Thursday, August 5, 2004

Roddick believes in quest for gold

Paul Daugherty

MASON - Andy Roddick is playing tennis in the Olympics because he thinks the Olympics are cool. Is that enough?

It's enough for hammer throwers, team handball players and modern pentathletes. It's enough for a synchronized swimmer such as Loveland's Becky Jasontek, who has trained 60 hours a week for the last seven years, just to be a part of it. The Olympics gets its TV ratings from runners and swimmers and pixies who fly through the air. Its heart comes from the rowers, the archers and the wrestlers, who work at Home Depot between trips to practice, for whom sacrifice is the daily bread.

But tennis players?

Las Vegas one week, Monte Carlo the next? Courtesy cars, personal trainers? Chefs and shrinks on demand? Those people? Do they know the Athletes Village doesn't have 24-hour room service?

Sometimes, they surprise you. Andre Agassi, the former Mr. Image Is Everything, counts his gold medal from the '96 Games as one of his proudest achievements. Brad Gilbert, former coach to Agassi, current coach to Roddick, labels his bronze medal in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, "the pinnacle of my sports career."

Roddick, reigning U.S. Open champ, teen heartthrob and surprisingly grounded 21-year-old, can't wait to go. He's so pumped, he's marching in the Opening Ceremonies and staying in the Athletes Village. This is the norm if you play badminton, not if you're the No. 2-ranked tennis player in the world.

If Roddick gets to the gold-medal match, he will have been in Greece for at least 11 days. He will begin defending his Open title seven days later. That's a grind.

"Yeah," Gilbert says. "So?

"This is the Olympics. He's 21 years old. He's strong as a bull. It's the American way. Go step up."

Gilbert is a sports junkie, a diehard Oakland Raiders and Athletics fan. Gilbert would watch two ants race across a cookie at a picnic.

"I got to go to every sporting event" in '88, Gilbert said. "It was a dream. I watched wrestling, water polo, boxing. The only thing I didn't see much of was basketball, because I know basketball. This one wrestler who stayed on the floor below me, I saw him wrestle four times. I saw him win the gold. Kenny Monday. It was one of the most invigorating moments of my life."

Maybe Roddick has listened to Gilbert talk this way and decided he couldn't pass it up. Or maybe, the kid from Omaha, Neb., has kept his Midwestern, corn-fed sensibilities keen enough not to be bored by the prospect of 11 days without a personal trainer.

"Kerri Strug did her thing on one ankle, that was huge," Roddick said, referring to the gymnast who clinched for the U.S. the women's all-around gold medal in 1996, by landing a vault on a sprained ankle. "Michael Johnson and his golden shoes. Pretty cool.

"I watch the Opening Ceremony and get goosebumps. I just think it's impressive that people are going in there (as) favorites and they've been waiting for four years and all the sudden they're able to produce world-class stuff with that amount of pressure. That's cool."

That's another cool thing about the Olympics. The athletes occasionally take time from competing against each other to marvel at one another's work. They take time to be awed.

If Roddick has any concerns about fatigue heading into the U.S. Open, Gilbert has talked him out of them: "You've got plenty of chances to be tired the rest of your life. This is the Super Bowl run."

Pro jocks aren't always known for pouring effort into endeavors they can't cash. The U.S. basketball team could use a few more bodies. In 2000, Pete Sampras decided the

Olympics "weren't really a consideration."

Roddick gets it. He sees the Games for what they are: a chance to do something for his country while enjoying the greatest spectacle in sports. "It's a simple question to me. It's the biggest sporting event in the world. I relish the opportunity," Roddick said.

Or, as Gilbert put it, "He don't need no pumping up."


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