CARSON, Calif. When he was just an impressionable teenager, Andy Roddick was thrilled with his duty as a Davis Cup practice partner for Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
Even if he took plenty of grief from Agassi.
''Definitely as a 17-year-old, he liked to ride me a little,'' Roddick said with a smile. ''But I loved it. It was kind of his way to see if I could overcome it a little bit, and I always had a blast with it.''
Agassi saw something special in the future star.
''He was a phenomenal learner. You could see him absorbing every experience he was having,'' Agassi recalled. ''That was certainly a great sign that he was going to have the career and future that he's now having.''
Roddick enjoyed the perks of that job.
''I was close to the only player staying at the team hotel,'' he said. ''I was 17, staying at the Ritz in L.A., and I had my own chef. It was fun.''
Agassi chimed in: ''What happened? Why aren't we staying at the Ritz this time?''
Roddick grinned and said, ''You and Pete took off for a while, so it sort of just dropped down.''
Agassi, who has played on three Davis Cup championship teams, is back after a five-year absence, so he and Roddick are reunited for the first-round matches against Croatia.
Agassi, who turns 35 next month, plays Ivan Ljubicic in Friday's opening match, with Roddick facing Mario Ancic in the second and final match of the day.
Twins Mike and Bob Bryan play the doubles on Saturday, with Ljubicic and Ancic scheduled to team up for that match. Two more singles matches are on Sunday.
Agassi, who hasn't played Davis Cup in recent years because he wanted to commit to all the rounds or not play at all, was persuaded by captain Patrick McEnroe to play whenever he is available. He's happy to be back.
''That's what separates the Davis Cup from everything else,'' Agassi said. ''It's not just for yourself out there.''
The United States, which has won the Cup 31 times, will be trying to end a nine-year drought that is the Americans' longest in 68 years. They made it to the 2004 finals, but lost to Spain in Seville.
Agassi is 30-5 in singles, with his victory total ranking second only to John McEnroe's 41.
Roddick, although only 22, already has played 19 matches for the United States and his 14-5 record includes an 11-0 mark on hard courts like the one in Carson. He lost both of his matches on clay last year in Spain.
Although the Americans are 104-14 in the United States and will be heavily favored, they're facing a dangerous opponent. Croatia eliminated the United States in the first round in 2003, with Roddick unable to play because of a wrist injury.
Ljubicic, 25, has made it to four tournament finals this year, losing each time. Three of those losses, however, were to Roger Federer. Ancic, 20, extended Roddick to four sets in last year's Wimbledon semifinals.
''It's unbelievable, playing for your country,'' Ancic said. ''It's a really big match for us, so it means a lot to us. I hope we get some Croatian support. That would help.''
Captain Nikola Pilic, realizing his team is the underdog, said things don't always go to form in Davis Cup.
''People get inspired. Going back my 44 years in Davis Cup, I saw a lot of things,'' Pilic said. ''Anything is possible. When you play Davis Cup, you don't see the rankings and who is favored and who is not.''
Agassi said both Ljubicic and Ancic are playing with confidence.
''They're obviously playing very well, both Ivan and Mario. Both these guys are showing they can beat anyone the best in the world on any given day,'' Agassi said. ''We're going to have to play our best, figure out a way to win because the matches certainly won't be easy.''
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