Andy Roddick can't find the remote either. He, too, tries to convince himself that those potato chips aren't really so fattening because they're baked. His favorite jeans are ventilated with holes, his hair is terminally tousled. He just bought a modest home not in a beautiful people enclave—Soho or South Beach or Bel-Air—but in Austin, largely so he can be near his two older brothers, John and Lawrence. This is the rare premier athlete who lives not in a parallel universe but in our universe.� True, you and I might not be blessed with the ability to serve a tennis ball at 149 mph. And we won't be playing for the year-end No. 1 ranking in men's tennis next week at the Masters Cup in Houston. We don't necessarily date the hottie du jour or get asked to host Saturday Night Live. But the point is that Roddick, at his core, is one of us. Watching last month's baseball playoffs, he mused, "Man, it must be the best feeling to hit a home run, just rip back and friggin' send one." When it was suggested that the batter probably wishes he a could hit a concussive serve or a screaming forehand that stabs the line, the 21-year-old Roddick's eyes went as wide as quarters. "You think?" he asked. "I never looked at it that way."
So forgive the guy if he still thinks he might be hallucinating. Did he really win the U.S. Open in September and upgrade his billing from the future of American tennis to its present? Is that really his name that keeps crawling across the bottom of the screen as he watches ESPN? Was he really hanging out in Las Vegas last month with Robin Williams? The singer-actress Mandy Moore, is she really his girlfriend of 15 months? "I'll be the first to admit it, the life I'm leading is basically a joke," says Roddick. "I should probably be cooler about it, but I can't fake it, you know?"
The Nebraska-born Roddick and his Everyman sensibilities may ultimately do just as much as the Williams sisters have done to splinter the stereotypes that bedevil their sport. Put it this way: Although he turned it down, Roddick is the first tennis player ever to have fielded an endorsement offer from Red Bull. "He's a breath of fresh air, because there's no pretense about him," says Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing expert. "He makes no attempt to fit into a tennis-player mold."
Which is to say that it's hard to call Roddick "preppy" or "elitist" as long as his preferred attire is campy T-shirts adorned with such witticisms as DON'T SWEAT THE PETTY. PET THE SWEATY. ("Dude, it was on a wardrobe rack at a photo shoot and I totally five-finger-discounted it," Roddick says.) As for the notion that you can't make it as a tennis pro unless you learn the Western grip in the crib and sacrifice your adolescence at the altar of Bollettieri or at some other Florida hothouse: It wasn't all that long ago that Roddick was a scrawny kid in Austin taking group lessons with Chris Mihm and Drew Brees—today a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers, respectively. "They both kicked my ass," Roddick recalls. By age 14 he had showed enough potential to be invited to attend a tennis academy near Tampa. Within weeks he was back home. "I realized I loved tennis," he says, "just not at the expense of everything else." He ended up at Boca Prep Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where his parents had moved, and even played on the school's basketball team.
The dark backstory that is all but required of professional tennis players? Suffice it to say that if a Behind the Music-type feature were ever done on Roddick, the obligatory "downfall" segment would be hopelessly lame. Coming up next: Andy can't go to the slumber party, because he didn't give his parents advance notice.
The third son of Blanche and Jerry Roddick, who were teenage sweethearts in Wisconsin and have been married nearly 40 years, Andy had a childhood that could have been illustrated by Norman Rockwell. The closest thing to a crisis came in the mid-1990s when his brother John, now 27, had to forsake a promising tennis career because of a back injury. Instead, John graduated from Georgia, got married and now runs a successful tennis academy in San Antonio.
The entourage that flanks even the most marginal player? Roddick usually travels only with his coach, Brad Gilbert. The three or four times a year that Blanche (a home-maker) and Jerry (an entrepreneur who made a fortune buying Jiffy Lube franchises) attend tournaments, they sit camouflaged in the crowd so neither their son nor the television cameras can find them.
The self-absorption that defines most top players? Notwithstanding the complaints of a few sore losers who resent Roddick's on-court emoting, the kid is popular among his peers, a merry prankster who treats other players like frat brothers. When his Davis Cup teammate James Blake appeared in a New York Times Magazine fashion spread before the U.S. Open, Roddick wallpapered the locker room with the photos. "For a top player, Andy is amazingly low-maintenance," says Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain.
Roddick's game isn't derivative either. He lacks the elegant strokes of Pete Sampras; if there's one thing Roddick is not, it's a skilled technician. Nor does he possess Andre Agassi's ability to hit the ball crisply almost before it bounces. Roddick competes with the passion of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe but has neither Connors's gritty return game nor McEnroe's stiletto volleys. Roddick is a player for the new millennium who, aided by both his 6'3" frame and space-age racket technology, doesn't hit the ball so much as he pulverizes it, and he plays matches at the pace of speed chess. He also has a competitive streak to match his turbo game. "Every point, Andy is imposing his will on you," says the 36th-ranked Blake. "That's why he is where he is."
Roddick's current status as the hottest act in tennis was almost inconceivable six months ago. Beset by spotty conditioning and, as a result, an assortment of minor injuries, Roddick was a work in progress—if not regress. Rock bottom came at the French Open last May. Looking clueless on his least favorite surface, he lost his first match to a marginal player, Sargis Sargsian. With a heavy heart, Roddick parted ways with his longtime coach, Tarik Benhabiles. "Our friendship was getting scarred," says Roddick, "because we weren't getting along tenniswise."