Roddick learning less is more

9/8/2006 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- The essence of Andy Roddick's game is power. When he is banging pea-sized serves and laser forehands behind them, tennis is a simple game. When it's happening on the rock-hard courts of the U.S. Open, it can approach sublime.

It seems like 2003 all over again for Roddick, who seems to have found his bruising rhythm just in time to challenge for the major title he won here three years ago. And maybe, just maybe, there are elements of diversity creeping into his game.

On Wednesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium Roddick flogged Australian Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. He will play unseeded Mikhail Youzhny, who earlier surprised No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal in four sets, in Saturday's semifinals.

It seems like much more than a year ago that Roddick was bounced here in the first round by Gilles Muller. Tears came to Roddick's eyes after the last ball was played.

"I guess I can play tennis a little bit again," he said in an on-court interview, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I'm in a little bit of shock. It's been six months for me I haven't played too well."

The victory was only the third for Roddick against Hewitt in nine matches. It was Roddick's first Grand Slam victory over Hewitt in four tries, which suggests a corner has been turned.

"I am happy," Roddick said later. "I just appreciate playing good tennis again. It feels really good. I think I spent too much time this year, and I think everyone has, in looking back. What's done is done. I might have lost sight of that."

Roddick's new coach, Jimmy Connors, the eight-time Grand Slam champion, has infused Roddick with some of his combative attitude in six short weeks. It can be seen oozing out of him, particularly when something good happens.

Take Roddick's first break of serve in the second set. After a searing backhand down the line, he shook his fist and established fierce eye contact with his well-dressed mentor. Later, after running down a short ball from Hewitt, Roddick lashed a forehand pass down the line and raised both his arms and strutted for the crowd in I'm-the-man fashion.

Roddick is a startling 17-1 with Connors in his corner. After the match, Roddick asked Connors if he thought it would all come together so quickly. No, said Connors, who figured it wouldn't happen until next year's Australian Open.

The complaint against Roddick, who has finished the last three years ranked No. 1, No. 2 and, last season, No. 3, is that he is all rock and no jazz. Lately, though, he has actually demonstrated a feel for the subtle.

Serving at 4-5 in the second set, he faced Hewitt's first break point of the match. Instead of unleashing a 135 mph bomb, he tossed in a 99 mph changeup that completely fooled Hewitt, who, swinging too early, yanked it into the net. At deuce, he hit another delicate slice serve that gave him the advantage. On game point, he rushed the net, hit a terrific volley and slammed Hewitt's weak lob attempt into the stands.

Sometimes, Roddick is learning, less is more.

"It's a different way of playing," Roddick said. "I feel it's a different chapter. Maybe just a little more aggressive, not hanging back as much."

In their collective heyday, say around 2002-03, Roddick and Hewitt were at the top of the game. Supplanted by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, they are the No. 9 and No. 15 seeds, respectively, at this U.S. Open.

They complement each other quite nicely; Roddick throws the big stick and Hewitt, still one of the best returners of serve, retrieves.

The first crack appeared in the sixth game, when a rare double-fault by Hewitt gave Roddick the first break point. Hewitt, still fuming about the double, hit a distracted forehand into the net and Roddick led 4-2.

Serving for the set, Roddick finished with a flourish: 1) a 135 mph ace, 2) a 134 mph unreturnable serve, 3) a 103 mph second serve that set up a forehand winner and 4) a 135 mph ace down the middle. Wooosh. The set took all of 24 minutes, or less than a third of the time required for the first set of the previous match between Maria Sharapova and Tatiana Golovin.

"He came out serving so well at the start," Hewitt observed. "You're sort of up against it right from the word 'go.' "

Hewitt, troubled by a sprained patella tendon in his right knee, nearly passed on the Open, but decided to give it a try. Though he has worked himself into the tournament, there were times Wednesday when he seemed a tad tentative in his movement.

"I did everything possible to get on the court and left nothing in the locker room," Hewitt said. "Considering the doubt that I was under coming into the tournament, and the practice that I wasn't able to have, I felt like I did pretty well to get to the quarters."

After trading breaks in the third and fourth games of the second set, Roddick turned the screws with Hewitt serving at 5-all. A tentative backhand that Hewitt pushed long gave him the opening, and then Hewitt failed to return a monster forehand for another break.

For the match, Roddick converted each of the four break points he earned.

The third set? A simple swing of momentum -- from two Hewitt break opportunities in the eighth game to a Roddick hold to a subsequent ninth-game break -- was the end of the Australian. Four more bombs, including the biggest of the 17 aces (142 mph), and Roddick was through to the semifinals for the first time since he won the event in 2003.

"You're playing like the old Andy Roddick," gushed USA on-court interviewer Michael Barkan.

"No," Roddick said, politely but firmly, "this is the new Andy Roddick."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.