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Steve Flink: Roddick ascendant once again

7/24/2012 1:00:00 PM

Ever since he lost one of the most emotionally bruising matches of his career against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final of 2009, it has seemed as if Andy Roddick understandably found it nearly impossible to deal with the consequences of that defeat. He did not finish that season very convincingly, and did not capture a title for the rest of the year. In the spring of 2010, Roddick seemed revitalized for a time, reaching the final of Indian Wells, securing the crown in Miami. Early in 2011, Roddick prevailed in a memorable duel with Milos Raonic in the final of Memphis.

And yet, all in all, he was simply not the same player across the last three years. Injuries were surely a factor at various times. Roddick closed 2011 stationed at No. 14 in the world, the first time he had concluded a season outside the top ten since 2001. Earlier this year, (back in March) he slipped as low as No. 34 in the world. Despite a sterling performance in Miami when he toppled Federer for only the third time in 24 career meetings, Roddick seemed largely devoid of conviction, a player often at odds with himself, a competitor who had essentially forgotten who he was or what he had once been.

But matters started changing last month at Eastbourne, right on the eve of Wimbledon. Roddick was the surprise victor at Eastbourne, extending his impressive streak to 12 years in a row of claiming at least one ATP World Tour singles title. He subsequently lost in the third round of Wimbledon to the unswerving David Ferrer, who rallied tenaciously from the brink of a two set deficit to oust the American in four sets. Over the last two sets of that encounter, Ferrer had an answer for everything that Roddick threw at him. The Spaniard passed Roddick at will, kept his shots consistently deeper in the backcourt rallies, and returned the renowned Roddick serve with growing effectiveness, and even vigor. Roddick surely was distressed to lose against Ferrer on grass. The way he bowed out in that contest was seemingly an affirmation of Roddick’s diminished influence as a player of the front rank.

And yet, there he was in Atlanta last week, competing with his trademark intensity, starting his Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series campaign in style. Roddick took the BB&T Atlanta Open deservedly, upending compatriot John Isner in the semifinals, holding back the dangerous left-hander Gilles Muller of Luxembourg in the final. That triumph lifted Roddick back up to No. 22 in the world. It will send him into the Olympic Games at Wimbledon with optimism and renewed self-belief. The feeling grows that Roddick may be headed toward a stretch of productivity that we haven’t seen from him in a very long while. He will turn 30 at the end of August, and he knows that he must make the most of the next 18 months.

Roddick’s victory over Isner was clearly the pivotal moment of the week, and it might well be the springboard toward a memorable summer for the American on the hard courts of his home country. Isner had been in an abysmal slump after a blazing start to 2012. The towering American had lost nearly all of his swagger during the clay court season, and then bowed out in the opening round of Wimbledon against the left-handed Columbian Alejandro Falla. That five set loss left Isner in an unmistakable state of despondency, and the big man was at a total loss to explain why he was performing so far beneath the level where he belongs.

Nevertheless, Isner built up his morale considerably the week before Atlanta on the grass courts in Newport, Rhode Island, defending his title there with impressive wins at the end over Ryan Harrison and Lleyton Hewitt.  His play in Atlanta was not of the same caliber, yet he came into his appointment with Roddick having won seven matches in a row. Here was the current American No. 1 facing the former U.S. and world No. 1 in an important assignment for both at their last pre-Olympics appearance. Isner is a man who relishes this kind of a test, and it often brings out the best in him. He had performed brilliantly during his victories earlier this year against Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup, and in his semifinal confrontation against Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells.

Surely Isner’s primary boosters looked for him to elevate his game significantly against Roddick. After all, this was not only an important semifinal duel, but also one of those bragging rights battles between two men who will join forces in doubles at the Olympics, as well as chasing the gold medal in singles. In the end, it was Roddick who stepped up to the occasion with more purposefulness and greater resolve. Across three hard sets, through a rain delay, over a demanding evening, in front of an appreciative audience, Roddick did not lose his serve, broke Isner twice, and displayed a tactical acuity his opponent could not match.

Roddick saved two break points when serving at 0-1 in the first set. Isner wasted a good opening off the forehand on the first one, sending a forehand down the line wide. Roddick wiped away the second with a fine approach shot that provoked a backhand passing shot error. Roddick was fortunate to hold in that game, missing seven of 12 first serves. With Isner serving after the rain delay at 3-4, 30-30, Roddick sliced a backhand crosscourt and kept it low, provoking an errant forehand from Isner. At break point down, Isner made a flagrant error off the forehand as he went inside-in. Serving for the set at 5-4,30-30, Roddick sliced a first serve into the body on Isner’s backhand side, and elicited an errant return. On set point, his biting second serve kicker bounded up high, drawing another error from an uncomfortable Isner. Set to Roddick, 6-4.

Both men served prodigiously all through the second. En route to a tie-break, Roddick swept 24 of 27 points in his six service games. Isner secured 24 of 30 points on his delivery. This was extraordinary stuff on both sides of the net. Roddick held at love three times and at 15 thrice. Isner had a pair of love games himself, including a sparkling four ace game at 4-4. Roddick’s career tie-break record was 299-180, but he had won only 8 of 13 in 2012. Isner, meanwhile, was 26-10 on the year, and 146-83 across his career. Something had to give.

Isner was the man who simply would not waver. He got the quick mini-break for 2-0 by forcing Roddick into a passing shot error. Isner confidently charged to 4-1. He went on to win the sequence 7-5 without losing a point on his serve. Serving at 6-5, Isner’s crackling first serve drew a short return from his adversary. Isner came forward and drove a forehand winner into the clear. At that juncture, he must have liked his chances to win this tennis match.

Roddick, however, was unrelenting. On his way to a 4-3 lead in the final set, he conceded only five points in four service games. He kept pounding away at Isner’s weaker backhand wing, selectively going out to the forehand just to keep Isner honest. With Isner serving in the eighth game, Roddick reached 15-40, but he saved the first break point with an ace and the second with more aggression on his second serve. Roddick garnered a third break point, only to have it erased emphatically by a 138 MPH thunderbolt setting up a forehand winner for Isner.

Yet Roddick swiftly earned a fourth break point opportunity. He made a good return off a big first serve, but to his chagrin Isner was called for a rare foot fault. Roddick was enraged after Isner’s second serve kicker caused him to miss a backhand return, throwing his racket in disgust. Isner served an ace and then closed out that game to reach 4-4. Roddick had every reason to be thoroughly frustrated, but he would not make a false move on serve. He held at 15 for 5-4, buoyed by some stupendous second serves at the end of that game.

Now Isner was serving to stay in the match.  He missed three out of four first serves in falling behind 15-40, producing a pair of errant forehands in a row. Isner’s 26th and last ace made it 30-40, but then Roddick played a low passing shot crosscourt off the backhand, and Isner could not make a backhand down the volley, sending that shot wide. Roddick had prevailed 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 in this battle of leading Americans. Although Roddick served only 7 aces (19 less than Isner), he surpassed Isner by winning 88% of his first serve points (Isner was at 80%). Roddick also won a respectable 59% of his second serve points while Isner stood at 52% in that category. After facing those two break points in his opening service game of the match, Roddick never faced another the rest of the way. That was impressive.

In the final, Roddick was clearly hampered by a problem with his shoulder, which was very apparent on his serve. Muller, meanwhile, was at his best, lacing forehands into wide open spaces, swinging his slice serve wide in the Ad court with immense accuracy, refusing to allow Roddick the luxury of any rhythm. Roddick served two double faults in the second game of the match and was broken; he wasted a 40-15 lead in the sixth game and was broken again. Muller took that set easily, 6-2.

Roddick was treated by the trainer at courtside after that opening set. He managed to hold his serve all through that set. With Muller serving at 5-6, Roddick moved to 0-40. But Muller eventually held on for 6-6, saving four set points in the process. Roddick knew full well that he had no margin for error left; either he would win the ensuing tie-break, or lose the match. It was as simple as that. With Muller serving at 0-1, the left-hander punched a forehand crosscourt volley long. Roddick had the mini-break and never really looked back. Roddick did not drop a point on serve. He won the tie-break 7-2.

The rest was a mere formality. Roddick sensed he could not lose. He came through 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 with the supreme assurance of a wily veteran who knows precisely how to win titles. This was his 32nd career tournament win, and Muller—a perennial threat against big name players—has never won an ATP World Tour event. Roddick was somewhat fortunate to fashion a victory after drifting close to defeat. But the fact remains that he competed with gusto, urging himself on with shouts of self-encouragement, willing himself inexorably toward victory, finding a way to win when he was well below his best.

If Roddick’s shoulder does not become a recurring problem, if he avoids other injuries, if he keeps playing the kind of tennis he has summoned over the past month, then he will make his presence known in a significant way over the course of the summer. He could topple one of the top seeds at the Olympics and make a good run on the grass at Wimbledon. He has the chance to end the hard court season on a high note with some strong performances leading up to the U.S. Open. And perhaps when he returns to the scene of his lone Grand Slam tournament triumph in New York at Arthur Ashe Stadium, we just might witness Andy Roddick celebrating his 30th birthday by serving his way into the semifinals. He has not been that far at a major since his loss to Federer at the All England Club three years ago. Roddick could be ready to make amends.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.