Agassi's return reduces Roddick's responsibility

Updated: March 3, 2005, 12:47 AM ET
By Matthew Cronin | Special to ESPN.com

Andy Roddick knows what it's like to be out there on an island in Davis Cup. In his four years of Cup play, Roddick has been The Man.

Until Andre Agassi rejoined the team that will face Croatia starting Friday in Carson, Calif., Roddick never had the luxury of having another singles star he could count on to notch a couple of wins against elite competition.

Roddick said recently that he doesn't view Agassi's having come back to the team as an immediate relief to the pressure put on him in 2004 to notch wins at every tie. The fact is, it was only when the power hitter wasn't winning singles matches that the United States fell 3-2 in the final to Spain. Roddick's coach, Dean Goldfine, told ESPN.com that Agassi's addition would make it easier mentally on his charge.

"Andy doesn't think of it as he can lose a match, but I do think he thinks of it as, 'At least I don't have to win every match. At least Andre is someone I have confidence in,'" said Goldfine, who assisted U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe in Seville, Spain. "I'm sure he has confidence in Mardy [Fish], but not the same confidence that he has in Andre. It does help him breathe a little easier, that if he has a little hiccup there is someone else there to pick up the slack. He had to be feeling some pressure."

In 2002, Roddick briefly enjoyed the luxury of playing a couple of ties alongside Pete Sampras, but the all-time great was in the midst of a slump and Roddick had to step up and win his singles matches against Spain after Sampras was stunned on Houston grass by Alex Corretja. That was the last tie Sampras or any other U.S. legend played. Moreover, until last year, when McEnroe developed confidence in the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, 2002 also was the last time Roddick went into a tie believing he could lose matches and the United States still had a realistic chance of winning.

A number of Roddick's buddies -- Fish, James Blake and Robby Ginepri -- have played and won live Davis Cup matches but never against truly elite competition. In the 2001 semis, Blake and Roddick both lost their singles matches to France at Roland Garros on clay. Last year, Roddick had to pick up the slack in the quarterfinals against Sweden, when Fish lost the opening match. Roddick then thumped Thomas Enqvist, cheered loudly while the Bryans won the doubles point and shut the door by overwhelming Jonas Bjorkman to win the tie.

The semifinal with Belarus was a cakewalk as Roddick and Fish each won matches, but the final against Spain was another matter. Before the final, ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale said that the only way the underdog United States could win on red dirt was if Roddick won both of his singles matches and the Bryans won the doubles. Fish was wasted quickly by Carlos Moya in the opener, putting immense pressure on Roddick to beat teen phenom Rafael Nadal. The American played two lousy tiebreakers and lost. Even after the Bryans gave the United States a glimmer of hope by winning their match, Roddick knew full well that even if he took down the mighty Moya, Fish stood little chance of upending Nadal. Roddick again played tight in two critical tiebreakers, and the United States went down.

"I'll kick myself a little bit, but I have nothing to be ashamed of," Roddick said afterward. "I gave it my all. I prepared myself as best I could. I'm obviously upset with myself that I couldn't get a win. But I'm not going to walk out of here with my head down."

The fast-talking, fast-serving American rarely gets overly depressed after losses, but he was less than chipper after going to the 2005 Australian Open and losing focus in tiebreakers against his nemesis, Lleyton Hewitt, in the semis. In 2004, Roddick owned the tour's best tiebreak record, but in his three biggest matches of the past three months, Roddick couldn't get his game straight when it counted most. According to Goldfine, some of that has to do with Roddick's over-reliance on his serve and poor point construction. But some of it also has to do with Roddick's not keeping his mind sharp and on task when the heat is turned up.

"The bottom line is I didn't step up in those tiebreakers and I didn't beat Lleyton," Roddick said. "A lot of it's just bearing down mentally."

Goldfine believes the pressure of being the United States' top dog has affected the intensely competitive 22-year-old. With Agassi in the twilight of his career, American eyes have turned to Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, just like they once did with Agassi, Sampras and Jim Courier. Roddick's peers -- Fish, Blake, Ginepri and Taylor Dent -- are mere afterthoughts.

"None of these other young guys have even made it to the quarters of a Grand Slam," Goldfine said. "So we're looking at it coming down to Andy and Andre if he's healthy. It's a lot of pressure."

Roddick played well after his Australia meltdown, winning San Jose two weeks ago and his first three matches in Memphis. However, prior to the Memphis semis, he severely twisted his left ankle and pulled out of the event. He wasn't going to risk his nation's chances against the Croats for another small crown. It sent a clear signal to the team that Roddick will pull out all stops to help bring home the Cup for the first time since 1995.

"Obviously, with Andre on board, and the Bryans playing as well as they are, I feel we have as good a shot as anyone," Roddick said. "The repercussions of this injury wouldn't just affect me. It would affect my teammates and playing for my country, as well."

Roddick said winning another Slam and the Davis Cup title this year are his top priorities. With Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic both reaching finals last Sunday on outdoor hard courts, Croatia likely will push the U.S. hard. But with Agassi on board, Roddick won't have to conduct the orchestra by himself. That's already put Roddick in a better space mentally.

"It makes it that much easier to put three points on the board," Roddick said of Agassi's addition. "The added experience can bring a whole lot of confidence. I don't know if there's a whole lot of downside to it."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis Magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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