U.S. Open Preview: Manhattan Melts for Andy Roddick

“Andy, here!” … “Andy, look right, please!” came the screams from a dozen or so photographers snapping the young American tennis star Andy Roddick during a photo op at Macy’s on the morning of Aug. 24.

Mr. Roddick-who turns 22 on Monday, the first day of the U.S. Open-was exhibiting all the signs of attention-deficit disorder: his close-set eyes darting from side-to-side; his knees (clad in the baggy, surfer-style shorts) knocking underneath the table; his hands shuffling cards or tapping his pen or picking at his nails. He ran one through his light brown hair, which stands out, tufted, in all directions. “It’s bed ,” he said. “It’s sleeping ,” he said earlier. His fox-like face recalled the character Stifler in the American Pie movies.

Mr. Roddick could be forgiven for feeling drowsy; the previous day, he’d flown in from the Olympics, and by 8:30 a.m. he was batting around balls with kids on a makeshift court for Good Morning America . He failed to get a medal in Athens, watching compatriot Mardy Fish lose the gold to Chilean Nicolas Massu.

But Mr. Roddick, currently ranked second in the world, is still the favorite at the Open, which he won for the first time last year. He has the fastest serve in history, a pulverizing back-court game and increasing all-court fluency. More importantly, he’s got personality . He shouts at umpires, he’s well-stocked with arm candy (after dating the limpid-eyed pop singer Mandy Moore, he’s currently “linked,” as they say, to Elite model Lauren Bedford) and he has the smart-alecky, Jackass -watching, trucker-hat-wearing sensibility that is so de rigueur among American males these days.

Jeff Lau, 23, was hanging around the Macy’s appearance-a member of Mr. Roddick’s Entourage -like entourage. They’ve been friends since meeting on the sun-baked courts of Austin, Tex., at the age of 8. “We’d always watch TV shows,” Mr. Lau recollected. ” Beavis and Butthead was a favorite of ours. He was Beavis, I was Butthead.”

The previous night, Beavis had taken Butthead and some other friends to Nobu for dinner. “I definitely like to get out and about,” Mr. Roddick told The Observer . “I’m not one to sit in my room.”

To prepare for his games, he listens to rock and hip-hop. “Last year I listened to ‘Fiddy’ Cent,” he said, using “homeboy” dialect to describe the rapper 50 Cent. “I got to say it properly!”

Mr. Roddick’s love of New York flash (he stays in W hotels) and his sharp wit (he slayed them recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live , and also called in to John McEnroe’s struggling talk show to joke about taking it over by 2009) is satisfying in ways that the previous decade’s male stars was not. As young as Pete Sampras was when he started dominating in the early 1990’s, the caterpillar-browed phenom with the classic game always seemed set in bronze before his time. Mr. Sampras just didn’t seem to care. Only when he threw up on court in the 1996 quarterfinal-surely the most famous upchuck in modern sports-did we begin to like him a little.

And for all the hype about Andre Agassi’s black sneakers and crazy hairdos, Mr. Agassi has always been more straight and narrow than his ad campaigns (“image is everything”) would suggest. These days, he’s a veritable Zen master, posing bald and beatific with wife Steffi Graf and their two tots in Vogue .

No, in the 90’s the true face of tennis was female-girl power! Williams sisters! Anna Kournikova!-but the tables have turned. The new “ova,” leggy Russian Maria Sharapova, is determined to be the anti-Anna, to the point of straitjacketing herself; Belgian women Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne play a mean but uncaptivating game; the Williams sisters appear distracted; and Ms. Kournikova’s people are saying her back might be so badly injured she’ll never play singles again.

“The boys are all much hotter,” said amateur player and spirited fan Mary Martinez matter-of-factly after a recent lesson at a private Chelsea tennis facility the other day. “I could name you the Top 10 just because they’re cute. “

Ms. Martinez, 42, vice president of production for the clothing house Chaiken, noted without prompting that the men have shortened their shorts lately. It’s a happy sight. There’s none of that peach fuzz that defined John McEnroe’s pubescent legs in the 1970’s; no, these striated thunder thighs are as plucked as Purdue’s chickens. Ms. Martinez launched into her list: Argentina’s Guillermo Coria (ranked third in the world) and No. 10 Gaston Gaudio (“He’s Guillermo Vilas reborn,” she exclaimed), who won the French Open this year, and Germans Rainer Schuettler (ranked 12th), Nicolas Kiefer (20th) and that blank-looking Mark Vanderloo look-alike, Tommy Haas (45th).

“We call him hot-ass Haas, my friend and I,” she said.

As the qualifying rounds for the U.S. Open kicked off this week, midtown was indeed awash in handsome young tennis players. They congregated outside the Parker Meridien, in clusters recalling Fleet Week as imagined, perhaps, by the marketing managers at Adidas; they piled into Cadillac Escalades for carpools out to Flushing Meadow; they grabbed lunch on the Upper East Side; and they clogged the 57th Street sidewalks with their bulky nylon bags.

And for the first time in years, they actually turned heads.

Besides Ms. Martinez’s hot list, don’t count out Roger Federer, whose wide, white bandage of a headband and smooth, calm playing style recalls Björn Borg; the Bryan Brothers, corn-fed twins who are the No. 1 ranked doubles team; and the Olympic silver medalist Mr. Fish, No. 28, whose golden-flecked hair looks like the work of a $300 Fifth Avenue saloniste.

“It’s not really their looks necessarily, it’s their personal style!” exulted Jennifer Pinto, 30, who works in public relations at another fashion house. “It’s their longish hair or the way they wear their headband! It’s all about the men’s tennis. It was boring for a while-for a time, we had machine, machine, machine. Now it seems like there are a whole lot of men on the scene-Federer, or the Brazilian guy, Guga,” she said, referring to heartthrob Gustavo Kuerten.

And Mr. Roddick has the most pizzazz of all. “I don’t know what it is about him, but he’s just the dude,” said Selma Nasser, 30, another publicist, who plastered her office with Roddick photos for two months after he won the Open.

“He’s delicious,” said Laura Simon, a 23-year-old student with a nose ring waiting in line at Macy’s.

Barbra Kogan, 32, a stay-at-home mom from the Upper East Side, said she would be “freaking out” if it were Mark Philippoussis on the podium a few feet away, but that Mr. Roddick was almost as exciting. “He’s got the showmanship of Agassi and the nice finesse of Sampras,” she said.

“He’s fairly good-looking, he takes care of himself, he talks off the court, he’s got a good-looking girl,” said wizened coach Nick Bollettieri by phone from Florida. “What Roddick has done is, he’s become more of an idol. He’s now displaying much more than the 150-mile-an-hour serve.”

Bud Collins, NBC’s irrepressible commentator, called from his house in Brookline, Mass. “I don’t think people get tired of Sampras, but he was no ball of fire,” he said. “He doesn’t come within light-years of Roddick in terms of personality. There are bright faces that have sprung to the fore. Andy’s bright and colorful and quotable and cocky and good to watch. Federer is much smoother, but he’s a glorious player. Those two have popped up rather suddenly.”

Mr. Collins said that “everybody hopes” a rivalry will develop between Mr. Roddick and Mr. Federer. “One guy from a little country everyone thought was just bankers and skiers-and Roddick the rough, blustering, very appealing guy,” he said.

But that may be impossible.

“The men’s game is deeper than it’s ever been,” Mr. Roddick’s coach, Brad Gilbert, snapped into the phone from San Rafael, Calif. “I think everything goes in cycles. Right now the men got an upswing. There’s a lot of great players. Federer is just an unbelievable player, and Andre’s still on the scene. And they have these South Americans …. I think there’s a lot of depth.”

Mr. Gilbert had a point: Until this year, when the Swiss Mr. Federer won two out of the three Grand Slam tournaments, Mr. Roddick was the eighth different man to win a Grand Slam-something that hasn’t happened since 1975-77, and something that can either draw fans to the matches or make them feel lost, because there are too many names to remember.

On this particular morning at Macy’s, however, all eyes were on Mr. Gilbert’s telegenic young charge-though as the appearance wrapped up, the Ford Excursion that dropped Mr. Roddick off was nowhere to be found. A cadre of Reebok publicists wearing dark tones began dialing frantically into their cell phones.

“It’s an easy place to blend in,” the tennis player had told The Observer , describing New York City.

He lifted up his arm and walked toward an empty cab.