NEW YORK — That Andy Roddick’s last match as a twenty-something would not be his last match at the 2012 U.S. Open was hardly in doubt Tuesday, especially whenever he was launching that intimidating, tough-to-handle serve of his.
To close the first set: ace at 141 mph.
To close the second: ace at 134 mph.
To close the third: ace at 127 mph.
Yes, even as Roddick’s 30th birthday approaches on Thursday, even as his body has succumbed to injury after injury, that serve is pretty much still the same as it ever was. Now that he more frequently faces opponents who grew up cheering for him – such as 21-year-old qualifier Rhyne Williams of Knoxville, Tenn., the foil for Tuesday’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory – Roddick knows more than ever he needs to rely on the best thing he’s got, and 20 aces helped this time.
“You really don’t see that shot,” Williams said glowingly about Roddick’s serve.
Heading into his Grand Slam debut, the 283rd-ranked Williams had one primary concern: “I was just hoping he wasn’t going to go at me with a serve.”
Following Roddick into Arthur Ashe Stadium was 32-year-old Venus Williams, playing her first U.S. Open match since she pulled out before the second round in 2011 and revealed she had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
After a shaky start, dropping the first two games – and even seven points in a row in one stretch – Williams used her own powerful serve to right herself and beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the U.S. 6-3, 6-1. One serve at 124 mph jammed Mattek-Sands’ left index finger, shoving it into a racket string so hard she needed attention from a trainer.
“She was crushing her serves,” Mattek-Sands said. “I don’t think anyone’s returning those, so I’m not going to beat myself up too much.”
Three of the day’s notable upsets were turned in by young Americans. In singles, 19-year-old Sloane Stephens eliminated 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone 6-3, 6-4. In doubles, 19-year-old Jack Sock and 22-year-old Steve Johnson knocked out top-seeded Max Mirnyi of Belarus and Daniel Nestor of Canada 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, while brothers Ryan and Christian Harrison defeated last year’s runners-up, Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski of Poland 7-6 (3), 2-6, 7-6 (7).
Ryan Harrison – he’s 20, two years older than Christian – credits Roddick with helping in various ways.
“The older I’ve gotten, and the more my game has developed, he’s been definitely teaching me about ... being energetic and learning how to let bad moments slide off your shoulder and keep moving forward,” he said. “One of the best things that he doesn’t get recognized for is how persistent he is and how competitive he is. He’s a guy that won’t let you win Xbox.”
Appearing in his 13th consecutive U.S. Open – and wearing all-American sneakers for the occasion, replete with red and white stripes, and white stars on a blue background – Roddick sounded a bit willing to alter the expectations this time around. His own, and those of others.
Asked in an on-court interview what sort of present he would like in a couple of days, Roddick smiled and responded: “I just want to be around for next week. That’s all I want for my birthday.”
After a pause, he added: “And then we’ll renegotiate.”
Next up for Roddick is a second-round match against 19-year-old Bernard Tomic of Australia, who at last year’s Wimbledon became the tournament’s youngest quarterfinalist since Boris Becker.
Another test against another kid.
Roddick, a former No. 1 who is seeded 20th at Flushing Meadows, is coy when it comes to questions about how much longer he can compete at the top of the game.
“I mean, I don’t think you can ask him about retirement right now. I think as long as he’s happy and he’s playing well, I think he’s going to keep playing,” said 27th-seeded Sam Querrey of the U.S., who beat Yen-hsun Lu of Taiwan 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.
Like Ryan Harrison, the 24-year-old Querrey is one of several younger Americans who have benefited from Roddick’s advice and offers to train together in Austin, Texas.
Roddick extended that opportunity to Rhyne Williams after beating him Tuesday.
“He’s kind of been the leader of American tennis amongst the guys for the last 10 years. He’s been great. I mean, when I was 18, 19 – still to this day – he was always one of the first guys to invite me to Austin to practice,” Querrey said. “He’s always there for motivation. He’s always there to tell you if you had a good win or to tell you, ‘Hey, step it up,’ if you had a bad loss. He’s really been a great mentor to everyone.”