Tennis aside, Roddick comes up aces off court, too
By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff | May 12, 2005
Second in a series on athletes whose commercial appeal extends beyond their accomplishments on the field.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Andy Roddick sits at an outside table at Austin Java sipping organic coffee, picking occasionally at his cheese omelette, home fries, and beans, but mostly playing poker on a wireless connection on his Mac. He's wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt, and he's beating nine other people in cyberspace who have no idea they are playing the No. 1-ranked American tennis player and universal heartthrob.
Nobody bothers him for autographs, even though he has just returned home from Houston, where he won his third United States Men's Clay Court Championship in five years. ''Austin is very territorial," said Roddick. ''It's a football town. It's like an unwritten rule to leave people be. It's awesome."
Not so in Houston. "41's wife is kind of friendly with me," he said, referring to former first lady Barbara Bush. "She came up to me and said, 'I'm cutting to the chase. What's going on with your love life?' I said, 'I got no game.' "
Roddick does have game -- at least on the court. His 155-mile-per-hour serve in last September's Davis Cup semifinals is the fastest ever recorded. In 2003, he won the US Open and finished the year as the No. 1 player in the world. But after losing his top ranking to Roger Federer and slipping to No. 3, the 6-foot-2-inch Roddick replaced his coach, Tarik Benhabiles, and with the help of a personal trainer, got into the best shape of his life. His chest is ripped and he has lost 5 pounds.
Roddick, 22, spends his spare time practicing, working out, doing track work or playing online poker. He seems to prefer the poker. "It's just less stressful than tennis tournaments 'cause I can do it for fun. He's wagered $1 to win $50. "I've won two tournaments," he said proudly. "It's huge money."
Gone are the days of the paparazzi chasing him and his former girlfriend, actress Mandy Moore, whom he split with last year. He currently doesn't have a girlfriend, even though People magazine named him its Sexiest Athlete in 2003. He has hosted ''Saturday Night Live," appeared on Letterman, hung out at the Playboy Mansion, and had his clothes ripped by a[idoring female fans. But for now, love has become just a tennis term to him again.
"Are you still living like a monk on weekends?" asks a 20-something girl blending a smoothie for him behind the counter. "Yeah," he says with a shrug. Then it's back to poker. "This is a huge time killer for me."
His breakfast meeting with his coach, friends, and family is lighthearted. Roddick, whose footwork on the court has been labeled ''awkward," marvels at a friend's toddler learning to walk. ''I'm convinced being 2 is like walking around with eight beers in you," he said. Roddick sings the praises of buddy Dave Matthews's new album. He has 2,320 songs downloaded (an "eclectic mix"). Everything from Matthews, who was the musical guest when he hosted ''SNL," to an extensive Adam Sandler comedy collection, to Credence, to Stevie Wonder, to Eminem, to Sinatra, and his buddy, Elton John.
On April 26, Sir Elton -- Roddick's former celebrity doubles partner -- did a private show for 400 high rollers for the Andy Roddick Foundation "Champions for Charity Gala." The foundation, run by Roddick's mother, Blanche, has raised more than $2.2 million to provide resources and funds to aid at-risk children in South Florida and Texas.
The event raised $800,000, more than doubling last year's numbers, which more than doubled the year before. Elton closes out the show by getting somebody to pay $19,000 for him to sing ''Candle in the Wind" and $50,000 more to have dinner with him. "I'm sitting there and Elton John, the biggest rock star since I've been alive, since my parents were alive, is performing for my foundation. I couldn't believe it."
Roddick's date for the evening? A cardboard cutout of comedian Ellen DeGeneres. "I love her," he said. ''I think she's great."
Tennis love, for now
So what's with this heartthrob stuff? "My quote whenever I'm asked about that, and it rings so true, is the more tennis matches I win, the better looking I get to other people," he said. ''That pretty much sums it up. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was about 5-2. I was short and I was kind of just everyone's buddy. I guess it just started when I started playing. I don't really have much of an explanation for it. I can't pinpoint why. It's just pop culture."
Any truth to the rumors he's dated Siberian tennis beauty Maria Sharapova?
"Zero. There's zero point zero, zero truth to that," he insisted. ''I don't even have her phone number. I respect what she does and she's obviously a very pretty girl, but we've never even hung out outside of a pro-am tennis event."
Roddick is now on his third coach in two years. He fired Benhabiles after a first-round loss in the 2003 French Open. Then his career took off when he hired Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi's former coach. Gilbert led him to the No. 1 ranking and a winning percentage of .823 and nine titles. But when Roddick failed to win a Grand Slam event in 2004, he unceremoniously sacked Gilbert, who was surprised.
"On the parting with Andy, being fired never really ends in a completely amicable way," Gilbert said in an e-mail. "It happens, I've moved on, that's about it."
Roddick is still uncomfortable talking about it. "A lot of it was, you know, personal stuff under the radar," he said. ''I mean, I think Brad's a great coach and a great tennis mind, but I feel like I wasn't putting in the work I needed to put in. I was surprised that I was [ranked No.] 2 last year. I don't know if I worked that hard last year. I didn't feel like I was being pushed."
He hired Dean Goldfine, an assistant on the US Davis Cup and Olympic teams. Roddick is pumped. "He's out here doing all our drills with us," he said. ''He's into it. He's making sure we're prepared to go to Europe. Little things. He scouts tirelessly, skips dinner to go to matches. He puts in a lot of work, so you really feel it's a team effort."
Roddick's personal trainer, Doug Spreen, says he ''is as motivated as any athlete I've ever seen. He's willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears."
Perhaps that's because of the phenomenal success of Federer. Roddick vs. Federer was supposed to be the tennis equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees, but that hasn't happened. He has only beaten Federer once in eight tries. "He has no weakness," said Roddick. ''He's a great athlete, he's a natural tennis player. He was just born to play the game. On top of that he's pretty mentally tough. I told Roger, 'I'd love to hate you, but you're such a nice guy.' "
Carrying the US torch
Some say American men's tennis is dead; the top 10 is now dominated by foreigners. Roddick disagrees.
"I haven't played in front of a small crowd in the last three years," he said. ''I think the main difference in American men's tennis now and 10 years ago is tennis is an individual, star-driven sport. You can't pull for your local team. Ten years ago, you had four or five top players to choose from. Before that it was [Jimmy] Connors, [John] McEnroe, and [Vitas] Gerulaitis. You had a lot of players you could kind of cheer for, therefore the interest was more. Now it's kind of like with Andre. You don't know when it's going to be his last time out there."
Roddick says he tries not to let the pressure bother him. "It's just the way it is. I've been dealing with it for five years now. Of course I feel it sometimes. We have the richest tradition of tennis of any country by far and now it's kind of on me . . . it's squarely on my shoulders. I feel that, but I also embrace that."
He also had to overcome jealousy over too much, too soon.
"There was a little animosity because I got a little bit more attention than I deserved early on in my career and I realize that," Roddick said. ''I was 18, 19 and hadn't accomplished nearly as much as the other people. People were pushing me to be an American star because there was a void that needed to be filled."
Roddick, who has earned more than a half-million dollars this year, says he makes more money on endorsements. Recently, he was dropped by Reebok, but he immediately signed a five-year deal with Lacoste, which the Austin Business Journal said would pay Roddick $5 million annually. Others should be so lucky. "It stinks in tennis because there are guys who are [ranked] 30 or 40 in the world and they're making $300,000 in prize money, and then they have to pay for them and a coach to travel around the world for a year," Roddick said. ''It's not like golf, where you can just win a tournament."
No one questions Roddick's competitiveness.
"He'll compete at anything, any time, anywhere," said boyhood friend Neal Bobba, now an investment banker in New York City. "He was cocky when he was young. He was extremely confident but always admirable. He hasn't changed. Success hasn't gotten to his head. I don't think the people around him would let that happen."
Words of wisdom
Roddick credits Agassi for the inspiration to start his foundation.
Roddick first played Agassi when he was in high school in South Florida. "He was No. 1 at the time," Roddick said. ''He killed me. It was my second pro event, my mom was a teacher, she made me go to school the next day."
The two became friends. "I was on a plane flight with Agassi and I said, 'Is there anything you regret?' I thought he was going to say, 'Yeah, I got out of shape and slipped from No. 1 in the world to 140.' He didn't say that. He said he regretted that he didn't start his foundation soon enough."
Roddick will have no such regret, and he's already seen the benefits of his efforts. "Probably the kid that touched me the most was Garrett Starr," he said. ''My mom got a call from a concerned mother. Her son had tons of tumors and was cancer ridden. He was not even 2 years old yet."
The mother said the hospital "pretty much told her to make sure he's happy while he's dying. She called to basically say we can't find a hospital here in Wisconsin to take our kid to because they think he's such a lost cause."
Roddick used his tennis connections. He called St. Jude's Hospital, which sponsors the tournament in Memphis. ''All we asked for is to get the kid in and get an opinion," he said. "We were able to get him in."
Starr underwent treatments and responded well. Roddick offered to send a plane for him to attend his foundation dinner for children in South Florida last December. ''They said, 'No, we just don't think he's going to make it right now.' I said 'OK, I understand, obviously.' Then I was in the middle of making my speech, and all of a sudden I see my mom creep in with a little kid. It was the first time I had seen him walk, and I went head to head with him, and I just lost it.
''To hear the horror stories of what the kid was going through the first year and now all of a sudden he's walking. He had his fourth birthday last month and was running around cancer free. That was the coolest personal moment for me from my work so far."