| Juan Carlos Ferrero cuts a desolate figure at Flushing Meadow on Sunday
There is, much to the relief and delight of 21-year-old Andy Roddick, no longer any doubt. He has finally erased the words heir apparent from his vocabulary, erasing one of the scariest phrases in sports. Four sweet swings of the tennis racket wrapped things up on a brilliant late-summer day in New York on Sunday.
One service return sailed long, then Roddick hit three consecutive aces and became the newest US Open champion, winning his first Grand Slam championship in authoritative fashion against Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain. The fourth-seeded Roddick defeated No. 3 Ferrero, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, serving 23 aces, never losing his serve and facing only three break points. He had 123 aces in seven matches.
Exhilaration quickly changed into tears. He leaned over and held his hand over his mouth, as though trying to keep his emotions from bursting forth. He had about as much success doing so as Ferrero did in trying to return his serve. “I cannot believe it,” Roddick said. In search of his supporters, including coach Brad Gilbert, he went into the stands, momentarily wandering into the wrong row, one of his few missteps the entire afternoon.
A sobbing Roddick hugged his parents, Blanche and Jerry, telling them, “I can’t believe I just won the US Open.” His girlfriend, actress Mandy Moore, was crying along with everyone else. Realisation was not settling in quickly. “My mom said, ‘You just won the US Open. You just won the US Open,’” Roddick said, laughing.
It might be stretching it to say his racket became a metaphor for the proverbial torch. But it was fitting that his title finished an event that started with the retirement ceremony of last year’s champion, Pete Sampras.
Roddick came into the interview room, put his arms on the table and, addressing the writers, said: “No more, ‘What’s it feel like to be the future of American tennis'’ ... No more.” But Gilbert, who started coaching him shortly before Wimbledon, understands the American sports psyche, and embraces it, having channelled that mind-set into the make-up of Agassi for several Grand Slam titles.
“It’s the American way,” he said. “We expect champions and Andy was built to be another champion, in my opinion.”
Self-belief was one of the final building blocks. Gilbert had the feeling that for all of his outward confidence, Roddick used to come to Grand Slam events hoping to do well, not expecting to win. “I’m really positive every day,” Gilbert said. “The first day we got here, we were in the players’ lounge, we walked over to the wall [of champions], I said, ‘You know what' They saved that spot on the wall for you.’
“'He goes, ‘Really'’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s why there’s nobody on that wall, it’s going to be you.’”
Roddick’s anxiety was high on Sunday. He had saved a match point in his semi-final against David Nalbandian of Argentina, and Ferrero, the French Open champion, had taken some of the air out of the place on Saturday by ground-stroking Agassi into submission. A USTA staff member spotted Roddick in the players’ dining area, biting his fingernails to the bone. Gilbert joked on Sunday that they are going to have to put Tabasco sauce on them.
The pre-match tension translated into a virtuoso performance. Roddick saved one break point in the third game, but then dropped one more point on his serve in the first set. Ferrero, playing his fourth match in four days because of the numerous rainy days, looked tired early, slow to the ball and lost a surprising number of baseline rallies. He dropped his serve in the fourth game of the first set, losing at 30 when Roddick whipped a forehand winner down the line.
“Never happen to me like this, four days in a row raining, you know — playing Todd Martin, [Lleyton] Hewitt, Agassi and this final,” said Ferrero, who becomes the new No. 1. “No never. I hope it’s not happening again.”
In the tie-breaker, Ferrero made uncommon unforced errors, in particular on the forehand side. When he lost the tie-breaker 7-2, he went to his courtside seat and dropped his racket, having lost the final six points. His last gasp was in the seventh game of the third set, when he had two break points. Roddick saved them both, the second with an ace.
That might as well have been it. Ferrero double-faulted in the next game to lose his serve, falling behind 3-5, leaving Roddick to serve it out. Roddick said he had goose bumps before match point but that the speedy finish of aces didn’t give him a chance to get nervous. He kept using words such as “amazing and absolute disbelief.”
His performance reminded Gilbert of the way Sampras dismantled Agassi in the 1990 final here with pure power. “He’s like a young MTV version — hip,” Gilbert said. “He’s into skydiving. Into bungee jumping, burning CDs. He’s into all the modern extremist stuff.” And so, with a flurry of aces, Generation Next officially became Generation Now.