Sunday, March 9, 2008

RETURN OF THE A-ROD?

Following a seemingly meaningless victory in San Jose, and having just lost to journeyman Robin Soderling (probably more famous for his antagonizing antics against Nadal at Wimbledon in 2007 than for his own game) in Memphis, Andy Roddick appears to have found his mojo.

With two convincing straight set victories over Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in succession, marking the first time in his career he has beaten the #’s 2 and #3 players in the same tournament, Roddick’s supporters are awash with optimism that seems destined to resemble so many other false hopes that he might regain what many view as his rightful place in the acropolis of the tennis. And with hordes of tenniserati questioning his insistence on getting in a tournament in Tennessee before flying off to Dubai, it seems he knows something more about his own preparation than outside observers.

In a star-studded draw that included 8 of the top 10 players on tour, and despite being on the other side of the draw from his usual nemesis, Roger Federer, few would have put their money on the boy from Omaha coming through to the final. Fewer still would have bet on him winning in any case, since Federer’s path to his own redemption appeared ready made with the exception of an intriguing first round match up against that other frustrating Andy - Andy Murray. Murray took care of that bogey for him, and then promptly bottled his quarterfinal with Davydenko – another of Federer’s favorite whipping boys who stood in the way of what would have been a fascinating final.

This week, Roddick announced his separation from his current guide and mentor, Jimmy Connors. When the partnership began, it was hard for me to imagine it lasting very long. Never known to think of much more than himself, the manifestation of Connors helping Roddick break through the glass menagerie would have likely led to a conflict of credit for the success, and not a strengthening of the marriage, as it would most coach/player relationships. When Roddick reached the US Open final in 2006, it seemed their union was all the rage in tennis. Even Connors couldn’t resist the temptation to suggest that some of what made him “great” could rub off on Roddick, and with that the die was cast for this terrible idea to take hold.

A year later, at the 2008 Australian Open, Roddick openly complained about the paucity of quality time with his sen-sai, and although he never mentioned it, few would blame him for resenting the suggestion that Connors greatest asset, his unending selfishness masqueraded as competitiveness, would be the key facet of this gem of a pairing. As if Roddick’s problem was that he wasn’t competitive enough. Nobody on tour shows how much he hates losing, as much as Roddick – maybe Federer in his own way – but certainly not with the unbridled petulance, presented as a fiery belly, that Roddick always seems to display, even when he plays well and loses (as he did in the 2007 US Open).

To be fair, the biggest problem in Roddicks’ game is, and always has been, one of technique. With the heaviest serve in the history of tennis, Roddick’s arsenal looked more like that of an aircraft carrier – plenty of power for collateral damage, but when the mission required the precision of an attack submarine, a girlish backhand, and a suddenly spinny forehand too often abandoned ship on their captain and the results were almost too painful to bear, even for those with little love for former SNL host. If you watch slow-motion video of Roddick hitting his forehand, there are so many technical problems with it (delayed racquet head acceleration, a point of contact parallel to his body, and a tendency to watch the result of the shot before he’s hit it) and compare it to any of his main rivals, you’ll see why the basics of his game so often abandon him.

But this week, something strange happened to Andy Roddick. Despite all his technical weaknesses, and inability to maximize his game vis a vis those of his best contemporairies, he won. He didn’t just win - he competed ferociously in the first set and handed out real beat downs in the second in both of his star-studded quarter-final and semi-final match-ups.

More than the results, I was impressed with the extent of his disbelief at winning both matches. You could almost see a trail of monkey feces running down his back as he shook hands as the victor, first with Nadal, then with Djokovic. Never shy of displaying his emotions, you couldn’t help but be mildly surprised, even for all his hall of fame pedigree of winning the US Open, winning the Davis Cup, and having been ranked (albeit many moons ago) #1 in the world, at the obvious impact all the talk of shrinking to the occasion has had on his psyche.

Apparently Federer wasn’t the only one cloaked in the dark cloth of mystique, and when the last ball was struck against his swarthy opponent from Mallorca, the genuine smile, absent from his game for so long, reappeared like that of a natural beauty we all knew in high school who finally put her make-up on again. Who knows what would have happened had he met Federer in the final, instead of Feliciano Lopez, but on the strength of his recent form, and Roger’s, it’s not hard to imagine that this could have been his moment against him too.

There’s a lot of talk about Andy losing 15 in a row to Federer, when in fact, that streak was interrupted briefly in 2007 at Kooyong. Cynics would tell you that Federer was experimenting, or that it was just an exhibition, but Federer did reach the final, and nobody likes to hold aloft a lovely crystal plate, when there’s a brilliant gold cup being handed to your opponent, so my guess is the result was legitimate.

But Roddick’s problem never really was lack of belief. As a matter of fact, belief in his pedigree seemed to deepen his frustration at underachieving when it counted – even when it didn’t (such as in the last round-robin match of the YEC in Shanghai). At the end of the day, A-Rod seemed to put too much pressure on himself to get results, and the technical failings in the rest of his game couldn’t match up to the technical perfection of his serve.

At Wimbledon he gave away a 2-set lead to Richard Gasquet, and as anyone who knows the French will tell you, they are not known for their iron-will. That gallic shrug that is so familiar to francophones the world over is as much a metaphor for their perspective on life, which makes them well-rounded people, but generally underachieving athletes. Throughout their titanic encounter, it was on full display that day, even as the French version of Roddick was engineering his historic comeback, so something was going wrong for him in that match, and it wasn’t his will to win.

With Roddick there is this an ever-present tension that seems to belie an underlying knowledge that the limitations of his game mean his best bet to win anything important is to get on a wave, usually started by his serve, and ride it until the white foam comes crashing down on match point. The restlessness so evident in his demeanor seems to stem, in my view, from the knowledge that at any moment, the curtain will be drawn on the Emperor’s changing room, and we all (that includes his opponent) will realize that aside from a big serve, he comes onto that court as naked as the day he was born.

The look on his face when Gasquet or Federer or Djokovic so easily handle his serve reminds me of the look on Agassi’s face when he would realize that Sampras’ serve was on, and the rest of his game didn’t have too many holes in it.

That was a look we never saw this week, because Roddick wasn’t broken a single time in the entire tournament.

So for those who think they’ve just seen the return of the A-Rod of 2003 – the trash talking, big serving, forehand drilling phenom turned dominator that ran through the US Open like the wind – think again. It just takes one bad day on his serve to return Roddick to his under-achieving worst, and fortunately for him, he didn’t have one this week. But I have a feeling that if he meets up with either of the two he demolished this week, they’ll be focused on one thing and one thing only.

That would be getting a beat on his serve.

With most players you’d say that just getting the return back in play gives them about 25% chance of winning the point, but with Roddick that number’s probably well above 50%. And as Agassi opined in Roddick's match against Federer last year at Flushing Meadow, each successive stroke Roddick hits seems to reduce the likelihood that he’ll win the point. The biggest bang for the buck is just getting the return in play because with him, it’s more than half the battle.

I didn’t see enough out of his game this week to tell me that he was ready to return to the pinnacle of tennis, even if it’s just for a 2-week period. He’ll have to serve like he did for 4 matches for 7 if he wants to be in with any chance of winning Wimbledon or the US Open this year – let’s not even mention the French. Frankly, I don’t see that happening when everyone is as geared up as he obviously was for this tournament.

The best sign this week is the removal of Jimmy Connors from his camp. Connors was an aggressive baseliner, and some would put Roddick in the same category, only armed with a Howitzer serve – but then why is it that he hasn’t won anything worth winning (aside from the Davis Cup) in 5 years?

Connors, for alls his prowess from behind the baseline, spent very little time there. He wasn’t a serve and volleyer, but even in those days, he wasn’t dumb enough to think he could beat everyone exclusively with his ground strokes. An unnatural volleyer who actually used a western grip on the forehand side even at the net, Connors was sufficiently serviceable inside the service line to cut points off against bigger, stronger and harder-hitting opponents well into the period in his career when he suddenly became everyone’s favorite guy to root for. He made his living pounding from the baseline, but he won his titles at the net.

It was in this area that Roddick seemed to be taking his cues from Connors, and it was in this area that the paucity of his overall tennis ability was revealed. In convincing Roddick that he had to make his life easier by approaching the net and finishing off the points, he failed to translate that strategy into the tactics of how and when to approach. Instead, an unyielding barrage of kamikaze forays into the net against some of the more precise players on tour – precisely the type of players who still understand the art of the passing shot – probably cost Roddick a shot at winning on his own terms or at all, for that matter.

No matter how badly we want to credit coaches (the Henin Rodriguez partnership comes to mind) at the end of the day, the player has to have the innate sense of when to attack, when to defend, and when to throw the kitchen sink. Let me be clear: I’m 100% against on court coaching. But even a purist like me has to admit that you could tell a baboon to reach Chaucer, and he’d probably eat the text instead.

The truth is there’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing, and clearly, in Connors playing philosophy he did, and Andy doesn’t. I’ve never seen someone get passed so often who tried so hard to come to net. I applaud his openness to the tactic, but that doesn’t mean he can execute. Basically it looked to me like Andy was trying to employ the tactics that Connors did, rather than discussing a strategic objective and figuring out ways to execute his own tactics to achieve it. It seems Roddick found a way to employ the strategy of putting pressure on your opponent, but he is not (as Connors often did) doing it by approaching the net. A-Rod in 2003 rarely did, and this week it was more of the same. In that sense, Andy seems to have found himself gain. It remains to be seen if his self is enogh for a victory. I’d flatten out the forehand, take off a little bit of pace, and approach only on short balls, or well struck shots in the rally.

This week it appeared he didn’t do too much of that, and it’s a good news/bad news sort of deal:

The good news is Andy Roddick is doing it his way.
The bad news is it hasn’t worked in 5 years.

Call me a cynic, but I still think it’s way too early to be heralding the return of the A-Rod just yet.
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