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Steve Flink: Roddick Must Make his Move

8/9/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The summer of 2010 has not been an encouraging time for the man who still stands at the top of the ladder in American tennis. Andy Roddick has simply not found the formula to play the kind of hard court tennis that we have come to expect from him year after year over the past decade. He has been mired in a distressing slump. He has been at a loss to explain what is throwing him so far off stride. He clearly knows that he has not been himself, and has spoken of a lethargy he has apparently felt for a while that is cutting deeply into his authority on the court. He understands that his results are nowhere near as good as they should be at this stage of the year, and realizes that he must do something substantial in one of the next two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Toronto or Cincinnati to put himself in the right state of mind and make his presence known in a serious way at the U.S. Open. This next month will be one of the most important stretches in his entire career, and no one recognizes that more than Roddick himself.

Consider how this year has unfolded for the soon to be 28 year old American. He started off the season well, winning Brisbane, and then reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open before losing a hard fought, five set, pendulum swinging match to Marin Cilic. Over the winter, he gradually raised his game, and performed remarkably well in the two prestigious Masters 1000 hard court events at Indian Wells and Miami. In the former of those tournaments, Roddick got to the final of the BNP Paribas Open, toppling Robin Soderling in the penultimate round before losing to a revitalized and opportunistic Ivan Ljubicic, falling in a pair of tie-breaks.  It was a match he could well have won. Building on that admirable showing at Indian Wells, Roddick went to Miami and came away with a tournament victory at the event many consider the fifth biggest in tennis.

Roddick captured that Sony Ericsson Open in style, rallying gamely from a set down to oust Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, overcoming Tomas Berdych in the championship match, leading many learned observers to believe he might be heading into a golden stretch as he turned his attention toward peaking at the All England Club on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Three times Roddick had made it to the final of the world’s premier tennis tournament, only to be clipped by Roger Federer in the 2004, 2005 and 2009 championship matches. Most memorably, Roddick had done everything but beat Federer in the 2009 final. He had largely outplayed his estimable rival on that occasion, taking the opening set and opening up a 6-2 lead in the second set tie-break. Federer somehow escaped to salvage that set, and went on to record a 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 victory, depriving an understandably distraught Roddick of a second Grand Slam singles title.

Given his excellent record at Wimbledon, and the sterling quality of his play in the spring of 2010, Roddick seemed ready to put himself in the best possible position to succeed on the British grass this year, especially after his terrific results on the hard courts in the U.S. But Roddick did not play any clay court events prior to the French Open. He lost at Roland Garros in the third round against Teymuraz Gabashvili, but he had just resumed match play after a long absence, and figured to find his range quickly once he stepped onto the grass at Queen’s Club in London.

That was not the case. Roddick was beaten early at Queen’s by Dudi Sela, a player he should handle on the grass. He moved on to Wimbledon, got through three rounds relatively comfortably, and then suffered an inexplicable five set defeat at the hands of world No. 82 Yen-Hsun Lu in the round of 16 on the hallowed lawns. Roddick shifted to the hard courts in his own country and did not play all that well in Atlanta. Yet he still managed to make it to the semifinals before losing to a top of the line Mardy Fish for only the second time in eleven career meetings. Nevertheless, I thought he had benefitted from playing three matches on the hard courts, and figured he would raise his game decidedly this week in Washington, and probably win the tournament he had captured in 2001, 2005 and 2007.

But he fell far short of that. In the round of 16, Roddick was cut down 6-3, 6-3 by the fleet-footed Frenchman Gilles Simon, a player who stood as high as No. 6 in the world early in 2009 after concluding 2008 at No. 7. Simon slipped to No. 15 by the end of 2009 and came into the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington stationed at No. 33. In the past, he had been an easy target for Roddick, who was ahead 2-0 in their career head to head series. But, just when everyone was looking for Roddick to go to another level, he had an abysmal evening and lost decisively to a player he should be able to master. That was surely jarring for a prideful man who has always been honest with himself about the state of his game. In plain and simple terms, it was unjustifiable, and Roddick would be the first to concede that point.

So where does he go from here? This week, Roddick is at the Rogers Cup in Toronto for the Masters 1000 event, and he needs to reassert himself swiftly, and look for ways to strike fear back into the hearts and minds of his adversaries. But it won’t be easy for Roddick in Canada. These fields at the Masters 1000 tournaments are the best outside of the Grand Slams, and Roddick will be hard pressed to make much of an impression in Toronto. Seeded eighth, he will face a qualifier or wild card Pierre-Ludovic Duclos of Canada in the second round. He then could confront Cilic in the round of 16, and would probably take on Nadal in the quarterfinals if he manages to get that far.

His task will be just as difficult the following week in Cincinnati, unless the draw opens up favorably for him. If he does not fare well in either Toronto or Cincinnati, Roddick could conceivably decide to enter New Haven to get a late boost and more matches in preparation for the U.S. Open, which commences on his birthday (August 30). The hope here is that he will find a burst of inspiration in these crucial weeks ahead, that he will summon the energy and spark he has lacked lately, that he will reach back with his considerable resources and find the essential Roddick at a pivotal moment in his career.

I believe he will respond with the urgency that his situation demands. Andy Roddick is an enduringly resilient player, a man with deep emotional reserves, a competitor of the top rank who has a brief window left across the next two years to add one more major title to his record, which would be a worthy honor for a dedicated craftsman. Seven years ago, Roddick announced his greatness by claiming his only major title at the U.S. Open. He now has the game’s finest coach by his side in Larry Stefanki, a brilliant motivator, strategist and technician. Roddick has a heart as large as anyone’s in the game of tennis. The view here is that he still has the depth of intensity and the undiminished drive to make another push toward a lofty level of play he has not displayed for a while. I am convinced that Roddick--- who concluded 2003 at No. 1 in the world, and led the U.S. Davis Cup team to victory in 2007--- is one of those players who really is better than the sum of his remarkable accomplishments

And yet, the task for Roddick to restore himself will be exceedingly difficult. Nonetheless, the time for him to make his move is right now.

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