At the moment of Andy Roddick's greatest triumph, winning the 2003 U.S. Open, there seemed only one way for him to go – up. So he did.
Up, into the players' box, to kiss then-girlfriend Mandy Moore. Up again, by the end of that year, to the No. 1 world ranking at 21.
A long period at the summit of the game was predicted for the American golden boy, who seemed to be picking up the baton for U.S. tennis as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi neared the end of their superb careers.
Yet that victory remains Roddick's only Grand Slam to date, as he has suffered through a frustrating period of underachievement which largely has taken him out of the top-of-the-game spotlight.
Roddick wants to change all that in 2009, starting with the Australian Open. A grueling winter fitness regime that saw him drop 15 pounds under the tutelage of Larry Stefanki has left him hungry to take on Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
"My results last year, especially in Slams, don't warrant me being talked about," the 27-year-old acknowledged. "Now I want to get back into that conversation."
Roddick looked strong and imposing in his first-round thrashing of Sweden's Bjorn Rehnquist in Melbourne, coming through 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 as his booming serve regularly found its mark.
Far greater tests lie ahead, and if Roddick has designs on making deep progress into this tournament, the likelihood is that he will have to find a way to topple at least a couple of the Big Four.
And although his all-around game no longer looks as limited as it did during his slump, he would still go into a match against any of the top four as a clear underdog.
With a new breed of youngsters looking to break through and set up camp in the top 10, it is players like Roddick whose status is coming under threat. For now, though, Roddick is still gunning for those ahead of him, albeit while keeping one eye trained over his shoulder upon the chasing pack.
If he is to re-establish himself as one of the leading lights in tennis, perhaps it has to come this year – and it has to come from within.
Roddick turned to Jimmy Connors three years ago in an ultimately doomed move, hoping the court legend would reinvigorate his game.
But what Roddick really needs is to recapture the exuberance of his early years on tour as he faces what could be last big chance at cracking the game's ultimate elite.
- Mandy Moore