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Steve Flink - Roddick's Plight

6/26/2008 1:49:00 PM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON - I have been to my share of Andy Roddick press conferences over the years at the majors. He can sometimes be contentious when journalists ask him questions he deems inane. He can be highly amusing and even self deprecating, depending on the circumstances. He may not always be the ultimate diplomat, but he is unfailingly candid, making an earnest attempt to answer questions directly and unambiguously. Above all else, he is comfortable in his own skin. Either in victory or after defeat, in bad times and good, he seems to have a sense of perspective about himself and his place in the game.
All of this was apparent when Roddick spoke to the media after his jarring 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (4), second round loss to Janko Tipsarevic yesterday. In eight appearances at Wimbledon, this was Roddick's earliest departure from the event that matters more than any other. He conceded that he felt "pretty distraught", which was understandable. It had been an arduous day for the 25-year-old American. He played a solid opening set tie-break, made it to 5-5 in the second set, and seemed in decent shape.
But Roddick lost control of the match right then and there. He gave away his serve by missing consecutive forehand approach shots that he ordinarily would execute with ease. Tipsarevic seized the initiative in the third set, but Roddick obstinately made a stand in the fourth. Here, he let himself down considerably. Tipsarevic was serving at 4-5, 15-40, double set point down. Roddick bungled two relatively simple returns flagrantly and the Serbian somehow made it back to 5-5. At 5-6, Roddick reached set point again but Tipsarevic caught him off guard by playing serve-and-volley, and the American could not handle a difficult backhand return.

In the fourth set tie-break, Tipsarevic was the player more willing to take risks at appropriate moments, releasing two superb backhand down the line winners on his way to a well deserved 7-4 win in that sequence. Roddick knew he had blown that fourth set, and realized he had not broken Tipsarevic in the entire match, failing to exploit eight break point opportunities in the process. He was forthright in conceding that his nerves had cost him dearly on this occasion. "Any chance I got, he said, "I pretty much just choked it...I could sit here and dance around it all night, but I mean you guys watched it. It was what it was. It's like you want something so bad you almost squeeze too tight."

That was irrefutably the case in his downfall against Tipsarevic. Coming into the tournament, Roddick seemed to have the best chance of anybody outside the "Big Three" (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) of capturing the title. He had, after all, beaten all three of those players during the 2008 season. He had reached consecutive Wimbledon finals in 2004 and 2005, losing to Federer on both occasions. He surely felt good about his chances a few months ago after playing his way into impressive early season form.

But Roddick's preparation for Wimbledon was damaged by a shoulder injury he suffered in Rome, where he reached the semifinals. He had to pull out of Hamburg and missed the French Open. He played well at Queen's Club, but an injured Mardy Fish retired after the first set of a round of 16 meeting with Roddick, and Andy Murray had to default against him in the quarterfinals. So Roddick, who lost to Nadal in the semifinals, did not get quite as much out of Queen's as he might have wanted. A few more sets at that tournament would have toughened him up significantly.

To be sure, Roddick's preparation for this Wimbledon was disrupted. But the fact remains that it will be no facile matter for this man to reemerge on a major stage. He triumphed at the 2003 U.S. Open and finished that season deservedly at No. 1 in the world, ahead of the Wimbledon champion Federer. Roddick concluded 2004 at No. 2 in the world, slipped to No. 3 in 2005, and finished the last two years at No. 6. That is evidence of his enduring status as a front line player, but it is also proof that others have overtaken him.

Roddick took on the issue of his future with absolute honesty in his post-match press conference after his bruising defeat against Tipsarevic. He said, “By no means am I going to complain about anything I have been blessed with, but it's almost at the point where I win another Slam or what? It’s a tough thing to deal with. Either you win a Slam or what, you're disappointing? You kind of have to deal with that every day."

He elaborated when asked about perhaps putting too much pressure on himself to win a second Grand Slam title. Said Roddick, “I’m gonna have pressure on myself regardless. And it’s not from anybody, it’s from within. You know, I want to win another Slam. I could probably coast and not train and be a top 10 player and kind of have a cushy lifestyle and be set for as long as I need to be set for. I’m happy as I can be away from losing tennis matches. But I don’t know if that appeals to me. I don’t know if I’m satisfied with that...I want to win another Slam."
It won’t be easy, and he fully understands that. Roddick’s serve remains one of the primary weapons in the sport. He is a big, strong guy, a fine athlete, and a very industrious individual who works his rear end off. And he is a terrific competitor. His heart is immense, and his tenacity is extraordinary. In turn, he had expanded his game decidedly across the years. Although his volley - especially the forehand volley - will always be somewhat suspect, he is willing to come forward and he can attack surprisingly well in some contests.

And yet, Roddick is surpassed from the back court by too many adversaries. Tipsarevic sparred with him comfortably in all of the rallies, and was always the first to take a slight risk, changing the direction of the exchanges by going down the line off the backhand. That match was symbolic of many Roddick encounters in this respect: he will chase down balls relentlessly, give little away, and look for an opening to attack. But his ground game is not penetrating enough. His two-handed backhand is essentially flat but not piercing. And his forehand is nowhere near as explosive as it once was.

In my view, the single most important mistake Roddick has made in his career was parting ways with his former coach Brad Gilbert. Gilbert started working with Roddick in June of 2003. Roddick proceeded to win five of his next seven tournaments including the U.S. Open, and that was the year he finished No. 1 in the world. Gilbert coached Roddick through the end of 2004, and seemed to be helping his charge to make technical and tactical progress in that span.

Roddick had every right to cut ties with Gilbert. But I have always believed it was a wrong decision. He could have looked for a way to rebuild a different kind of relationship with Gilbert if he felt strained by their dealings. None of us can know for certain what Roddick’s record would look like today had he kept Gilbert in his camp. But the guess here is that he would have at least one more major in his collection, and perhaps two.

Be that as it may, I still think Roddick has an outside chance to break out of the "one Slam wonder" club which includes Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Chang, and Richard Krajicek. None of those players finished a year as the best in the world, or ever resided at the top. And it is worth remembering that Roddick has been a stalwart Davis Cup competitor who was the “main man” when the Americans won the Cup in 2007.

Roddick has elected to skip the Olympic Games this summer so he will inevitably be fresher than most of the other leading players when they come to New York for the U.S. Open. Moreover, the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will be hoping to peak at the Olympics and might not be as primed as usual for the summertime Masters Series events.

That could provide an opening for a productive hard court campaign. In 2006, when he hired Jimmy Connors as his coach, Roddick made it to the final of Indianapolis and won Cincinnati, setting the stage for a run to the final of the U.S. Open. In that span, Connors had him driving his two-hander down the line selectively and commandingly. Perhaps he can rediscover that spark and that play again in the coming months. In the final analysis, the odds may be against Andy Roddick winning another Grand Slam championship in his career, but I admire him immensely for saying unequivocally that nothing matters more to him.

Despite a habit of getting into unnecessary altercations with umpires - as was the case against Tipsarevic - Roddick is a consummate professional, and if he does manage to secure another major somewhere along the line, no one could say he did not deserve it.  

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