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Steve Flink: Roddick's Heat Check

1/23/2009 3:34:00 PM

by Steve Flink

He is much trimmer than he has been in a long time, and probably more fit than he has ever been before. He is determined to demonstrate to the world and prove to himself that he is much more than a "one Slam wonder", that he can succeed again on one of the premier stages, that he has the character and the gumption to survive a fortnight of rigorous competition against the best players in the game at one of the four major events. Ever since he captured his one and only Grand Slam tournament championship at the 2003 U.S. Open, Andy Roddick has wanted nothing more than to win more majors, and he has dedicated himself fully to that demanding task over and over again.

For Roddick, the journey has been debilitating at times. After that victory in New York more than five years ago, he has been in the running a bunch of times at the events of consequence, but has always come up short. He was runner-up at Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005, a finalist at the U.S. Open in 2006, and a semifinalist at the 2007 Australian Open. On each and every one of those occasions, one man was waiting for Roddick. His name is Roger Federer. The Swiss maestro simply was not found wanting when the chips were down against his formidable American adversary. Federer's shot making wizardry and unwavering composure was too much for Roddick in all of those critical meetings.

But now Roddick gets another chance against the gifted man who had thwarted him so frequently across their careers. He will meet Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and the stakes could not be much greater. Federer holds a commanding 15-2 career head-to-head lead over Roddick, and he has never been beaten by his rival in six contests at the Grand Slam events. But at least Roddick can console himself with the irrefutable fact that he broke an eleven match losing streak against Federer the last time they clashed, toppling his old nemesis in a first rate performance at Miami on the hard courts in the spring of 2008 by scores of 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3.

That is the good news for Roddick. The bad news is that Federer exploded into spectacular form in his quarterfinal against Juan Martin Del Potro, crushing the 20-year-old Argentine 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 with a signature performance under the lights. Federer had been in a terrible bind during his round of 16 encounter against No. 20 seed Tomas Berdych. He was very fortunate to survive from two sets to love down against the overwhelming pace and precision of Berdych.

Berdych wasted a golden opportunity. No one had let Federer off the hook after winning the first two sets against this inimitable Swiss stylist at a Grand Slam event since 2001. Berdych underlined his lack of inner conviction by squandering five game points at 3-3 in the third set against a disheveled Federer, missing a cluster of routine volleys, looking like an overanxious club player in the process. At break point down in that pivotal game, Berdych completely bungled an overhead into the net from inside the service line. He was basically saying to Federer, "I don't think I really have what it takes to beat you. " In essence, Federer replied, "Thank you so much."

A poised but unimpressive Federer--- who was spraying his forehand wildly out of court for a long while in that match, and having his second serve treated like a marshmallow by the ultra aggressive Berdych--- finally came through with a five set win, surviving largely on his opponent's increasing ineptitude . Almost inexplicably, Berdych, a man with nothing to lose, was afraid to win. He had beaten Federer at the 2004 Olympic Games but had lost seven times in a row against his Swiss rival coming into their latest showdown. But for those wondering how Federer would respond after that alarming five set skirmish, the answer was quite clear.

Against Del Potro, he was a different player altogether, timing his ground strokes beautifully, driving his topspin backhand freely with good depth, finding his range to near perfection off the forehand, serving with excellent disguise and consistency.

Federer captured the last 13 games against a disconsolate Del Potro in a resounding 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 triumph to reach his 19th consecutive semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament. He played an excellent first set and then was almost out of this world in the second set, displaying touch on the half volley and drop shot that were nothing short of breathtaking. This was virtuoso stuff, and I don't think I have ever seen him perform at a higher or more majestic level. He then closed out the match by sweeping 24 of 30 points in the third set with sustained brilliance.

Del Potro, however, did not acquit himself well. The No. 8 seed did not look anything like a top ten player, and he seemed lost in a deep sea of self pity as Federer took him apart. He felt awfully sorry for himself, but understandably Federer was not sympathetic. From Del Potro's side of the net, it was an embarrassingly dismal showing.

Roddick earned his place in the semifinals with one of his most important victories in years. He knocked out the defending champion Novak Djokovic 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-2, 2-1, ret. With the courtside thermometer recording temperatures up to 142 degrees, the emotionally and physically fragile Djokovic could not deal with the stifling conditions. It was apparent early in the second set that Djokovic was sagging badly. What a pity that was, because the first set of this quarterfinal was thoroughly absorbing. Both players held serve confidently into the tie-break. In his six service games, Roddick lost only seven points; Djokovic conceded only eight points on his delivery.

In the tie-break, Djokovic was magnificent, taking command of the first four points with crackling forehand winners, keeping Roddick at bay throughout that sequence. In that opening set, Djokovic was decidedly superior from the backcourt, releasing flatter and much more penetrating shots off the forehand, getting better pace and depth off his two-hander. But then the heat exhaustion set in. Roddick broke Djokovic for a 4-3 second set lead, and never really looked back. He closed out that set, winning 20 of 22 points on serve.

There was a flicker of hope for Djokovic early in the third. He lost his serve in the opening game but broke Roddick right back for 1-1. That would be the only time Djokovic would break Roddick in the match. Increasingly, Roddick imposed himself, and as Djokovic lost considerable velocity on serve and off the ground and stopped covering the court with his usual speed, Roddick went out of his way to demonstrate his own freshness. In the end, he came away with a victory he deserved, and his first triumph over a player ranked in the world's top five since he stopped Juan Carlos Ferrero at the 2003 U.S. Open. As for Djokovic, the hard questions remain: how could he physically fold so badly after little more than one set? How could he not be more fit and resolute?

Larry Stefanki---- Roddick's new coach and one of the masterminds of the business--- asked Roddick to lose a significant amount of weight when they first started working together late last year. Some say Roddick has lost 15 pounds while others believe he has lost only 10, but it doesn't matter. The bottom line is that at 26 he is moving better than ever, and the weight reduction has taken nothing away from the potency of his phenomenal serve. And make no mistake about it: Roddick's first and second serves will ultimately determine how well he fares in his collision with Federer. He was broken only once in his three set triumph over Federer in the quarterfinals at Miami last year, and Roddick managed to overcome Federer in a first set tie-break that led to his eventual win.

That was no small thing at all. Prior to the duel in Miami, Federer had won 10 of 11 career tie-breaks against Roddick. It was in a final set tie-break at Montreal in the summer of 2003 that Roddick had toppled Federer. Both of his victories over his towering adversary were settled largely in tie-breaks. The only way Roddick can win this next confrontation is to prevail in at least one and possibly two tie-breaks. He is not going to break Federer often, but Federer should have big problems breaking Roddick as well.

Federer is going to dictate a large majority of the rallies against Roddick, but the American must be more willing than he was against Djokovic to throw caution to the winds and take his fair share of chances. He has to go for flat forehands with abandon as he once did, and not worry about making unforced errors here and there. The goal must be to unsettle Federer and pepper the backhand side of his athletic adversary. But Roddick will need to exploit the backhand down the line whenever possible as well because Federer will so often be stationed on the other side of the court, waiting to drill explosive inside-out forehands.

If Federer is in the same almost unconscious state of mind he found in his rout of Del Potro, Roddick could be in serious trouble. But it is up to the American to fight with considerably more intensity and to fight more purposefully than Del Potro ever did. It is imperative for Roddick to compete relentlessly and opportunistically. Roddick imploded the last time he took on Federer at the Australian Open, bowing 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 in the penultimate round of the 2007 event. Not only was he dissected by a top of the line Federer on that occasion, but Roddick exacerbated matters by losing his cool.

I believe Roddick will not allow a debacle like that to happen this time around. At the very least, he will make it competitive. But he realizes that, from his standpoint, anything less than a victory--- or perhaps a gallant five set loss with both players sparkling--- is simply not good enough. This is a crucial moment in the life of Andy Roddick.

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