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Roddick ready to roll

If Andy Roddick has his way, there is about to be changing of the guard in London. Not at Buckingham Palace, but Wimbledon.

tennis Updated: Jun 21, 2003 20:45 IST
PTI

If Andy Roddick has his way over the coming fortnight there is about to be a changing of the guard in London.

Not at Buckingham Palace, but Wimbledon.

The old guard, as represented by the 20-year-old's fellow Americans Andre Agassi and "Pistol Pete" Sampras, are not far off packing up their kit bags and heading off into the glorious history of the sport.

Seven-time winner Sampras will not be playing at the All England Club for the first time since his 1989 debut and retirement appears imminent for the man who has lifted a record 14 Grand Slam titles.

Another missing face is 2001 champion Goran Ivanisevic, who injured knee ligaments in practice on Thursday.

Agassi, who shocked the establishment - and perhaps himself - in landing his first Grand Slam here in 1992 in his long-haired incarnation, is still sufficiently fleet of foot to count among the favourites on the turf - but Roddick looks very much the man of the moment.

Confident to the point of brashness, the man from Omaha, Nebraska, lifted his second title of the year on Sunday by beating Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean 6-3, 6-3 at Queens Club, the traditional warm-up to Wimbledon, having seen off Agassi during a semi-final in which he had to save a match point.

Roddick had bombed on the slow clay at the French Open, going out in the first round to Sargis Sargsian of Armenia.

But taking several minutes over every point is not the American's style and, if he lacks a little patience at times, on grass his monster service will bring oodles of 'free' points.

Rocket Roddick now looks a most appropriate nom de guerre for a player who in seeing off Agassi last week equalled Greg Rusedski's service speed record of 149 mph (240 kph).

In winning Queens' Roddick joins Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Tim Mayotte and Todd Martin as US champions at the grasscourt tune-up.

As a result Roddick, who has taken on Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert to take his game to a higher level, feels he is ready to dethrone Lleyton Hewitt as king of Wimbledon.

"I feel like I will be better prepared for Wimbledon than I've ever been. But you have to guard against overconfidence.

"If I can take this form into Wimbledon, I will be pretty happy," said the young pretender.

Hewitt, having gone down to Grosjean to see his chase for a fourth straight Queens' title hit the buffers, also lost his world number one ranking to Agassi as a result and admitted his form is not quite where it should be.

"My serve wasn't going well and I didn't return well - and they are two of the most important things in grasscourt tennis," said the combative Adelaider, who said after his Roland Garros loss to Spaniard Tommy Robredo that a successful Wimbledon title defence is his chief goal this season.

Aside from Hewitt, Agassi and Roddick, other contenders include Switzerland's Roger Federer, who memorably dethroned Sampras in 2001 and who comes in having scooped the title in Halle, Germany for his eighth career win.

Federer on his day - as he showed two years ago on Centre Court against Sampras - can be magnificent.

But regular offdays, such as his early French Open loss to unheralded Peruvian Luis Horna, have hampered him fulfilling his potential.

Yet the 21-year-old has won four titles this season and all on different surfaces at Marseille (indoors), Dubai (hard) and Munich (clay) and now Halle, where he demolished Nicolas Kiefer.

The last man to win on four surfaces in the same year was Sampras back in 1994 and Federer, who also reached the Rome final on clay, now has an impressive 43-9 win-loss record for the year.

British fans will cross their fingers and cleave to their never-ending dream that Tim Henman will finally end the host nation's drought which extends all the way back to Fred Perry's last win in 1936.

Henman, who has battled back this year following shoulder surgery, slid out to Grosjean at Queens' in the semis and his spirit is undimmed by the heartache of four semi-final defeats at the All England Club.

Hewitt proved too strong for the 28-year-old 12 months ago and Henman has yet to taste victory against the Aussie in six attempts.

"I didn't beat Sampras until the seventh attempt," notes Henman.

"So hopefully, I'm saving it up for Wimbledon."

Hewitt will dismiss that as wishful thinking from an oponent who remains to date a nearly man at Grand Slam level.

According to Wimbledon legends Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, Agassi will hold the trophy aloft on July 6.

"Agassi is playing great at 33," says two-time champion Edberg.

"They say it's difficult to win a Grand Slam once you are past 30. But every once in a while you get an exception."

Agassi certainly has done his best to prove to be the exception to that "rule" having already tucked the Australian Open crown under his arm this year.

Becker, who won three Wimbledon titles, the first as a 17-year-old, said he believed Agassi's 'sabbatical' when he fell to 141 in the rankings in 1997 had extended his career at the top.

"Andre's had times when he's slipped to nearly 150 in the world, almost having a few years out, and that's given him a couple of years."

Becker believes Hewitt will get his game and mind together to lift another title but expects Federer to run him close.

"The last couple of years there have only been two, three or four guys who could win it but this year it's pretty open," said the German, who sees Henman as a dark horse.

"Tim's one of the few players who knows how to play on grass."

That is not a compliment most observers would readily pay the Spanish and Latin American contingent led by French Open winner Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Ferrero made the third round on his 2001 debut but last year US journeyman Jeff Morrison dumped him out on Centre Court in the second round.