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By Richard Pagliaro

© New York Sportimes

(July 15, 2010) The contrast in styles was as clear as the black and white shirts each wore in the generational clash between bold, brash American champions.

The Philadelphia Freedoms' Andy Roddick, clad in black, and New York Sportimes' John McEnroe, dressed in white, faced off in a World TeamTennis singles match on Randall's Island in New York City Wednesday night. And while the clothing color scheme suggested a monochromatic match-up, the US Open champions lit up the multi-colored court with all the vigor and vitality of a duel between a power player armed with a paint ball gun and a finesse artist wielding a brush. It was a match that served as a reminder of just how many shades of stupefying splatter a yellow tennis ball can leave on a court and in your mind when you've got two completely different stylists striking it as they did.

Though the 51-year-old McEnroe has 23 years on Roddick he shrunk the distance between them in the frenetic first to 5-games, no-ad scoring format that is a WTT set in pushing Roddick to a tie breaker before the 2003 US Open champion prevailed.

Roddick, sporting a buzz cut so short his head looks almost completely shaved beneath his Lacoste baseball cap, and McEnroe, whose hair is gray but whose legs still show bounce of man gifted with elasticized limbs and a hyperactive motor, have games as different as their grips. Roddick wields the western grip on his topspin forehand while McEnroe still adheres to the continental on all his shots.

Their use of pace is impressive in that Roddick can blister a 130 mph + serve within inches of the service line while McEnroe can take a heavy topspin shot on the rise up near his shoulders and completely remove the pace from the ball while creating a paper-cut sharp angle in the process.

Their comfort zones are completely different: Roddick is at his best sidestepping to his left to dance around the backhand and whip that inside-out topspin forehand with accuracy and ambition into the opponents backhand corner. McEnroe conjured up memories of his Flushing Meadows past in fearlessly sprinting forward picking up some eye-popping half-volleys while moving in and lulling the ball to sleep with soft volley winners.


Before a near sell-out crowd that included Hall of Famer Billie Jean King, who spoke to the crowd after the doubles match, former New York City mayor David Dinkins, WTT Commissioner Ilana Kloss, US Davis Cup captain and television analyst Patrick McEnroe, Patty Smyth, McEnroe's wife, Robin Quivers, co-host of the Howard Stern Show and a slew of juniors, who auditioned for a free scholarship to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall's Island earlier in the day, Roddick and McEnroe didn't dawdle or delve into hit-and-giggle tennis. They just dug in and played a memorable set that provided both powerful pyrotechnics courtesy of Roddick's resounding serve and brilliant volleys that created such acute angles at times you found yourself wondering if McEnroe had enlisted a Toy Story stunt double for the ball that seemed to dart sideways like a fugitive felt slinky fleeing the confines of the court.

Roddick pulled out the set in a tie breaker, 5-4, and plopped down on the bench between teammates Ramon Delgado and Prakash Amritraj and exhaled audibly in a sigh of relief after edging the 51-year-old New Yorker in a highly-entertaining match that followed Roddick and Amritraj's 5-4 double win over McEnroe and Robert Kendrick.

The exchange of the night occurred in doubles when Roddick, a few feet from net, undercut a soft angled backhand in an attempt to pull McEnroe wide in essence trying to pull a McEnroe ploy on McEnroe.

Anticipating it, McEnroe instinctively moved to his left and responded with a flick of his wrist that sent a sharp angle forehand sideways. An eye-popping play that brought a smile from Roddick while McEnroe paused to savor the shot wearing a sly half smile that suggested "you gotta be kidding to try to play a touch tennis with me."

Roddick has been carrying the brunt of American men's tennis hopes ever since Agassi retired and whether you appreciate the muscle and bluster of his game or not, one of of Roddick's best qualities was on display during his performance in singles, doubles and mixed doubles last night: his competitiveness.

He is not as athletically gifted as several of the players ahead of him in the rankings — Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, to name a few — but what Roddick brings to the game is a commanding on-court presence and a love of a good fight. His serve may not be as fearsome as John Isner's these days and his forehand may not carry the weight of Sam Querrey's, but Roddick, even after seven straight years as a top 10 player, still gets off on competing and that's both refreshing and exciting to see.

When you look at it from a technical and tactical perspective, there is little that Roddick shares with McEnroe and his former coach, Jimmy Connors, who also played with  old-school grips and grit. The common link though is all three really relish the competition, exuding the intensity that could make them seem as in your face as a boxer cornering you in a phone booth.

Can the current younger Americans, Isner and Querrey, and those behind them, Ryan Harrison and Denis Kudla, emulate the staying power Roddick has shown?

"The thing that was so good about the golden ages of American tennis was there was always somebody right behind them," Roddick said last night. "I got the time of Andre [Agassi] and Pete [Sampras] and [Jim] Courier and [Michael] Chang and [watched] the tail end of John [McEnroe] and Jimmy [Connors], so I was pretty lucky. First and foremost, I would like U.S. tennis to do well and would like to lead it to a good spot. I'm not as comfortable with my career if, as you say, the cavalry isn't coming up behind. But I do think we are in better position than a year ago or even two years ago."

Shrugging off the competitive hangover of his
4-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(4), 6-7(5), 9-7 loss to World No. 82 Yen-Hsun Lu in the Wimbledon fourth round, Roddick looked fit and played quickly though his inability to find the range on his first serve contributed to the closeness of the set. Roddick served just 48 percent in the set, while McEnroe, in his best serving performance perhaps of the year, served 72 percent often bewildering Roddick with his slice serve on the ad side that slithered away, causing Roddick to net a few backhand returns.

Serving-and-volleying on virtually every point, McEnroe made some startling volleys and had success attacking behind his underspin backhand short in the court. During those moments, you could see just how freakishly gifted McEnroe is when it comes to eye-hand coordination (in his book, "You Cannot Be Serious", McEnroe writes about hitting whiffle balls at about the age of 5 or 6 pitched by his father in Central Park and people asking his parents if the child was in fact really a midget or circus performer because his eye-hand coordination was so astounding). Whereas Roddick's inability to consistently connect on his backhand return caused one spectator to wonder: "How will he beat Nadal at the Open if he's barely beating McEnroe in World TeamTennis?"

McEnroe still shows flashes of genius, while Roddick impresses more with his continued willingness to grind out the grunt work years after he reached No. 1, won the 2003 US Open and settled down with super model wife Brooklyn Decker.

Still, when Roddick made his first serve he was untouchable: Roddick won 10 of 10 first-serve points and 9 of 11 second-serve points.  McEnroe still moves exceptionally well for a 51-year-old part-time player, particularly when he's moving forward. More impressively, he's a minimalist mover: there is no extraneous effort to McEnroe's feet or racquet work. It's a smooth style beautiful in its simplicity. With Roddick, you see, hear and feel the effort in his steps, partly because he's such a thickly-muscled player he's moving more weight around the court.

Watching them attack their trademark shots last night was reminiscent of the old adage comparing two of New York's finest baseball players, center fielders Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. DiMaggio, who seldome seemed to sweat or show much emotion, made the difficult catch look easy, while Mays could make the difficult catch look downright demanding (baseball cap often flying off his head while he raced toward a ball in the gap of the cavernous Polo Grounds) yet both were exciting in different ways.

McEnroe cannot move into the court diagonally and take the return on the rise the way he once did in his prime. When Roddick banged the flat first serve up the middle, McEnroe was barely getting his Dunlop racquet on the ball much of the time.

"Yeah, he serves pretty good," McEnroe muttered to himself after one service winner buzzed by raising an eyebrow of approval to himself to highlight the observation.

The trademark tics both men have before serving — from his sideways stance McEnroe swipes the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his shirt in a stiff-armed motion wiping an annoying gnat off his neck while Roddick repeatedly tugs down the brim of his baseball cap as if checking it for fit and pulls up at his short sleeves
— make them look like their mimicking the Mets third base coach and add an air of theatricality before each point.

Roddick double faulted on his first set point. On the final set point, McEnroe flicked back a lunging return off a second serve and moved forward behind a challenging approach. Roddick, who did a good job bending his knees and getting low to McEnroe's slices, had been taking his forehand passes inside out for the most part, but this time turned and spun a blurring forehand pass crosscourt to conclude the most compelling set of the night.


A close second was the men's doubles and an exhibition doubles pairing McEnroe and Roddick with two juniors who will train atat the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall's Island. Neither kid looked tall enough to leap frog the net, but both shined in front of an appreciative crowd as one junior unleashed his inner Tommy Haas with a series of sensational one-handed backhands down the line.

Prior to the match, 200 juniors attended a try-out for a scholarship to the McEnroe Academy.

Aleksandar Kovacevic, 11, of Manhattan, was the full scholarship winner, while Jameson Corsillo, 7, of White Plains, N.Y., Ethan Leon, 9, of Woodhaven, N.Y., Mitchell Ostrovsky, 12, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lamar Remy, 14, of Roslyn, N.Y. will attend the Academy with substantial grant assistance.

Kovacevic and the other winners showed off their skills and had the chance to play with McEnroe and Roddick between events in the Sportimes' match.

"I just went out and tried my best and I'm glad the coaches think I have potential, and I can't wait to learn from the best," said Aleksandar.  "It was exciting to hit on the same court with John McEnroe and Andy Roddick, and I hope to be playing on this court as a pro one day.

McEnroe and the Academy staff will conduct a similar tryout for girls, ages 8-16, at Sportime on Monday, July 19, beginning at 8:30 a.m.  Almost 200 hopefuls have already signed up for the tryouts, which  will last the entire day for those who progress to the final rounds. The finalists will be invited to watch the Sportimes and US Open Champion and former World No. 1 Kim Clijsters in their final home match of the season.  Clijsters will help present the girls scholarship winner at halftime.

Clijsters and McEnroe will be joined by Claude Okin, Sportime CEO, Mark McEnroe, GM of Sportime at Randall's Island and the Academy, and Gilad Bloom, Academy Tennis Director and former ATP Tour professional in conducting Monday's tryout.  Former World No. 1 Martina Hingis will also assist in Monday's presentation to the winners.

The Sportimes stadium with its video replay screen is the ideal size for tennis: large enough to feel the buzz of energy emanating from the crowd but small enough that those in the front row could hear Roddick say to himself "Gotta play to Kendrick" after Abigail Spears stood her ground at net and answered three quick-strike Roddick forehands with sharp forehand volleys in succession.


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