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Steve Flink: Roddick leaves too soon

6/28/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Wimbledon---He had lost ever so gallantly a year ago to Roger Federer in the championship match, bowing 16-14 in the fifth set of an epic confrontation, winning many new admirers with his old fashioned worth ethic and his fierce determination, making even Federer fans sympathetic to his plight and saddened by the verdict. He had lost two previous final round duels with Federer as well on the lawns of the All England Club. He had always competed here with an earnest simplicity, a steadfastness of conviction in pursuit of his goals, and an unmistakable sense of who he is and what he wants to get out of his game. And so as he moved through his tenth appearance at the world’s premier tennis tournament, as he chased his largest dream with a realistic understanding of what he was up against, Andy Roddick had a growing legion of boosters who wanted nothing more than for this highly professional American to flourish this time around and come away with a second career major title.

That was not to be. Roddick was stunned today by none other than Yen-Hsun Lu, the world No. 82 who hails from Taipei. Frankly, this was a match that Roddick had no business losing. In three previous meetings with his spirited 26-year-old opponent, Roddick had never conceded a set, including two victories over Lu in 2010 at Memphis indoors and outdoors at Indian Wells in the Masters 1000 event on hard courts. Roddick knew what to expect, came in prepared and seemingly sharp after a four set victory in the previous round over the capable Philipp Kohlschreiber, and should have been rounding into top form as he approached this round of 16 contest. This was, after all, the beginning of the second week, the time when the leading players set themselves apart from the other competitors, and an opportunity to move on to the quarterfinals.

Roddick simply did not do himself justice, and his 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5) 9-7 defeat will surely set him back for some time to come. His defeat was preventable, but Roddick lost his chance to gain control of the match in the second and third set tie-breaks. Roddick came into this match with a 273-155 career record in tie-breaks, and he was 17-6 for 2010. That is the situation where he usually stamps his authority and displays his class, but not so today. Roddick had broken at the end of the opening set, and he is frequently a front runner of a high order. He knows how to build on a lead, to use that cushion to raise his game to a higher level, to relax and start hitting out more confidently and go for his returns. Roddick, however, never found that confidence in this match, and it cost him dearly.

Both players held all through the second set, although Roddick squandered three break points opportunities. Nevertheless, he could have demoralized Lu had he played his customary brand of tennis in the second set tie-break. But Roddick lost that sequence 7-3, returning poorly, failing to produce his best first serves throughout that tie-break. Worst of all, still in with a chance when he served at 2-5, he double faulted, and that he could not survive. On they went to a third set, and Roddick remained tentative and far too defensive, allowing Lu to dictate too many points and refusing to alter his own tactics.

At 5-6 in the third, Roddick was down 0-30 on his serve but he played four clutch points in a row to hold on, and then took a 4-2 lead in the tie-break. Here was his chance to restore order, to move back out in front, to show Lu precisely who was the boss. But Roddick never won another point in the tie-break. He made a decent approach at 4-2 to the Lu backhand, read the down the line passing shot, but missed a low forehand drop volley. Serving at 3-4, Lu aced Roddick for 4-4, and then the 27-year-old American lost control of a sliced backhand badly. His shot floated well over the baseline. Serving at 4-5, Roddick went for a relatively big second serve down the T, and double faulted into the net. Why did he trade in his reliable heavy kick second serve to the backhand for the flatter one down the middle at so vital a stage?

That surprising lapse in judgment and execution was quite costly. At 4-6, forced to run wide for a forehand, Roddick missed off that side. Just like that, he had lost five points in a row, and inexplicably he trailed two sets to one against a player ranked No. 82 in the world who headed into this battle with a 9-18 career match record in Grand Slam events. Roddick had come apart at the seams in two straight tie-breaks, delivering backbreaking double faults in both, failing to exploit his experience as a big match player in either instance. Now behind two sets to one, Roddick fought diligently to find his game in the fourth set. At 2-2, he faced his first break point of the match, but he bailed himself out brilliantly with a backhand half volley off an angled backhand pass. Lu had no answer to that remarkable shot. Roddick held on, closing out that game with a pair of aces.

With Lu serving at 2-3, Roddick had a break point, but Lu aced him down the T, and he made it back safely to 3-3. Both men obstinately held their serves to set up a third consecutive tie-break, but this time Roddick came through despite falling behind 0-3. From that dangerous juncture, he served an ace for 1-3. On the next point, he threw in a somewhat desperate forehand drop shot down the line that forced Lu to come forward, and then lobbed over his adversary, forcing Lu to scamper back and make an error. Roddick rallied to 3-3. At 4-4 on his serve, he aced Lu down the T. After Lu got back to 5-5, the 26-year-old tightened up considerably, perhaps too conscious that he was two points away from the biggest victory of his career. Lu steered a forehand into the net to give Roddick a set point, and Roddick followed with a thundering ace out wide. It was two sets all, and it seemed as if Roddick might at last take charge of the proceedings.

But Roddick had to serve from behind in the fifth set, and on a day when his returns were letting him down flagrantly, that was a distinct disadvantage for the American. Nonetheless, Roddick had a huge opening with Lu serving at 2-2, 15-40. Here was the American at double break point, and he made nothing of the opportunity. Lu put away an inside-out overhead to save the first break point, and Roddick bungled a backhand return on the second. Lu held his nerve, and reached 3-2 with an ace. At 4-4, Roddick created another chance to put this match into his victory column. In this four deuce game, he got to break point once, but did not hit his return with much authority at all. Lu found a way to approach the net on his terms, Roddick kept his passing shot low, but Lu made a terrific low backhand volley down the line that made it impossible for Roddick to pass him with the running forehand.

That was Roddick’s last real chance to prevail. In his next three service games, Lu dropped only two points. The pressure mounted. Roddick realized he was in a terrible bind. At 7-8, Roddick made three unforced errors off the forehand. At 30-40, match point down, he approached down the line off the forehand but Lu hit a fine low passing shot. Roddick tried a backhand drop volley down the line but he was set up for failure. Lu swiftly chased that ball down, rolled a forehand passing shot down the line into a wide open space, and gave himself a totally improbable five set victory over the No. 5 seed out on Court 2.

To be sure, Lu played some excellent tennis. He moved much better than Roddick, kept his flat strokes off both sides low, controlled the rallies with his depth and precision, and served surprisingly well. Moreover, Lu did not crack. He stuck assiduously to his task, played the percentages well, and carved out a hard fought and well deserved win. Remarkably, Lu did not even have a break point across the first three sets. He earned only one in the fourth. And then he created only one break point opportunity for himself in the fifth, but he made it count. That was on match point, with the chips on the line, with Roddick trying to impose himself by advancing to the net. Lu gave this battle his all, never wavered, always seemed to believe in himself.

As for Roddick, he was clearly distressed about the level of his game. As he said in his press conference, “Through three sets I was playing horrendously, I mean really, really badly. I mean, to the point where I was trying to think of how to put balls in the court. Actually, I think the fifth set was probably the best set I played as far as hitting the ball… But when you dig a hole, it’s tough to get out, when you’ve given someone confidence, when they have their feet under them a little bit more.”

As usual, Roddick assessed what happened to him on the court exceedingly well. He knew why he lost. He understood what went wrong. And he was entirely candid about it. “I didn’t get broken for five sets [until the last game]. It wasn’t my serve. It wasn’t my service games. It was my returning. That was crap. It was really bad.”

He is right on target with those comments. Lu did play some impressive tennis from the back of the court. He was getting more pace and better depth than Roddick. He was setting the tempo. He was giving very little away, and making Roddick cover an awful lot of court. But Roddick’s unwillingness to go for more penetrating shots during the rallies was something that hurt him deeply, and the American’s refusal to take more chances by flattening out his forehand and hitting more backhands down the line was inexplicable. His returns were dismal. He refused to go after the second serve returns the way he needed to. He played not to lose instead of pursuing victory with boldness.

So Roddick leaves Wimbledon too soon, departs from another major without taking the title. He has played 26 Grand Slam events since securing the lone major of his career at the 2003 U.S. Open, and has not managed to garner another “Big Four” crown. He was fully capable of winning this tournament, of capturing the event he should have taken a year ago. But it did not happen for Roddick. He will turn 28 at the end of August, and his days of contending for majors are not over. He just might find a way to seal one more Grand Slam title across the next couple of years, although his task may become increasingly difficult. I hope he does win another Grand Slam title, because Andy Roddick is a champion who has not yet rewarded himself with as much as he deserves from a game he has played with unbridled passion and an excellent work ethic over the course of a distinguished career.

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