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Correction to This Article
The column misspelled the name of tennis coach Larry Stefanki.
Growing Into a Role Forced Upon Him Long Ago

By Mike Wise
Friday, August 7, 2009

Moments after his heirloom at Wimbledon last month against Roger Federer, where he displayed equal portions of grit and graciousness in defeat, Andy Roddick's agent sent him an e-mail.

"Andy, you lost a very tough match and I know you're discouraged," the message from Donald Dell read. "But you won a nation."

Dell related the anecdote standing in his box seats at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic on Wednesday night, where the ProServ founder who once represented Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors saw his latest client easily move on to the tournament's quarterfinals in Roddick's first match, post-All England club.

"I really believe that, that Andy has a different image now," Dell added. "He's thought of now as an experienced American hope as opposed to the young kid who last won the U.S. Open" in 2003.

"You know, I thought he would dominate tennis in America for seven or eight years after that."

Heck, didn't everyone?

You didn't have to be a tennis nut to be enraptured by the beady-eyed, hyper-intense 21-year-old who reared back and served bullets at the 2003 U.S. Open. And won the whole thing, portending what was supposed to be a litany of Grand Slams.

Roddick then was what The Post's Liz Clarke evocatively described as the "golden-haired American with a booming serve and pulverizing forehand who would take up the mantle of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe."

But then came Rafael Nadal and Federer and the kid's most formidable foe of all: Andy Roddick. He became his own critical parent after each lost point, mentally obsessing over something that happened in the first set while forgetting he was physically locked in a fourth-set tiebreak.

Until this past December, when Larry Stefanki helped fuse his mind and body, until they were in the same place at the same time, until Roddick's "inner belief" and "knowingness" was siphoned out by a renowned tennis coach.

And just like that, despite all our attempts to label him in his youth, Andy Roddick became the greatest American men's player post-Sampras-Agassi after all.

"Sometimes when you carry baggage along after a negative moment, it tends to eat you up inside," Stefanki said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. "That was Andy before he was ready to make that change, to let it go and move on to the next point.

"I hear people say, 'You should have been around for him at 19.' But they don't understand. He wasn't ready to listen. In those eight years, your emotions, body and responsibilities change. He's married now. He's calmer. He's open to information he might not have been then. Andy is just in a very, very good space right now."

He's also suddenly beloved beyond belief.

"Hey Andy," a young, ponytailed woman of maybe 20 called out Wednesday night after his match, "I played with you five years ago. You remember?"

Before Roddick could place the face, he was besieged by children in "Rod-iculous" T-shirts. And Moms holding Sharpies, shoving oversized tennis balls forward to be signed.

"AN-DEE! AN-DEE!" dozens of kids kept chanting outside center court Wednesday, refusing to go home until he came out.

"My day-to-day life, I don't know if I've ever had this much public support before," he had said earlier when he spoke to members of the media. "It's nice."

"I don't know, I do think people maybe early on in my career had an idea of what I was about. I certainly didn't do myself any favors at times with the way I was on the court."

Yeah, but in hindsight he wasn't the problem.

We were, all the fans and reporters and the game's analysts who labeled him too early.

We never let anyone grow up in sports, do we? Whether it's crucifying Tiger Woods when he was 20 for telling a crude joke or assuming Allen Iverson was always going to be a young knucklehead, we don't hand out youth handicaps to our athletic heroes the way we do for everyone else in life -- including ourselves.

We decided Roddick would forever be a young hothead, who was supposed to be incapable of ever enrapturing us in a Grand Slam final again because we thought he was either too busy obsessing over a lost point and beating himself up psychologically or he flat-out couldn't diversify his big-serve, blistering-forehand attack.

When his backhand began blazing down the line and he came to the net more comfortably -- when his added tools and touch combined to give him an all-around game -- it threw us for a loop, much the way a young, flaky Agassi threw us for a loop when he began maturing and playing his best tennis after the age of 27.

At the least, F. Scott Fitzgerald's line, "There are no second acts in American lives," doesn't apply to American tennis; Roddick is changing the way we feel about him as a player much the same way Agassi altered perception.

"I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts, because, you know, this stuff is fleeting," Roddick said, signing his name and parting the masses while he spoke.

It's interesting to think that, in our winning-is-everything society, Andy Roddick became Andy Rockstar only after he lost a pulsating, five-set Wimbledon final to Federer, a match in which he had one break point against him -- the point Federer won for the match and his record 15th Grand Slam.

"What people don't realize about that match at Wimbledon, when you're serving in the fifth set and there's no tiebreaker at Wimbledon, he's down 4-5, 5-6 -- he's 14 service games behind," said Dell, a former Davis Cup captain. "You miss your first serve you're thinking, 'If I lose this point, I'm down three match points.' He did that for 14 consecutive games! That's the pressure that nobody understands unless you have played. You're always behind in that deal."

He dealt with the pressure and performed, and when he lost he comported himself in defeat as if he had won. And his poise amazingly matched his passion, which none of us who judged him saw coming.

"I don't think it's a stretch to say any 26-year-old is more mature than when they were 19," Andy Roddick said. "I just had an audience."

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