feel that there's a lot of guys and we are all pushing each other to become better."

Gilbert agrees, saying that the men never know when they'll encounter a lower-ranked menace, as Roddick did last week in Doha as he lost to No. 25 Jonas Bjorkman in the second round.

"I've been around the game for a long time, and I've never seen the men's game so deep," Gilbert said.

"Here at the Australian Open, if you're not ready to go -- GO time, all the time -- you're out."

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.