The worst birthday of Andy Roddick's (search) life ended with three straight tiebreak losses and a shocking first-round exit from the U.S. Open against a player making his debut in the tournament.
Roddick, the champion two years ago and the No. 4 seed this year, fell 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 7-6 (1) on his 23rd birthday Tuesday night to Gilles Muller (search), the first man from Luxembourg to compete in the Open.
The 22-year-old Muller, ranked No. 68, outhustled, outmaneuvered and, most astonishingly, out-aced Roddick 24-17 to claim his second huge upset of the summer. In his first Wimbledon, he beat French Open champion Rafael Nadal (search).
Asked how he managed to dismantle Roddick, Muller replied sheepishly, "I have no idea."
"For me, it was just unbelievable to come out here today," Muller said. "I told myself to enjoy it and I did every minute."
Roddick hated every minute of it after blowing a 5-2 lead in the first set and a chance to serve out that set at 5-3. From then on, Roddick was frustrated by the left-handed Muller's canny mix of angled groundstrokes and serves, his blend of speeds, and his amazing ability to hit line after line.
Roddick flung his racket to the ground, dropped it another time in disgust, and kept chomping on a towel during changeovers. More than a few times he stared at the lines where Muller's shots landed, as if not believing his eyes, or watched the replays on the giant screen atop the stadium.
"I don't really remember a loss where I've felt this bad afterwards," Roddick said. "I love playing here. I probably had the best practice week I've ever had in leadup. It just didn't translate tonight. ... I'm in a little bit of shock right now, to be honest. I'd give anything to go back four hours right now."
Muller didn't serve as fast as Roddick but that didn't matter. Roddick couldn't figure out how to break him in the tiebreaks and in the last two sets. Rather than asserting himself, Roddick looked flat as Muller dictated the match and forced the action, running up 65 winners to Roddick's 39, though making 33 unforced errors to 15 by Roddick.
"I took some risks and maybe sometimes I was also lucky," Muller said.
If ever a player deserved a turn of good fortune, and earned one by dint of hard work, it's James Blake. To see him play so beautifully and with unfettered ease in a straight-sets takedown of former finalist Greg Rusedski in the afternoon was to watch a man who summoned a reservoir of inner strength from a year of unrelenting misery.
Backed by his friends and many fans chanting "James! James!" in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Blake served a 131 mph ace to reach match point, then ripped a backhand passing shot to beat the No. 28 Rusedski, 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-3.
Blake won his first tournament in three years on Sunday in New Haven, Conn., not far from where he grew up in Fairfield. It was a victory, a few weeks after he reached the final in Washington against Andy Roddick, that showed how far Blake had come since his lowest moments — when he lay in a hospital bed with a fractured neck last spring from a freak accident on court; or when he later contracted an illness that affected his sight and hearing and temporarily paralyzed part of his face; or when he watched his father dying of cancer last summer.
Unseeded, James may not be a threat to win the Open. He's playing the best tennis of his life at age 25, but he harbors no illusions that he's in the same class as No. 1 Roger Federer, who won his first-round match against Czech newcomer Ivo Minar 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in 1 hour, 1 minute earlier in the day, or the No. 2 Nadal, who could end Blake's run in the third round.
It was a sweltering afternoon at the Open as No. 12 Tim Henman of Britain lost 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round to Spain's Fernando Verdasco. Women's No. 2 Lindsay Davenport won in straight sets in the breezy evening after No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 6 Elena Dementieva and French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, No. 7, did the same during the day. There were touches of drama in three-time French Open champ Gustavo Kuerten's 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3) victory over American Paul Goldstein.
Muller, a former ITF junior world champion and U.S. Open juniors winner like Roddick, cracked the top 100 last August, a week after reaching his first ATP final at Washington with an upset of Andre Agassi in the semifinals. Muller also reached a hard court final this summer at Los Angeles before falling to Agassi.
Muller described himself then as "crazy" at times when he was younger.
"I don't know if I wanted it too much or if I didn't know really what I wanted," he said. "I got so upset and lost focus and lost the match because of this. Some days it went well, some days the second Muller was there and calmed me down. ... If I'm calm, I feel I can really play with these guys."
He looked calm on this night while Roddick seemed thoroughly rattled.
Roddick's only other first-round defeat at the Open came in his debut as a wild card in 2000. He reached the quarterfinals the next two years, won in 2003, and went out in the quarters last year. As the winner of the U.S. Open Series leading up to the year's final Grand Slam event, Roddick could have doubled the $1.1 million top prize if he won the title again. Instead, he goes home with chump change to pay his travel expenses.
Next up for Muller is his doubles partner, American Robby Ginepri.
"It's kind of funny," Muller said, "Tomorrow I'm going to play with him and Thursday I'm going to play against him."