ST. PAUL -- For sports fans sick of surly athletes, a breath of fresh air blew through Minnesota Wednesday.
The breeze was generated in part by the 155-mph serve of America's top tennis player Andy Roddick. The 22-year-old, ranked second in the world behind Swiss star Roger Federer, understands his role as ambassador of the sport in the United States.
He played in the Minnesota Tennis Challenge at the Xcel Energy Center with 2004 Olympic silver medalist Mardy Fish and the No. 1-ranked doubles team of Mike and Bob Bryan.
Fighting a cold and cough, Roddick played through a doubles and singles match. The speed of the game, Roddick's monstrous serve and massive forehand, the sustained volleys at the net during the doubles match were all impressive. But the humor may have been the most endearing.
During the doubles match, Roddick took a seat in the audience and gave his racket to a ball girl. Fish led her to the net where she remained shocked and motionless before finally lifting the racket in front of her. The Bryan brothers sent a smiling Fish rocketing across the court, tracking down balls, before a well-placed soft shot hit the girl's racket and landed between the Bryans to win the point.
The crowd erupted in cheers. Fish surrounded her in a bear-hug and lifted her off the court.
After the match, Roddick said he enjoyed making the people laugh and may have had more fun with it than the fans. Listening to the courtside laughter that drew people in, I'm not so sure.
The tennis playing foursome, who make up the U.S. Davis Cup Team were starting their "My Ride" bus tour in St. Paul.
Roddick said the whole idea behind the bus tour was to take live professional tennis matches to areas of the country where there is often little opportunity to see them.
"As tennis players we don't have some huge marketing machine behind us like the NBA has," Roddick said. "It's up to the individual players. I accept that responsibility and I like it."
He said the long tennis season, which ran from Jan. 1 to Dec. 5 for Roddick this year, does not leave much time for clever marketing ideas.
But the bus ride is one of them.
They left after the Minnesota Tennis Challenge for an all-night bus ride to Memphis, Tenn., a stop in Mobile, Ala., and finally ending the tour in Nashville, Tenn. Along the way they are being taped for a reality-TV special to air next summer.
"This is the city I was looking forward to the most, being from here," Fish said of St. Paul. While at the Mall of America, Fish went to a store and loaded up on Twins caps.
Side bets spiced up the game for the players. During the singles match Fish hit two lets in a row. That's here a serve touches the net but lands in the right service court. Roddick bet him $20 he couldn't do it a third time. He didn't.
Fish injured his left wrist trying to return Roddick's serve. He lost in two sets to Roddick but finished the match. Fish said his wrist injury may help him gain mercy as he lost a bet by losing the match and was expected to wear a green skirt to a breakfast of waffles the following morning. Roddick did not appear so sure mercy was in the offing.
The brisk weather was a bit of an awakening for the Bryans of California. But Fish, who was born in Edina, was fine with the temperature.
"It was great weather," said Fish, who lives in Tampa, Fla. "I may want to move back."
Officials announced 6,777 people attended Wednesday's event.
After the match, with his wrist encased in ice, Fish was outside the player's locker room meeting family members still in Minnesota, along with other supporters, and signing T-shirts. As Roddick left the court he patiently signed autographs on hats, paper, shirts and giant tennis balls. He paused for a photograph with a fan, then exited through the darkened tunnel.
When he walked by, my tongue was suddenly stapled to the roof of my mouth.
And so Andy if you have a service that clips news for you here is what I would have said:
"After watching you for years on television, it was great to see you play tennis live. Thanks for coming to Minnesota. Good luck next season."
And, if you come to Minnesota again, maybe next time I'll be able to tell you that out loud.
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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