WASHINGTON — It was one week before a crucial summer tennis tournament in Los Angeles, and Andy Roddick was cutting loose. He was at a party hosted by two other young guns on the professional tennis tour, Mike and Bob Bryan, and a band was playing for a crowd of about 300.
When Roddick was unexpectedly invited on stage, he didn't hesitate. He hopped up, grabbed the mike, and went into one of his favorite songs, "Ice Ice, Baby," by Vanilla Ice.
"I just decided to wing it, and I went for it," says a grinning Roddick, now a few weeks removed from his debut rapping performance. "Sometimes that happens."
That is Andy Roddick - at times goofy, at times a showboat, and almost always the center of attention. He is also widely considered to be the most talented young player in America, the so-called future of American tennis.
He couldn't have come at a better time. As stars Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras enter the twilight of their careers, the United States is looking for someone to fill the void. Not only will the heir have to be a great player on the court, but he will have to be capable of living on the front pages of newspapers off the court. The expectations are already extraordinary.
Roddick's next major test is the US Open next week in Flushing, N.Y., where he is the 18th seed in the men's draw. There, all eyes will be squarely focused on the Nebraska native, who wears a backwards baseball cap and black socks when he takes to the court.
Roddick's game is at times inconsistent, a product of his youth, but he has the big strokes and the competitiveness necessary to make it to the late rounds, maybe even to pull off an upset and win the US Open. In his career he's already beaten Sampras and the current No. 1 player in the world, Gustavo Kuerten. In the past year, he's moved from No. 160 to No. 16 in the official ATP rankings.
"He has a great game," says Andre Agassi, the No. 2 player in the world and himself a US Open favorite. "He's already near the top, and he's only 18. He's only gonna get better. He has some big weapons."
Those weapons begin with Roddick's serve, for which he throws a low toss and cocks his wrist like the hammer of a gun. When he bangs it, the strings on his racquet sound like they're about to burst, and the radar gun produces some frightening readings, as high as 135 m.p.h.
But it's his second serve that can be even more dangerous, and is perhaps the best in the game today. Just as the opposing player thinks he's escaped a first-serve missile, in comes a second-serve bomb, spinning ferociously as it makes contact with the court, then bouncing as high as an opponent's head.
Roddick backs up his serve with strong ground strokes, including a deadly inside-out forehand. He is most comfortable hitting from the baseline, where he moves well for someone his size: 6 ft., 2 in., 180 pounds and, apparently, still growing. He rarely comes to the net, but when he does, he's efficient.
Add it all up, and you have the complete package, a cross between Sampras, Agassi, and Jimmy Connors.
"He's able to play on clay, he's able to play on grass, he's able to play on hard courts," says Tarik Benhabiles, his coach. "He has no limits. The potential is big."
What remains to be seen, for the moment, is whether Roddick has the drive to be a champion, to separate himself from the pack of other talented players and gain the consistency that is necessary to crack the Top 10 in the world.
"When I first started out, I'd do well one week and have an off week. That was probably because of inconsistent training," says Roddick. "Now I know I'm part of the tour. I'm here. But I still have a ways to go."
On the court, Roddick is fiercely intense, and he occasionally will yell at a referee or a fan who disrupts his rhythm. Although that can be a turnoff for some, including his coach, it's also the sign of a champion, someone who believes that he owns center court.
Meanwhile, after matches, he's becoming almost as big a draw as Agassi, attracting crowds of screaming teenage girls and hordes of journalists.
And when he's away from the public eye, at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., Roddick trains like a madman.
"He's up there with the great players with how he approaches the game," says Mike Bryan, one of Roddick's best friends on the tour and a sometimes training partner. "He runs his [butt] off. Last week he was on the track for hours. He hits twice a day when a lot of players only hit once. He has an abundance of energy. He never slows down."
That conditioning was on display last week at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. Roddick won the tournament, his third tour victory, and at times seemed to barely breaking a sweat. He beat former No. 1 Marcelo Rios, Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia, and, in the championship, Sjeng Schalken, who the day before had defeated Agassi.
He also managed to have some fun in the process, taking in a Janet Jackson concert, dining in Georgetown, and hanging with NBA basketball star Steve Francis. "I try not to take myself too seriously," Roddick says. "I like to have a good time."