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Steve Flink: Roddick in Career Crisis

3/13/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The battlefield gets more and more daunting for Andy Roddick. He has played ten matches in the year 2012, and his match record stands at a dismal 5-5. He seems to be playing hurt, with his right hamstring hindering him considerably. He is not performing nearly as well as he once did. And the man who concluded 2003 at No. 1 in the world, the player who spent no less than nine consecutive seasons (2002-2010) among the top ten in his profession, the fellow who used to be to be so clear in his convictions and such an opportunist, is struggling to find an identity. Roddick is moving through the most distressing stretch of his illustrious career. He has fallen upon very hard times, slipping to No. 31 in the world, fighting himself as much as his opponents, displaying a mediocrity that seems foreign to his nature.

I watched Roddick’s latest setback against Tomas Berdych at Indian Wells. He lost his third round clash to the formidable world No. 7, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, and the match was not really as close as the score. Roddick virtually stole the second set with his heart and resolve, but across the board and over the course of the match, he was sorely outplayed by a rival he had beaten in six of nine previous head-to-head collisions. Roddick is a complicated character, so admirable as a supremely dedicated professional in his trade, so aggravating when he takes his angst out on chair umpires who don’t deserve his wrath, and so full of contradictions. But I felt a lot of sympathy for him last night; it was painful and almost depressing at times watching the way he bowed out against Berdych.

Let’s be clear about Berdych. The man is only a whisker away from being a great player. His ground game is commanding, featuring a top of the line two-handed backhand and an explosive flat forehand. His serve has improved immensely across the last three years, with the first delivery beautifully placed and powerfully produced, and his second delivery kicking up high with great depth to make it a burdensome task for any opponent to exploit. Moreover, although he remains frail in some respects and he becomes a lot more apprehensive at times than he should, Berdych has made progress as a competitor and his tennis can often be breathtaking. Reflect for a moment on his quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open. He won the first set and had a set point in the second, missing a backhand volley down the line that could have put him in control of that match.

So make no mistake about it: Berdych is a first class tennis player, and a man Roddick was always going to be hard pressed to surpass at Indian Wells. And yet, the fact remains that Roddick was given an embarrassing pasting on this occasion. Berdych made the 29-year-old American look pedestrian for most of the match. Roddick simply had no remedies. His opponent was in control of the climate of the contest, dictating the rallies, overpowering the American off both sides, keeping his shots deeper, hitting the ball cleaner. He was admirable. Yet Roddick was downright abysmal. In the opening game of the match—when he needed to assert his authority and serve purposefully—Roddick wasted a 30-15 lead, missing two sliced backhands in a row, then driving a two-hander long.

Losing his serve in the first game set a bad tone for Roddick. His ineptitude from the backcourt cost him a crucial game. Berdych swept 16 of 19 points on his own serve. He backed up his delivery magnificently, and never gave Roddick the slightest reason for optimism. Serving at 3-5 in that opening set, Roddick had a 40-15 lead, but he allowed Berdych back into that game, and the American gave it away with a  double fault wide down the T. Infuriated with that mistake, Roddick smashed his racket down on the court, advertising his discontent.

On his way to a 3-2 second set lead, Berdych served three love games in a row. Roddick served at deuce in the sixth game, and a break there would probably have been fatal for him. Roddick, however, held on with temerity, reaching 3-3 with a second serve ace down the T. He then played his finest return game of the match in the seventh game, gaining his one and only service break against Berdych with an excellent forehand return down the middle, struck with remarkable depth. Berdych was caught off guard, and missed off the forehand. Roddick was briefly exhilarated, holding for 5-3, then serving out the set two games later with resolution. In a three deuce game, Roddick saved a break point when Berdych took a calculated risk with a flat backhand down the line, just missing it wide. On his third set point, Roddick came forward forcefully off the forehand, provoking a backhand passing shot error from Berdych.

And so it was one set all. Roddick had bluffed his way through that second set, exploiting one lapse from Berdych, tenaciously holding his own serve all the way through. Two years ago, Berdych might have wasted a lot of nervous energy over the loss of that set, but now he is made of tougher stock. He picked on Roddick’s vulnerable forehand return in the crucial opening game of the final set, eliciting three missed returns in a row off that side from the American with strategically placed serves. Berdych held at 15 for 1-0. Roddick held at love with an ace to make it 1-1, but thereafter Berdych was unstoppable. He held at 15 for 2-1, and then broke Roddick to move ahead 3-1, securing the break with a neatly executed forehand winner to the open court off a short sliced backhand from Roddick. Berdych then held at 30 for 4-1.

The spark was gone from Roddick. He managed to hold one more time for 2-4, but Berdych was unperturbed. He was taken to deuce in the seventh game, but surged to 5-2 with a service winner and an ace. With Roddick serving to stay in the match at 2-5, the American failed to win a point. He double faulted to fall behind 0-30, missed a running forehand down the line, and then stood there helplessly as Berdych rifled a deep return to set up a scorching inside-out forehand winner. Berdych took apart Roddick comfortably and confidently in the end. The 2010 Wimbledon finalist has become an increasingly impressive match player. Even on nights like this when he begins to lose his nerve, Berdych gathers himself, restores his conviction, and the shots start flowing freely again. When he plays the sport in that nearly unconscious state, Tomas Berdych is one hell of a tennis player.

But where does Andy Roddick go from here? How can he dig himself out of this despair, recover his winning mentality, and redirect his ego? It won’t be easy. His litany of injuries has caught up with him, and the American is not moving the way he must to compete at the highest level. It is particularly apparent when Roddick is stretched out wide on his forehand side. He used to play the running forehand quite well, keeping himself in points with the power of his legs and his defensive skills off that side. But across 2012, he seems to be conceding too many points when opponents go back behind him to the forehand, or drill backhands up the line. Roddick is not chasing a lot of those balls, presumably because he is not physically up to the task.

But his problems are not simply physical.  His confidence is a dwindling resource. His body has taken an awful pounding in recent years, but so has his psyche. The immediate path ahead could be rough for the American. He needs at least a quarterfinal showing in Miami to rekindle some of his old belief. But then the players move out onto the clay, and that time of the year is never profitable for Roddick. So there is some danger that he could be an unseeded player at Wimbledon for the first time since 2001. There is a growing feeling among the tennis community that Roddick will be hard pressed to find his way back inside the top 15 in the world.

We would all be foolish to write him off too soon. If he can get healthier, if he can build up his spirit once more, if he can record one or two encouraging victories over leading players, then Andy Roddick might come out of this dark corner and play again with verve. But the feeling persists that this prideful American might be well on his way toward retirement.