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Roddick looking for company at top of game

7/22/2005 - Tennis

The legendary Andre Agassi still lines them up at the turnstiles, despite having won only one title during the past year.

The stylish Maria Sharapova's new friend Andy Roddick is the world's third-ranked player, but he's hasn't won an outdoor hard court crown in 2005.

Neither has any other American male, and as the U.S. Open Series kicks off this week at Indianapolis, American men's tennis is being gradually overtaken by a crowd of scintillating and talented players from other parts of the globe.

After his sterling run to the Wimbledon crown and his convincing victory over Roddick in the final, top-ranked Roger Federer of Switzerland is looking dominant again. French Open champion Rafael Nadal of Spain and his warp-speed game are still the talk of the circuit; the 19-year-old is expected to do major damage on hard courts when he lands in Canada for the Tennis Masters Series Montreal at the beginning of August.

Despite his stunning loss to Argentina's David Nalbandian in a cantankerous Davis Cup tie last weekend, second-ranked Lleyton Hewitt of Australia showed at Wimbledon that he will be a force to be reckoned with all summer long. And don't forget reigning Australian Open champ Marat Safin of Russia, who just underwent minor knee surgery and should be back by next month to make a major run at a second U.S. Open title.

"It's a huge bonus for men's tennis to have five younger guys around the same age who can compete on every surface," 2001 U.S. Open champ Hewitt said. "Especially after [Pete] Sampras retired and Agassi not playing as much. But, obviously, Roger is the leader of the pack."

And where does that leave the Americans? Many are hoping that Roddick finally molds together all the pieces of his game and finds a way to take down the likes of Hewitt and defending U.S. Open champ Federer on the new U.S. Open series blue cement. He holds an ignominious 1-15 record against the pair.

"I want another crack at [Federer] till my record is 1-31," said Roddick, who will attempt to defend the last outdoor hard-court title he won, in Indianapolis, this week. "I still want to go against him again. You want to compete against the best. He's the measuring stick, so you know where you are and where you go."

American fans who attend one of the U.S. Open Series warm-up events can take this harrowing statistic to their luxury boxes: when the U.S. Open rolls around in late August, it will have been two years since an American male has won a Grand Slam title, the nation's longest drought in nearly 16 years.

The last time America was on that long a losing streak, 17-year-old Michael Chang went into the 1989 French Open and stunned the planet by upsetting Sweden's Stefan Edberg for the title.

Americans quickly found glory after that, as U.S. tennis' Fab Four -- Chang, Agassi, Sampras and Jim Courier -- racked up 27 Slam titles in a 14-year period.

"That crop of legends just stampeded to titles like a thirsty herd to water," U.S. veteran Vince Spadea said. "The were super talented and determined. They pushed each other to greatness. We may not see another group like that from any country for another 80 years."

We're certainly not seeing another group like that now.

Some thought that when a 21-year-old Roddick hammered Juan Carlos Ferrero for the 2003 U.S. Open crown, another solid group could rise. Agassi was still in good form then and Roddick's band of young buddies -- Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish, James Blake and Robby Ginepri -- was showing signs of potential.

Two years later, none of Roddick's peers have panned out as big-time competitors. Not a single man in the group has even reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

"It's pretty lopsided now with Andy being a great player and the other guys not really being on the cusp of anything special," Spadea said. "There's talent in the group, but they've been sporadic. They haven't shown that drive to greatness. It's difficult to reach a high level of success in this sport and if you don't, there can be a lot of unfulfilled dreams, which can be disappointing."

If history teaches us correctly, it's unlikely any of Roddick's sidekicks will ever break out in big way. Oh sure, all them have enough weapons to make a minor second week run at a Grand Slam, but none is a top-five player in the making. Standout players such as Federer, Roddick, Hewitt, et al, usually show up in a major way at the Grand Slam when they are in their teens or early 20s.

Some proponents of America's "B" team have noted that players such as Todd Martin were late bloomers, but Martin reached his first Grand Slam final at the age of 24 and had scored a few top-10 wins before then. The 24-year-old Dent is the only one of Roddick's compadres who's reached a Grand Slam fourth round twice, but even he admits that when he faces elite players at the majors, they seem to have too much know-how for him.

Spadea says that once a player reaches 25 and hasn't gone very deep in a major, it's almost a foregone conclusion that he'll never be a top-five player. And that's what American fans demand out of their competitors -- winning the most important crowns.

"Once you're 24 or 25, if you haven't won a major, people pretty much give up on you as a potential great," said Spadea. "If you're not winning by then, you become labeled a journeyman. I've been there."

Roddick owns no such label, but he may never become an all-time great. He's had a fine career to date, but cannot be put in the category of a Sampras, Agassi or Courier. Yet.

As good as Federer is and with as good as Nadal can become, Roddick may end up having a Chang-like career: one Slam crown and ton of other admirable, but less significant, titles.

"Andy's got a great attitude and is already a bit of an icon within his generation," Spadea said. "But he may never do better than Chang. He's more charismatic, but results-wise, he's no better than Michael was at this point. Really, if he were playing during Sampras' and Agassi's primes, Andy might be like Michael, playing a little bit in their shadows."

The 35-year-old Agassi just took his third shot of cortisone in the last seven months and will be fortunate to be able to drag his sore back and hip into any kind of hard-core competition this summer. He withdrew from Indianapolis.

Roddick won't be standing in any other U.S. player's shadows on hard courts during this critical swing. In fact, he'll likely be alone, taking the pressure for the home country as the only guy capable of competing for any decent-sized crown. He's used to dealing with tension now, and he will feel it immensely during a hot, pressure-cooker of a summer for those wearing the red, white and blue.

"It's part of the whole deal," Roddick said. "I have two options: either to accept it or drop out so we have nobody. I'm going to contend with it and I'm going to try my best and deal with it as best I can."

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