The myth of the Olympic spirit

Through all of the Olympian fanfare, they said all the right things. Andy Roddick said he was exceedingly proud to represent the United States in Athens. Roger Federer explained that winning the gold medal was a high priority, right behind winning Wimbledon and finishing the season ranked No. 1. And then Federer, who has won two of the year's three Grand Slams (the Australian Open and Wimbledon), went out and lost to 18-year-old Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the second round, the same Tomas Berdych who is ranked No. 74 in the world. Then Federer and Swiss doubles partner Yves Allegro got pounded in straight sets. Federer, to his credit, managed to look appropriately disappointed. Roddick, who mounted a gallant comeback against Tommy Haas in the second round, seemed positioned to capture the gold medal many had predicted for him. Then he lost in straight sets to Chile's Fernando Gonzalez in the third round. The two-ton elephant lurking at the tennis venue in Greece: the 2004 U.S. Open. It is hard enough to win a Grand Slam, which requires playing in seven matches over 14 days. But, what about winning the Olympic singles event (with six emotionally draining matches), then flying to New York, taking a few days off, then trying to navigate seven even more difficult head-to-heads? Impossible, most experts believe. Keep an eye next week on Chile's Nicolas Massu, the gold medalist in both singles and doubles. Chances are, he won't have much left. So, did Federer and Roddick take their feet off the gas and, with an eye to the Open, take a little down time? After his loss, Roddick was asked how important the Olympics were in the minds of the players. "With each player, it's personal how big it is," Roddick said. "Some guys really don't care that much. I cared a lot. "It's not the biggest thing in our sport, but it's the biggest thing in sports." The answer seemed to suggest that maybe, just possibly, the two best male players in tennis were looking ahead to the season's final Grand Slam. Certainly, they have played -- more matches than any of the other players. Federer, 57-5 coming in with an ATP-leading seven titles, admitted in Athens that he was suffering from mental burnout. Roddick is 58-11 with four titles. The 2004 season is starting to look remarkably like the 2003 season. Roddick tore up the summer circuit, won his first Grand Slam by taking the U.S. Open and closed in a blur to take the No. 1 ranking. After losing to Federer in the Wimbledon final, Roddick played the three big summer hardcourt events in Indianapolis, Toronto and Cincinnati. He won Indianapolis, defeating Nicolas Kiefer in the final, lost to Federer in the Toronto final, then made the semifinals in Cincinnati before losing to eventual champion Andre Agassi. That's a 14-2 record -- against the best players in the game -- in the three weeks leading up to the Olympics. Federer, for his part, skipped Indianapolis and checked out in the first round of Cincinnati, losing to Dominik Hrbaty, the week after he won Toronto. If Federer and Roddick reach the U.S. Open final, it does not bode well for the American who turns 22 on the first day in Flushing, N.Y. Federer, after all, has dispatched the past 10 opponents he's faced in the finals of an event; the list includes Roddick (twice), Agassi, Marat Safin and Carlos Moya. Roddick's fans would like to think he has a rivalry with the cool Swiss player, but Federer has now won seven of their eight matches. And yet, Federer has never looked comfortable at the National Tennis Center. His last three appearances there have ended in the fourth round; last year, nemesis David Nalbandian took him out. Seeded in the opposite side of the draw, Roddick must hope someone else does his dirty work. In the end, Roddick's record-breaking serve could be the difference-maker. Not only can he blister the first offering in excess of 150 miles an hour, he is routinely hitting his second serve in the 120s -- the speed of most players' first serve. For his double trouble in Athens, Massu received two gold medals. He did not earn a dime -- officially, anyway. While the No. 1 ranking is definitely a stretch for Roddick -- he trails Federer by a daunting margin in this year's standings -- there is some serious cash on the line. The winner on Sept. 12 will receive at least $1 million, plus possible additional incentives from the fledgling U.S. Open Series. While seemingly disappointed after his loss in Athens, Roddick was philosophical. "I'm gutted right now," he told reporters. "It's not every day we get to play this. You can't say, 'Next year.' "Right now, I'm looking forward. I've got a pretty big tournament coming up." Precisely. Greg Garber is a senior writer for