Saturday, December 27
His maturity's showing

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The future of tennis looks to be in surprisingly mature hands. Andy Roddick picked up the phone at 1:30 a.m., and instead of hitting the town, kicked off his 21st birthday celebration in very grown-up fashion.

He called Ivan Ljubicic's hotel room, but not to invite the Croatian out on a night of wild revelry. On the contrary. Here, courtesy of Ljubicic, is how part of their Saturday morning conversation went:

Ljubicic: "Andy, why do you care what the others think about you?''

Roddick: "I don't care.''

Ljubicic: "You really care. You're calling in the middle of the night to hear what somebody said about you in a press conference.''

Despite what Roddick told Ljubicic, he did care -- and should.

The kid may have every advantage, he may be excitable and the game's latest glamor boy, he may have the big endorsement deal and actress Mandy Moore to squire around New York. But it says a lot about his maturity that Roddick went straight to the source with his complaints instead of airing them out in the press. Especially since he had plenty to complain about.

Some 90 minutes before the late-night call, right after the two shook hands across a net at the U.S. Open following a tough, four-set match won by the American, Ljubicic walked into the interview room and essentially called Roddick a spoiled, opportunistic brat.

He accused Roddick of intimidating the umpire and linesmen, shamelessly whipping up the partisan New York crowd and riding those advantages to victory -- and not just this once.

"Fortunately for him, there is like, 70 percent of the big tournaments being played in the United States. He's No. 4 in the world for that,'' Ljubicic said.

And he didn't stop there.

In the locker room beforehand, he claimed, "every single player said to me, 'Good luck. Kick his (butt).''

Roddick waved off several requests for an interview Saturday afternoon, getting ready to practice for Sunday's match against Brazil's Flavio Saretta. At night, the ATP Tour released a statement from Roddick: "I had a good conversation with Ivan, both last night and again today. I think we both had the chance to clear the air, and I know that last night's incident is behind us.''

A handful of other players weren't shy about rushing to Roddick's defense. The strongest words came from James Blake, a countryman and friend since their junior days.

"Maybe guys can't stand getting beat by him,'' Blake said. "But he has nothing to apologize for. The crowd can't play a match for you. We're entertainers. If the crowd is having fun, we're doing our job.''

And any chance that this was another one of those trans-Atlantic perception problems was quickly dispelled by several of Ljubicic's European colleagues.

"I don't know what that's about,'' said Martin Verkerk, a Dutchman who was runner-up at the French Open. "I like Roddick.''

Concurred Frenchman Gregory Carraz: "I played him last month in Indianapolis and the crowd loved him, but he doesn't cross any lines. Every player has ways to steel himself. Andy is no different.''

At last year's Open, Roddick won a crucial point in one those frying-pan night matches by running into the doubles court to slash a backhand winner. He continued running toward the stands and high-fived the fans who leaned out of the front row with extended palms.

But there was nothing remotely like that Friday night.

His only public response to Ljubicic afterward was: "That really doesn't deserve a response. I don't think that's very respectful. I definitely don't have anything bad to say about him. So it's disappointing.''

Roddick has been labeled America's "next big thing'' in tennis for a while, so it's easy to forget that as recently as 2000, he played in the Open's junior tournament -- and won it. He's also been called the heir to John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, two highly combustible guys who never saw a line, a linesman, an umpire or an opponent they wouldn't cross to win a tennis match.

Blake remembers Roddick being that way at "18 or 19.''

"If he ever did cross a line, it would have been then,'' Blake recalled. "He's emotional. If he's down, he might break a racket and if he's up, he'll let the crowd know he's playing well.''

Part of Roddick's improvement in terms of composure can be traced to the influence of coach Brad Gilbert, who helped Andre Agassi make the transition from showboat to champion. The other part might be because Roddick has been playing so well this summer, there have been precious few outbursts and enough sensational shots flying off his racket to pump up crowds without him resorting to the desperate tactics Ljubicic saw -- even if nobody else did.

"He said,'' recalled Ljubicic about their brief phone conversation, "'If you have something to say, please tell me to my face.'

"He said I should go to him first, but I don't think that's the case. If you have an opinion about someone, you don't have to go to them first.''

No.

But if that opinion is based on bad information, or clouded by the steam coming out of your ears after a tough loss, it's usually a good idea to keep it to yourself.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org