It's a tough racket, this business of raising a tennis prodigy. Play a big role in your child's fledgling career and you risk being yet another Tennis Parent from Hell. Maintain a healthy detachment and you end up like Blanche and Jerry Roddick. The parents of Andy Roddick, the world's second-ranked junior player, abided by their youngest son's wishes and stayed home in Boca Raton, Fla., last month while Andy played the Australian Open juniors. "It was just a gut thing," shrugs Andy. "I didn't want then to watch me."
As Andy laid waste to the draw and became the first U.S. junior boy to win Down Under since Butch Buchholtz in 1959, his bleary-eyed parents had to follow his matches in real time or the Internet. "It was agony,' says Jerry, a private investor "They gave the updated score, but other than that we had no idea what was happening. Also, with the time difference, some of his matches didn't end until 3 a.m."
Andy's grandmother got into the act as well. In Boca visiting from Wisconsin, 89-year-old Hazel Corell wore her "lucky socks"—red stockings adorned with brass bells—whenever Andy played. On crucial points she would raise her feet toward the monitor and wiggle her toes. "Those socks are what helped Andy win," she maintains. "I had them on my feet the whole week."
Sweeter smelling is Andy's future. The brightest U.S. tennis prospect to rush the net in years, Roddick is on a remarkable run. In December he won two prestigious events in Florida: the Orange Bowl championship and the Eddie Herr International. "With the results Andy has had lately, he shows great promise of a pro career," says Bobby Bernstein, the boys' 18-and-under national development coach for the U.S. Tennis Association.
The affable Roddick is your quintessential baseball-cap-on-backward ail-American 17-year-old. His game, though, is anything but the unimaginative, topspin-heavy baseline tennis that, lamentably, has characterized the U.S. juniors over the past 15 years. A native of Omaha whose bathroom is covered with Nebraska Corn-huskers wallpaper, Roddick plays Smash Mouth tennis. Armed with a bludgeon for a forehand and with a serve that regularly eclipses 125 mph, he just, as he puts it, "whales away out there."
What's more, his natural ability is matched by his competitive resolve and court smarts. Up match point in a tight semifinal at the Australian Open, Roddick anticipated that his opponent, Sweden's Joachim Johansson, was going to smack a down-the-line backhand passing shot. Just as Johansson was sizing up the shot, Roddick moved to guard the line. Distracted, Johansson went for the open court and shanked the crosscourt backhand wide. Game, set, match to Roddick.
In the finals against Mario Ancic of Croatia, Roddick played fearlessly in a first-set tiebreaker and cruised home 7-6, 6-3. "For whatever reason, I play well when it matters most," says Roddick, whose older brother, John, was a three-time All-America at Georgia. "Toughness has never been a weakness of mine."
As a senior at Boca Prep, Roddick admits, "I'm not the most studious guy in the world." Nevertheless, he maintains a 34 average and has enough credits toward graduation this spring to leave school every day at noon. After lunch, he and his coach, Tarik Benhabiles, drill and play points on the Roddicks' backyard court. "Andy's work ethic and his intensity level are tremendous for a kid his age," says Benhabiles, a former touring pro who coached fellow Frenchmen C�dric Pioline and Nicolas Escude into the Top 20. "I tell him not to worry about the future, because if his dedication stays the same, there's no limit."
Roddick knows that success in the juniors doesn't necessarily presage success in the pros; for every Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras there are dozens of former studs like Al Parker, Ivan Baron and Ty Tucker who never made it on the ATP tour. Still, Roddick won't even entertain calls from college coaches trying to recruit him. "I know I need to get stronger and better in every area, but I want to give the pros a shot," says Roddick, who recently retained SFX Sports Group to represent him. "I'll make the jump when my coach thinks I'm ready."
His debut may well come this summer at the U.S. Open. Roddick will turn 18 on Aug. 30 and is an obvious candidate to receive a wild-card entry into the Open's main draw—a $10,000 payday even if he loses in the first round. It remains to be seen whether he'll permit his family to venture to Flushing Meadows to watch him play. But at least then he can spring for a new pair of lucky socks for Grandma.