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Steve Flink: Roddick's Next Big Test

9/4/2007 3:01:00 AM

By Steve Flink

When Andy Roddick steps out on Arthur Ashe Stadium Wednesday night to face his old rival Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, he will be playing one of the single most important matches of his life. Roddick is by no means an old man at 25, and he will undoubtedly celebrate many more impressive triumphs in the next couple of years. He is one ferocious competitor, a thorough professional, a man who demands the most of himself and competes with a vigor, tenacity, and temerity few players in today's game of tennis can match. I don't doubt for an instant that he will be around the upper echelons of the game for quite a while.

But let's look at some fundamental facts. Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003, coming from match point down in the semifinals against David Nalbandian, crushing Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final. That was the key to Roddick finishing that season as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. He was literally and figuratively on top of the world. Even then, everyone who followed the game closely knew that Federer was going to overtake Roddick as the best player in the world. He won his first Wimbledon that year but simply wasn't ready to perform week in and week out the way he would in the ensuing years. Be that as it may, Roddick had established himself as a central figure in his sport, as a man who would seemingly win his share of majors across the years. At 21, he had that swagger, that sense of knowing who he was and what he could accomplish, that inner conviction and belief known only to champions.

The following year, in 2004, Roddick finished as the second best player in the world behind Federer. He reached his first Wimbledon final, losing to Federer, but he did not play as confidently as he had the year before. In 2005, Roddick was runner-up to Federer again at Wimbledon but slipped to third in the world, losing in the opening round of the U.S. Open. That was surely a disappointing campaign. And it was apparent in 2006 that Roddick was still struggling to regain his winning ways. At one stage he slipped out of the top ten in the world. Roddick had clearly arrived at a crossroads, and he knew it.

Roddick, who had been coached by Brad Gilbert from the middle of 2003 until the end of 2004, realized after working with Dean Goldfine for a time that he needed another coach with a different point of view. He turned to Jimmy Connors, and it was apparent from the outset of their partnership in the summer of 2006 that they had an excellent professional chemistry. Roddick snapped out of a long slump to reach the final of Indianapolis, win Cincinnati, and reach the final of the U.S. Open. In the title match at the Open, he played one of his better matches against Federer, giving an honorable account of himself before losing in four sets.

After that loss, Connors told the media that there were now three men in the mix at the top of the men's game: Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Roddick. There was a growing feeling among fans and close observers of the sport that Roddick might well get back into the thick of things in 2007. No one was suggesting that Roddick would be able to threaten the status of either Federer or Nadal as the two best players on the planet, but it seemed entirely possible that he might give himself a chance to finally win another major. And he would conceivably have three chances to make his mark at a Grand Slam event this year: in Melbourne, Wimbledon, or New York.

Roddick played well at the Australian Open on his way to the penultimate round of the season's first major, but then Federer absolutely destroyed him in the semifinals. The world No. 1 had nearly lost to Roddick in their previous appointment as the American had three match points before bowing in a round robin match at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. Coming that close to defeating Federer in China after making a good showing in the Open final gave Roddick encouragement that he might topple the Swiss in Australia. So that setback must have been jarring. He was beaten comprehensively. And it was as if Federer sensed that Roddick was closing the gap and wanted to send a message to his rival by winning with such ease.

In any event, Roddick moved on from that setback. He came into Wimbledon having won at Queen's Club, poised to make a great run on the grass at the All England Club. Roddick made it to the quarterfinals and built a commanding lead over Richard Gasquet. He led two sets to love and was up a break, serving at 4-3 in the third. And somehow, he lost in five sets. That was a crushing defeat. In all my years of attending Roddick press conferences, I have never heard him sound so forlorn after a big loss. Never.

Now, here he is in New York, and Roddick is back in the quarterfinals. He will walk on court against the mighty Federer with a 1-13 head-to-head record. His only win was back in 2003 at Montreal. That was a long time ago. Federer has been victorious the last nine times he has confronted the American. Roddick has not played Federer since the Australian Open in January of this year. But maybe, just maybe, coming up against the world No. 1 in the quarterfinals under the lights will be the best possible circumstances for Roddick to display his best stuff. He surely has a better chance to prevail against Federer in a quarterfinal than in a championship match, and if the New York fans sense the possibility of an upset and get behind Roddick with fervor, perhaps he will respond and play the match of his life. That is what he will be required to do if he wants to stop Federer. And even that might not be good enough.

But this is a crucial moment in the life of Andy Roddick. He does not want a full four years to pass without winning his second career major title. That would be ego bruising to say the least. To be sure, some top players have waited even longer between major titles. Marat Safin, for example, won the 2000 U.S. Open and did not collect another major until 2005. So it can be done. But Roddick knows he has to strike gold as soon as possible, and demonstrate that he can win again when the stakes are highest. On top of that, he has to show once and for all that he can beat Roger Federer on a big occasion and then go on to win two more matches for the title. I am not saying this will be his last chance ever to win a major championship. He might well create other opportunities next year or the year after.

Nonetheless, the essential time for Roddick is right now. I don't really like his chances against Federer in this tournament much at all, and nearly everyone I know believes Federer will probably go out and produce another masterpiece, but I hope Roddick shows us all something we have never seen from him before. That would not only be good for Andy Roddick, but it would be a boost for the game of tennis.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the

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