Thursday, January 29
A new American champ

Special to ESPN.com

No. 4 seed Andy Roddick was the favorite coming into this year's U.S. Open. Certainly, he was playing the best tennis of his career and the best tennis of the summer hard-court season leading into the Open.

My only concern was when he would have a letdown or lose a match. Coming in, you were hoping he didn't peak too soon. Thus far, he hasn't. I really admire his ability to play at this level for so long, winning 18 consecutive matches.

Mal's Picks
MaliVai Washington
Washington
Former ATP Tour pro MaliVai Washington is providing ESPN.com with in-depth analysis during the U.S. Open. Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.

As predicted, Roddick's match against Nalbandian was his biggest challenge at the Open so far; Juan Carlos Ferrero, who'll become No. 1 on Monday, should prove to be a bigger one.

Roddick's success depends on his serve. If he can continue to hold serve as effectively as he has been, it puts that much more pressure on the serve of Ferrero. Plus, the more Roddick holds serve, the more his confidence builds.

A factor in the final is going to be the crowd support that Roddick gets. America has been dying for a new champion to follow in the steps of Sampras and Agassi. I think they've found that champ in Roddick, so expect the crowd to be as boisterous as ever.

Even though I believe Roddick will win his first major, this final is a situation he has never faced before. Whereas Ferrero finds himself in his third career Grand Slam final, having already won a major earlier this year in Paris. Until you've been in the final of a major, you don't know how you're going to respond in terms of nerve.

At this year's French Open, Ferrero was the heavy favorite. He held his nerves and kept his composure tremendously well. He's playing the best hard-court tennis of his career, and Ferrero feels that this is his tournament to win -- not Roddick's.

Finally, it's an advantage for Ferrero that he played his semifinal first on Saturday and won in four sets. He had a chance to watch, I'm sure, some of Roddick's two-sets-down rally.

This kind of match can change careers and it could make Roddick's year. This is the kind of match that Roddick has to prevail in to push into the upper-echelon of players. Ferrero is there, Roger Federer is there, Lleyton Hewitt was there prior to this year, but Roddick hasn't reached that level yet. With a win in the final, he can reach that stage, and stand alongside the men he'll be competing against for the rest of his career.
Pick: Roddick in five