On the surface Roddick's constitution is the polar opposite. He is the quintessential dude who shops at Abercrombie & Fitch, watches Jackass, uses phrases like mega-amped and wickedly far-fetched, kept a copy of Maxim in his U.S. Open locker and was stoked to receive a good-luck call from Elton John before the final. He has an insouciance and a generosity of spirit that are rare in tennis. What other player, midway through the fifth set of a Grand Slam semifinal, would have the stage presence to catch an errant ball in his hat, as Roddick did? Before taking questions at Sunday's postmatch press conference, Roddick grabbed the mike and said gleefully, "No more 'What's it feel like to be the future of American tennis?' crap!" In short, he is very much in touch with his inner class clown.
But underneath the impishness and the crowd-pleasing histrionics is a deep reserve of maturity and polish. When Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic lost to Roddick in the second round and then made the shabby (and absurd) allegation that Roddick is universally disliked on tour, the American didn't fire back publicly but instead called Ljubicic in his hotel room so they could iron out their differences. (They did.) When Nalbandian grumpily blamed his semifinal loss on an injury, Roddick responded coyly, "I thought he did a hell of a job playing with it." While Ferrero, the reigning French Open champion, was jangle-nerved in the final, Roddick was enveloped in calm.
Some of Roddick's evolution is natural. "The more you play, the more you learn," he says with a shrug. "You don't have all the answers when you come out here at 18." Still, it's no coincidence that Roddick has elevated his tennis since retaining Gilbert earlier this summer. More guru than coach, Gilbert hasn't retooled Roddick's game or changed his off-court training. But as he did with his former charge, Agassi, Gilbert has made tennis blissfully simple for Roddick. His sage advice before the final? "Win three sets before the other guy does."
Whatever, it worked. The sun was slinking beneath the horizon when Roddick held match point and calmly smote his 23rd ace of the day. Within seconds, he knelt inside the service box—one of the four he had been scorching throughout the tournament—and leaked tears. On Roddick's ninth birthday his present was a trip to the U.S. Open. ("He would wear tennis clothes every day he came here," recalls his mother, Blanche. "He got into the players' lounge with no credentials.") Barely a week after his 21st birthday he won the whole tournament.
It was all so fitting. On the first night of the Open, Pete Sampras formally retired from tennis. On the last night the newest U.S. star officially arrived. As flashbulbs blitzed around him, Roddick clung to a trophy that might as well have been a torch. Finally he had accomplished what the sun seldom managed to do during this waterlogged tournament. He had broken through.