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Steve Flink: Roddick Done In By Tie Breaks Again

6/24/2011 6:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON--  More than just about any other leading player of his time, Andy Roddick’s success or failure can hinge decidedly on the outcomes of his tie-breaks. The 28-year-old has always struggled inordinately with his return of serve, and negotiating service breaks can be a tall order for this American who resided at No. 1 in the world back in 2003. Because he breaks adversaries with extraordinary serves so infrequently—and since this prodigious server has always been awfully tough for his opponents to break—Roddick knows full well that he is going to find himself in a good many tie-breaks in most of his matches of consequence. That is simply the way it is, and Roddick recognizes that he needs to perform mightily in those high pressure sequences that so often provide that thin line between victory and defeat. He has no alternative but to raise his game and perform majestically when it counts.

Across his career, Roddick has been remarkably productive in tie-breaks. Heading into his contest with Feliciano Lopez in the third round of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament today, Roddick had a 287-170 record in tie-breaks over the course of his career. Those are numbers to be proud of, and proof that he has what it takes to thrive under pressure, to be opportunistic, to come up with the right shot at the right time when it matters the most. But Roddick has developed a bad habit these last five years of losing far too many critical tie-breaks in tight contests at the majors, and it has cost him dearly. Today, Roddick was ushered out of Wimbledon by the gifted yet unmistakably fragile left-hander Lopez.

Roddick took a 7-0 career head-to-head winning record over the Spaniard onto the Centre Court, and that streak included a victory over the Spaniard just a few weeks ago on the grass at Queen’s Club. But his first loss ever against Lopez was largely about Roddick’s inefficiency in tiebreakers. He lost the match 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 6-4, and the setback was eerily familiar for the American. Roddick did not elevate his game when he needed to in those tie-breaks, and that put him in the unenviable position of being two sets to love down against one of the sport’s premier servers on a grass court. That was too big a deficit for Roddick to overcome, and he had himself to blame for being in that predicament.

The disturbing thing for Roddick is how often this has happened to him these past five years. Let’s go back to 2007, when he lost to Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals here on the grass. Roddick won the first two sets, dropped the next two in tiebreakers, and then went down 8-6 in the fifth. At the U.S. Open later that summer, he played a terrific match against Roger Federer in the quarters, but came up empty in the first two sets, losing both in tie-breaks. Down he went in straight sets despite a noble effort. On to 2008. Down two sets to one against Janko Tipsarevic on the Centre Court in the second round, Roddick had had a chance to turn the match in a fourth set tie-break, but he did not come through and he suffered a bruising setback. A few months later, having come from two sets down all the way into a pivotal fourth set tie-break against Novak Djokovic in the quarters at the U.S. Open, Roddick could not deliver what he needed, and out he went once more.

Perhaps most aggravating for Roddick was what occurred in the two biggest tournaments of 2009. He took himself to the edge of his first tournament triumph ever at Wimbledon, where he had already lost two finals to Federer back in 2004 and 2005, losing a critical third set tiebreaker in the former and a crucial second set tiebreaker in the latter. But in 2009, the pain deepened for Roddick. He had won seven of eight Wimbledon tie-breaks he contested on his way to another final round appointment with Federer that year, including a pair in the semifinal against Andy Murray. But in the championship match against the Swiss Maestro, Roddick lost a tie-break that will live forever in some back compartment of his mind.

Roddick had captured the first set from Federer, and he travelled to 6-2 in the second set tie-break, giving himself the substantial cushion of a quadruple set point lead. After Federer erased three set points, Roddick served at 6-5, poised to build a commanding and perhaps insurmountable two sets to love lead.  But the American was conflicted about whether or not a Federer forehand passing shot down the line would go long. Roddick blew an easy backhand volley, and Federer astoundingly captured that tie-break to get back into the match. Federer then secured the third set in another tie-break, and eventually halted a gallant Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set of an epic final round duel. Two tie-breaks had come and gone, and Roddick had lost both of them. At the U.S. Open that same year, Roddick played John Isner in the third round, and he lost that skirmish in five sets, dropping both the first and fifth sets in tiebreakers.

Nothing really changed in 2010. Roddick dropped two out of three tie-breaks in a five set loss against Yen-Hsun Lu in the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and then fell in a fourth set tie-break against Tipsarevic at the U.S. Open as he bowed out in the second round there. The bottom line is that Roddick has simply not done himself justice in these crucial matches at the majors through the years, and time and again the tiebreaker has been the primary source of his undoing. That is a shame, because he has demonstrated regularly at other times how well he can do in these all important sequences.

After the Lopez match today, Roddick was not an embittered man, nor was he really even caustic in his remarks. He took the loss rather well. As he said of Lopez, “He played better than I did. He beat me. It’s easier for me to walk out of here and move forward with that then, let’s say, 2008 where I lost to Tipsarevic and felt like I completely choked, or last year where I just kind of had a million opportunities and kind of gave it away. Those are tougher to take.”

Asked to assess his 2011 season thus far, Roddick replied, “Average. Average. I feel like the way I practiced and prepared for the last month, I wish I would have gotten more out of it. I felt good coming in. You know, normally when I don’t play well at a Slam, you kind of don’t feel on top of things. I felt on top of things since I got here. I feel like I’ve played worse and gotten further before. So it’s disappointing in that sense. But I don’t feel horrible going into the summer by any means.”

Most poignantly, he was asked if thoughts creep into his mind as time passes that winning a major might never happen for him again.  Roddick answered the reporter, “Well, sure. You’re human. I mean, of course it does. You know, you may never get your favorite job either. No offense to your current employer.”

That line got a big laugh from most of the journalists in the room, who appreciated his sense of humor and his humility. Since his narrow and agonizing loss to Federer in the 2009 final on the Centre Court, Roddick has been beset by bad luck, missed opportunities, and the hard realities of a trying and often arduous profession. In seven appearances since then at the Grand Slam championships, Roddick has only once gone as far as the quarterfinals. He has had a wide range of problems over the last few years with debilitating injuries and illnesses, woes that have halted any kind of momentum he tried to build, struggles that have made him a lesser competitor than he would have been. Yet Roddick has fought on despite it all, and taken his misfortunes with a sense of irony and restraint.

The fact remains that the summer ahead will be a defining stretch for this enduring competitor. He needs a substantial boost on the hard courts, a final round showing at a Masters 1000 event, and a run to at least the semifinals of the U.S. Open. If Roddick does not perform at that level, if he does not make the progress he needs in the near future, then the guess here is that he will turn 2012 into his “Last Hurrah”. But this much is certain: unless Roddick starts winning the big tie-breaks at the majors, then he will no longer be able to reside among the top ten in the world and contend seriously for major crowns.

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