SPORT

Roddick races past Labadze

MELBOURNE, JAN. 18. Andy Roddick cannot stand still. He is forever on the move. Some part of him is in motion constantly even when he is sitting. If he were to opt for meditation lessons, his teacher would have serious problems. He is what you might — even without really knowing him — choose to call the restless spirit.

Roddick is also a man with a make-over. He has a new coach, Dean Goldfine; he is now between girlfriends. And, the 22-year-old American is also aiming to make strategic changes to his game which has often seemed one-dimensional — a decision on which he acted positively at Melbourne Park on Tuesday as he raced past Irakli Labadze of Georgia 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 in a first round match of the Australian Open.

Hyper-activity. Change. Motion. The moment you think of Andrew Stephen Roddick, these are the words that come to mind, almost as easily as "peace" would when you think of a dove.

Yet, in purely tennis terms, Roddick seems pretty much settled in one place. Slotted. Branded. Typecast. He is the Second Best, for now, and if he does all the running he can to stay in the same place, for the foreseeable future.

As sporting ironies go, that is rather cruel. Roddick tethered to one spot... that is impossible. But, then, in this day and age when the possible and impossible have been redefined by a sorcerer from Switzerland, the American has little choice.

Seldom, if ever, has the gap between the No.1 and the No.2 player in the game been as big (almost 3000 points); you can hide the entire Outback in it. If he too often craned his neck to spot his superior, Roddick runs the risk of developing spondylitis.

Actually, Roddick might have a better chance of catching up with Roger Federer if he took to cricket. Even as the American consumed his Georgian opponent this afternoon as avariciously as a great white shark would have its dinner, the world champion, playing a bit of friendly cricket in front of TV cameras, was seen nicking a few, although it much be said that Adam Gilchrist was not spotted behind.

A daunting task

Was there ever a worse time in the entire history of modern men's tennis to be the Second Best? Again, was there ever a better time to be No.2? Perhaps never. While the climb to the Federer summit might appear daunting, the fact is, it has been widely acknowledged by critics and players alike that there is no shame in being No.2 to Federer.

Of course, they never said that to Bjorn Borg. When asked why he was walking away from the game, after losing his Wimbledon title and the No.1 ranking to John McEnroe in 1981, the great Swede simply said, "What's the point in being No.2. It's the same as being No.200.''

You can afford to say that after 11 Grand Slam titles and several tens of weeks at the top but Roddick is all of 22 and has just a solitary Slam title in his collection. He is the first to acknowledge Federer's superiority but knows that sport is a wonderfully democratic thing where anything is possible.

"With Roger playing the way he has, he definitely deserves all the spotlight,'' Roddick said today. Having split with Brad Gilbert, after a rather successful association lasting over a year, Roddick is keen on improving as a player and as a competitor to bridge the gap between him and the world champion. Today, after the left-handed Labadze ran him rather close in the first set, the American showed a surprisingly strong inclination to move forward and close out points at the net.

Often, watching Roddick play, you'd wonder why such a gifted shotmaker should waste his time and energy so far behind the baseline instead of taking the ball early and moving forward at every opportunity. After a rather slow start, the handsome American did just that today, mixing things up rather well to run away with the match.

Asked if he had made progress with his new coach Goldfine, Roddick said, "I hope so. I feel that way. I like our whole chemistry together. Let's be honest, it's been a month. If you could completely overhaul a guy who is No.2 in the world in a month and make him improve a lot, then, hell, I got a great deal, didn't I?''

How good a deal it is will be known from how well Roddick's game matches up with the best in the business through the rest of the year. But, to his credit, the young American is working hard to improve and get ahead instead of looking at the peak ahead of him, shaking his head in frustration, and walking away from it.

Another left-hander

The man Roddick will meet in the second round — the British left-hander Greg Rusedski — might have been excused if he had chosen to walk away from the game last year. Just before the 2004 Australian Open, Rusedski was embroiled in a drug scandal after having tested positive for nandrolone. But he fought his way through the controversy and was finally exonerated.

"I just have to put it behind me and forget about it, just get on with my tennis and enjoy it,'' said Rusedski, after beating Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden 2-6, 6-4, 6-0, 7-6 in the first round.

Meanwhile, Tennis Australia announced today that Rod Laver, inarguably the greatest Australian tennis player of all time, will be unable to attend the first Grand Slam final under lights on January 30 because his wife Mary is seriously ill.

Laver, who lives in California, notified the organisers today about his inability to be present here for the men's final to hand out the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

"This is obviously a very distressing time for Rod, Mary and their family and our thoughts are with them. I know Rod was very excited and honoured when asked to present the men's singles trophy in our Centenary year and we hope that Mary makes a strong recovery,'' said Tennis Australia President Geoff Pollard.

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