Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Muller Spoils Roddick's 23rd At Ashe

In the past, birthdays have been very kind to Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open. Tuesday, his perfect birthday record was challenged by up and comer Gilles Muller. In a shocker, Roddick's 23rd was foiled by Muller, losing in three straight tiebreaks.

Muller entered the match ranked 68th with a 17-19 record on the year. In his debut appearance at Flushing, the 22-year-old from Luxembourg proved early on that he would be no pushover for Roddick when he cameback to take the first set in stunning fashion. With Roddick seemingly in command up a break 5-2, Muller held serve and then took advantage of a brutal service game by the fourth seed to get back in the set. With the chance to serve for it, Roddick dropped all four points, making two crucial unforced errors. Until that point, he hadn't lost a point on serve or committed an error.

With the set back on serve, both players held easily to reach a tiebreak. In it, Muller took control early jumping out to a 4-0 lead. When the American closed the deficit to 5-4, the 6-5 powerful lefty didn't budge, winning both points on serve to claim the 38 minute first set 7-6 (4).

The quality of tennis in the opening set was good but the second set saw both players ratchet up the intensity. With his opponent showing no signs of letting up, Roddick was forced to summon up every ounce of energy he had early on. Facing three break points to go down 1-3, Roddick served his way out of trouble. After Muller held for 3-2, Roddick again had to fight off two break points, ripping two aces to keep it on serve. From then on, neither player budged until the second consecutive tiebreak.

With the capacity Arthur Ashe crowd urging him on, Roddick fought back from an early 3-1 hole to go up 4-3. From that point of the tiebreak, each player calmly stepped up and won two straight points on their serve. When Roddick had set point at 6-5, Muller hit a perfect ace out wide and then won the next point to 7-6. Roddick aced off Muller's first set point and then quickly got the next point to setup his second set point to level the match. But Muller wouldn't break, coming up with another ace and then hitting a forehand winner to reach a third point for a two set lead. This time, he capitalized when Roddick came into net and left a forehand volley up just enough for Muller to push a backhand down the line for a two set lead 7-6 (8). The set took 49 minutes.

At this point of the match, Roddick had just 10 unforced errors to his opponents' 27, which should have told everyone that he was in trouble against a very tough customer.

The third set was just like the second with neither player backing down, as each held serve till Roddick led 6-5. When Muller tightened up trying to serve into a tiebreaker, missing two forehands to 30 all, Roddick was two points away from the set. But Muller showed poise winning the next two, including a forehand rocket down the line to force the third tiebreak in a row.

With Roddick desperate for a good start on his serve, Muller had other ideas gaining a minibreak. From that point on, the confident unknown kept dictating play by hitting lines and jumped out to a 5-1 lead. As the pair changed ends, Roddick walked slowly with his head down, knowing that his best wasn't good enough on this night. After Muller forced a backhand error to reach match point, the victory was his when Roddick netted a backhand to drop a devastating third breaker 7-6 (1). He quickly got off the court looking crushed.

For Roddick, it's back to the drawing board. He entered the Open playing well, winning the U.S. Open Series and even was honored at Ashe on Opening Night. He definitely was one of the favorites to challenge Roger Federer for the crown. But just like that his slam season is over, ending in disappointing fashion. The 2003 champion and three-time quarterfinalist last bowed out in the opening round here in his 2000 debut as an 18-year-old.

It will be a very difficult loss for Roddick to digest because he lost just five less points than Muller, making just 15 unforced errors for the entire match while his opponent took more risks with 33 errors. To put in perspective how well Muller played, consider that he finished with 65 winners to Roddick's 39, outslugging one of the hardest hitting players on tour. Muller also outaced Roddick 24-17 and won 74 percent of points at the net to just 48 percent for Roddick.

What it boiled down to was that one bad service game Roddick had up 5-3 in the opening set swung the momentum in Muller's favor. Remarkably, Roddick converted his only break chance while his opponent was one-for-six.

For Muller, whose only slam success came at Wimbledon with a third round showing two months earlier, this match will be one to savor. It was his first ever night match and against a very popular opponent, he won over the crowd with brilliant shots. Whether it was his tricky serve, big groundstrokes or solid net game, he came up with great stuff earning cheers from the knowledgable fans. Muller even mixed in a deceptive forehand drop shot from beyond the baseline to keep Roddick off balance. That's how brilliant a match he played.

In a bracket that had the potential for Roddick to get through the early rounds and cruise to the semis, it's now anybody's guess who will come out. For all his hard work, Muller earned a tough second round match against American Robby Ginepri. Ginepri, who won his opening match in straight sets has been playing well. They played earlier this summer with Muller winning. So, it should be a good match. Ironically, Roddick lost to Ginepri the last time they played. Almost everyone expected the two to meet again but it won't happen.

Other upset winners on Day Two included Fernando Verdasco over Tim Henman, qualifier Arnaud Clement over Juan Carlos Ferrero and American James Blake over Greg Rusedski in straight sets. Blake played very well and could be a potential third round opponent for Rafael Nadal.

Higher seeded men who advanced to the second round included top seed Federer, who dropped just three games, Nikolay Davydenko, David Nalbandian, Radek Stepanek, Fernando Gonzalez and Mario Ancic.

On the women's side, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Mary Pierce, Anastasia Myskina, Nathalie Dechy, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Likhovtseva and Shinobu Asagoe were all straight set winners. Patty Schnyder and Tatiana Golovin advanced in three sets.

Weather permitting, Day Three features Lleyton Hewitt in first round action while Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova battle second round foes. The night session will feature Serena Williams in her second round and then Rafael Nadal in his.

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