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Steve Flink: Roddick Recovers His Conviction

4/5/2010 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Whenever I think about Andy Roddick and what he has brought to the game he plays so passionately for a living, the words that spring to mind are industrious, enterprising, obstinate and unswerving. Ever since he captured his lone major title at the U.S. Open in 2003—finishing that season as the No. 1 ranked player in the world---- Roddick has lived under the harsh light of scrutiny, playing with the kind of burdens that only elite players experience, doing his job remarkably well ever since, finishing the past six years always among the top 8. In this span, he led the American team to a Davis Cup triumph in 2007, reached four major finals, won more than his share of tournaments. But because he set the bar very high seven years ago, he has had to live with the consequences of succeeding on that scale, which hasn’t always been easy.

Losing to Roger Federer in the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals, and again in the championship match at the 2006 U.S. Open, was difficult enough. But when Roddick fell painfully yet irrevocably short against Federer in the epic 2009 Wimbledon final--- squandering four set points for a two sets to love lead before gallantly bowing 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14--- it was as jarring a loss as he has ever suffered. Thereafter, through the summer of 2009 and on into the early stages of 2010, Roddick was beaten in one hard fought contest after another, including his 7-6, 7-6 setback against Ivan Ljubicic in the Indian Wells final a few weeks ago. It seemed as if Roddick was almost predisposed to bowing in big matches he could well have won. And it surely was awfully disconcerting for Roddick to fight so gamely on so many occasions, only to end up on the losing side of the equation over and over again.

That is why his latest tournament victory at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami must be considered one of the most important moments for Roddick in a long and distinguished career. Not since the summer of 2006 in Cincinnati had Roddick secured a Masters 1000 crown. This was ideal timing. He needed to win a tournament of this caliber to remind himself--- as well as his chief rivals--- that he belongs up there among the best in his profession. He had to make his move now, to get on the board again at a significant location, to set the stage for something even larger ahead. Roddick achieved all of that in Miami. If he wins Wimbledon this year—and right now I make him the second favorite behind Roger Federer for the world’s premier title----he will surely reflect on his Miami heroics as a primary reason why he was able to put a second Grand Slam championship trophy on his mantelpiece.

Roddick had his biggest personal match win in nearly a year when he toppled Rafael Nadal in Miami, coming from behind to clip the Spaniard in the penultimate round. By that time, defending champion Andy Murray, world No. 1 Federer, and 2009 Miami finalist Novak Djokovic were long gone. When Roddick stunned Nadal, he could not afford to let a win of that magnitude be diminished by a letdown in the final. The stakes were clear: he had to back up his triumph over Nadal by winning the tournament, which meant overcoming a determined No. 16 seed Tomas Berdych in the championship match. It was Berdych who had ousted Federer in the round of 16, Berdych who had gone on to beat Fernando Verdasco and Robin Soderling, Berdych who was playing the finest tennis of his career. Although Roddick owned a 5-2 career head-to-head edge over his 6’5” adversary (including two victories over Berdych in 2010), he could not afford to let his guard down in this final, not for an instant.

Roddick played a mature, sensible, strategically sound match to beat Berdych 7-5, 6-4. He concluded one of the great serving tournaments of his illustrious career in style. Roddick did not lose his serve against a formidable returner, and for the event he held his delivery 61 of 63 times in six matches across 13 concentrated sets. In his confrontation with Berdych, Roddick was thoroughly disciplined from start to finish. Not once did he even face a break point, but twice in the opening set he was down 0-30. Each time, he responded confidently. In the first instance, at 0-1, Roddick reached back and cracked some excellent first serves to bail himself out. From 0-30, he connected with consecutive 134 MPH thunderbolts to the backhand that stifled Berdych. At 30-30, he released another crackling delivery at 136 MPH that Berdych could not handle, and Roddick quickly closed out that game on a run of four straight points.

At 2-3, 0-30, Roddick was similarly impressive. He swung a slice serve wide at 117 MPH for an ace, and then followed with two stupendous, heavy kick second serves that bounded remarkably high and left Berdych unable to respond. He tenaciously held on for 3-3, escaping another potential pitfall. With Berdych serving at 5-5, Roddick got the one break he needed. Berdych double faulted to fall behind break point for the second time in that crucial game, and then Roddick ran around his backhand and drilled a penetrating topspin forehand to the forehand side of his adversary. On the run, Berdych missed. Roddick served out the set in the following game, serving two aces down the T in the deuce court in a commanding love game.

At the outset of the second set, an opportunistic Roddick pounced. Berdych made only one of six first serves in the opening game, and the 27-year-old American took full advantage. On break point, he rolled a forehand with heavy top crosscourt and Berdych was compromised by the high ball, driving a crosscourt forehand long. Roddick was giving little away while still dictating his share of points. At this stage, he had made only nine unforced errors compared to 22 by his opponent. From deuce in the second game, he reached 2-0 with a pair of aces. There was no stopping him now. In his last four service games, Roddick conceded only four points, closing out the match at 5-4 at the cost of only one point on his serve. Although Berdych fought off two match points in the previous game on his own serve, all he was doing was saving face; both players knew Roddick was going to win.

And yet, how many observers anticipated Roddick’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Nadal? I daresay there were not many who believed Roddick would prevail against the Spaniard. Nadal had played an inspired match under the lights to dismantle Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-2 in the quarterfinals, and the view from here was that he was primed to win his first tournament since the 2009 Italian Open. Nadal was 5-2 against Roddick. In their two most recent hard court meetings in the U.S., Nadal had outplayed Roddick convincingly in straight sets at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2009. Nadal had kept Roddick off balance through those encounters with the severity of his topspin forehand, making the American keep scrambling in rally after rally.

This match in Miami seemed destined to follow the same script. Nadal made one break count in the opening set, and looked on his way to a straight set victory. Roddick could not contain Nadal off the forehand, and Nadal was playing the match largely on his own terms. But then, with Nadal serving at 3-4 in the second set, Roddick suddenly cast aside his earlier caution and went for broke. It was reminiscent in some ways of how he played in the third and fourth sets against Marin Cilic at the Australian Open back in January, when Roddick nearly pulled off a stunning comeback before losing that quarterfinal in five sets.

Nadal never quite knew what had hit him as he served that pivotal eighth game of the second set. He had not lost his serve up until then, and he had felt essentially in control of his own destiny. Roddick got to 0-15 by ripping a forehand inside-in, provoking a running backhand mistake from Nadal. On the following point, Nadal went for one of his patented inside-out forehands, but Roddick answered with a screamer, drilling a flat forehand down the line for a clean winner. It was 0-30, and Roddick was buoyed by his willingness to not only take risks, but be rewarded for his bold play. At 0-30, he went for it again, walloping another flat forehand down the line to elicit an error from a flabbergasted Nadal. At triple break point, Roddick seized control of yet another point with an inside-out forehand winner. He had broken at love, surprising even himself with the soundness of his execution on those high risk maneuvers.

Roddick connected with four consecutive first serves in the following game to hold at love and reach one set all. Nadal started the final set with grim determination, holding at love, reaching break point with Roddick serving in the second game. Roddick was calm and resolute. He went down the T in the Ad court with a strategic first serve, and the Spaniard’s sliced backhand return floated wide. Roddick held on for 1-1, and went right back to work in the next game. He advanced to 0-30 on Nadal’s serve with another scorching inside-out forehand winner. With Nadal serving at 30-40, the American was the beneficiary of a surprising gift from the now apprehensive Spaniard. Roddick made a solid return of serve but Nadal netted a forehand under very little pressure. Roddick was up a break.

Inevitably, Nadal made a stand, but it was to no avail. With Roddick serving at 4-3, Nadal pushed the American to two deuces. But the six time Grand Slam tournament champion was in disarray. On the first of those deuces, Roddick--- who sensed correctly that Nadal was tight--- served-and-volleyed, pulling Nadal wide to the backhand to open up the court for a backhand volley winner. On the second, Nadal advertised his anxiety, feebly netting a sliced backhand. Roddick held on for 5-3. Nadal then collapsed in the next game. At 30-15, he netted a routine two-hander crosscourt. Roddick then caught him off guard with a backhand pass down the line. Now down 3-5, 30-40, match point, Nadal was guilty of a forehand unforced error, allowing Roddick the luxury of not having to serve for the match.

To be sure, Roddick was terrific once he played that brilliant game to break for 5-3 in the second set. He stayed on the attack. All in all, he served-and-volleyed 14 times and won 10 of those points. Even more importantly, he kept flattening out the forehand whenever possible, a tactic he needs to employ against all of his top ten opposition if he wants to fulfill his mission and win another major. It was his best win since he toppled Andy Murray on the Centre Court in the semifinals last July. This uninhibited Roddick was a joy to watch. But Nadal was his own worst enemy that afternoon. At one changeover, he was banging his leg with a towel in an astounding display of angst. Was that his way of telling his camp that his knee was bothering him again?

In the middle of the final set, he sent an inside-out forehand ten feet over the baseline, and that was no accident; he was so frustrated and infuriated with himself that he had no intention of winning that point. Nadal will inevitably settle down on the clay in the weeks ahead and restore his faith in himself, but he needs to start closing out big matches the way he once did. This was the third time this year he has lost a contest after winning the opening set; a few years ago, that hardly ever happened to him. Nadal was once an invincible front runner, and he needs to reacquire that habit.

And what of Federer? For the second tournament in a row, he had a match point before losing a hard fought battle. In Indian Wells, he had three match points against Marcos Baghdatis before falling in a final set tie-break. On that occasion, all of the match points were on his opponent’s serve---- two in the second set, one more late in the third. This time around, Federer suffered his first loss to Berdych since the 2004 Olympic Games. He had beaten his rival eight times in a row since then, but, then again, he had never faced a more determined or focused Berdych than this one.

Federer was up 3-1 in the opening set, playing well, looking composed. But then he lost five of the next six games as Berdych exploited his superior pace and depth from the backcourt to assert his authority. In the second set, the level of play was raised on both sides of the net. Berdych survived one tough service game after another. Federer settled down and started to find his range off the forehand, which deserted him considerably at the end of the opening set. They went into a tie-break, and Federer took it. By that stage, he had started working Berdych inordinately hard. Federer was measuring his forehand much better, rolling it with more spin and precision, serving with greater consistency.

Berdych had seemingly lost his chance, yet he reestablished himself quickly and broke for a 2-1 final set lead. Berdych served at 4-3, needing only two more holds to get the win. He tightened up, Federer kept the pressure on, and Berdych double faulted at break point down. Federer moved to 5-4, and had 0-30 on Berdych’s serve in the tenth game. The world No. 1 was only two points from the triumph. But he steered a forehand down the line return long, then tried to come in from too deep a position and netted a forehand. It was 30-30. Federer had an opening off the backhand but chipped his approach into the net. Berdych held on, but soon found himself in a similar predicament at 5-6, 15-30. Federer then played his sliced backhand crosscourt too fine, and netted the shot.

And so it all came down to a final set tie-break. At 4-4, Berdych followed his excellent backhand return in and rushed Federer into a passing shot error. Berdych was serving at 5-4 with a chance to close out the match, but Federer caught him in his tracks with an exquisite short angled backhand chip that opened up the court for a forehand half-volley winner. Berdych then missed a forehand down the line by a whisker. Federer thus served at 6-5, with a match point at his disposal. He missed his first serve, and Berdych laced a forehand return inside out to the backhand. Federer rolled that one back short, and Berdych drove a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner. It was 6-6.

They changed ends of the court, and Federer missed his first serve again. Berdych took that point with a penetrating inside-out forehand that Federer could not control off the backhand. Now leading 7-6 with a match point of his own, Berdych played it smart, and Federer drove a crosscourt forehand long. Berdych had won deservedly 6-4, 6-7(3), 7-6 (6). To his credit, he did not rest on his laurels, rallying to beat Verdasco in three sets, then defeating Soderling by the barely credible scores of 6-2, 6-2. From 2-2 in the first set, Berdych swept 16 of 17 points and four games in a row; from 2-2 in the second, he won 16 of 21 points. Soderling was self destructive on the day, injuring himself with clusters of unforced errors. The fact remains that Berdych was excellent in every facet of his game. Perhaps, at long last, he will do himself justice and return to the top ten in the world.

Meanwhile, Djokovic suffered an inexplicable three set loss to Olivier Rochus of Belgium 6-2, 6-7 (7), 6-4 in the second round, losing his serve three times in the final set. On the heels of a round of 16 defeat against Ivan Ljubicic at Indian Wells, this was not the way the enigmatic Serbian wanted to approach the clay court season. In my view, his fundamental problem--- beyond his fragile mindset--- revolves around his altered service motion. He was a much better server before he virtually eliminated the back scratch from his delivery. It looks awkward and discombobulated now and his efficiency has been severely diminished in too many matches. A year ago, he was superb on the clay, reaching the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome before losing to Nadal, winning a tournament in his home country, losing an epic three set marathon against Nadal in the semifinals of Madrid. He will be hard pressed to repeat those results this year.

As for Murray, he faced Mardy Fish in the second round, and was coasting along at 3-1, 40-0 in the first set. Bue he virtually threw that game away with a string of forehand unforced errors and a pair of costly double faults. Fish picked up his level decidedly and came away with a 6-4, 6-4 victory. He played outstanding, aggressive, largely unerring hard court tennis. But Murray was dismal. He lost his way completely, served poorly, did not defend with his usual effectiveness. He has still not recovered from the immense disappointment of losing the Australian Open final to Federer. He surely thought his time had come at a major, and that loss has had residual negative effects.

While the men kept us intrigued from the beginning to the very end of Miami, the women had a good tournament as well. No match was more gripping, confounding, dramatic, or exhilarating as the semifinal duel between the Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. These two stalwart performers played a higher quality match in the final of Brisbane back in January, but this one was every bit as suspenseful and enjoyable to watch. Clijsters was in utter control as she built a 6-2, 3-0 lead. She had a break point for 4-0 that could well have sealed the deal for her, but made a careless mistake.

Henin--- who had played for the better part of three hours before subduing Caroline Wozniacki in three debilitating sets—stopped missing so much from the baseline and gradually gained confidence. Clijsters went into one of her periodic funks, spraying routine forehands long, giving points away needlessly, shooting herself in the foot. Henin struck back tenaciously to take the set in a tie-break, and then moved out in front 2-0 in the third.

Now the real fun started. Clijsters recouped, resuming her command from the baseline, making Henin play entirely too much defense. Clijsters took four games in a row and then had a break point for 5-2, but it was time for Henin to retaliate. She made it back to 4-4, only to lose her serve, which allowed Clijsters to serve for the match. Henin played perhaps her finest return game of the match, broke back and went ahead 6-5 on serve. With Clijsters serving in the twelfth game, Henin twice got within two points of victory.

Clijsters had a 40-0 lead in that game, lost the next two points, then released her sixth double fault of the set, and her tenth of the match. But after that terrible mishap, serving in the dangerous territory of 5-6, deuce, she pulled out an amazing low backhand volley down the line to provoke a passing shot error from Henin. At deuce for the second time, she swung Henin wide in the deuce court with a well placed sliced serve, and drove a backhand crosscourt into the clear. A gutsy Clijsters and an equally determined Henin proceeded to the tie-break, with Henin grabbing a quick 2-0 lead. Clijsters served to Henin’s forehand, and Henin drilled the forehand return down the line. All Kim could do was put up a desperate lob. Henin went for the overhead on the bounce, but missed badly.

That swung the momentum back to Clijsters, who surged from 2-3 to 6-3, triple match point. She pulled a two-hander wide, was off the mark on a forehand down the line, and then netted an inside-out forehand. Henin was back to 6-6. Clijsters came up to net, made a tough volley, but was at Henin’s mercy. Henin rolled a backhand pass crosscourt, and Clijsters lunged for it. Somehow, she made a spectacular backhand drop volley to go ahead 7-6, and then she wrapped up the match with a forehand inside-out winner. Match to Clijsters 6-2, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6).  As was the case in Brisbane, Henin had battled with all of her temerity, making comeback after comeback, only to fall short in the end.

Clijsters then clipped an injured Venus Williams 6-2, 6-1. Venus had both legs wrapped. She gave it all she had, but she could not compete with a top of the line Clijsters in that condition. Under any circumstance, she was going to be hard pressed to win. If this had not been a final, I strongly suspect Williams would have defaulted. She clearly felt an obligation to the tournament to go out and play the final, but she was nowhere near the top of her game.

So there you have it. Clijsters took the title and has now returned to the top ten in the world. Henin continued to close in on her best form, and will now shift to the clay court campaign. She had won four of the previous five French Opens before her retirement in 2008, but her game was different back then. Now she is always looking for a chance to win points quickly and to attack. Her forehand backswing is shorter than ever, and that style suits her well for hard courts. Can she make it work on clay? I doubt that, and hope she will readjust and play with her old patience while still being aggressive. I suspect she will figure that out.

Meanwhile, Djokovic and Murray will have their work cut out for them on the clay. Nadal, as long as he is healthy, will reacquaint himself with winning tournaments in a hurry, as soon as he starts out on the clay in Monte Carlo. As for Federer, he did not make it even to the quarterfinals of either Indian Wells or Miami, but judge him not by that. A year ago, he was having a distressing year and had not won any tournaments until he got to Madrid. He won there, then captured the French Open. He will find it difficult replicating those results in 2010, but at the majors he is always ready for something substantial. And concerning Andy Roddick, know this: Miami was a reawakening for him. It doesn’t matter how well he plays on the clay; once he reemerges on the grass, he will be awfully tough to beat at Wimbledon. The feeling grows that he just might win the biggest tournament of them all this year. After all, he has recaptured his conviction, and that is no small thing. 

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