Every tennis fan, even those who only marginally follow the sport during the Slam seasons, has to have noticed Andy Roddick’s decline by now. He has been the face of American tennis for so long and would most likely have had a career that would put him on the list of all-time greats (not the top tier but definitely up there) had Roger Federer not been in his way. Roddick would most likely have three Wimbledon championships and several other Slams in addition to the 2003 US Open crown that he won. Unfortunately for Roddick, Federer’s and his careers did overlap and Federer has a 20-2 head-to-head record against the American.
Their twenty-first meeting may go down as the final turning point in Roddick’s career. Roddick’s results had been slipping for a few years, but he was still a player to be feared who could beat anyone if he played his best. He met Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final in what was to become an epic five-setter. A missed backhanded overhead in the second-set tiebreak still haunts Roddick fans to this day. Roddick played a level of tennis that he had very rarely displayed at any time in his career. Ultimately he fell 16-14 in the fifth set and hasn’t really challenged at a major since.
It is actually a little unfair to just call that 2009 Wimbledon Roddick’s last hurrah. In early 2010 he played a very good Australian Open and followed that up with a win and a final in the two American Masters events in March (Indian Wells and Miami). He later blamed a poor rest of 2010 on a case of mono. But he really has not been a contender since that spring. He has not been past the fourth round of a Slam since that 2010 Australian Open and has not beaten a top 20 player since defeating Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic back-to-back in Cincinnati in August 2010. He has only taken one set off a fellow top 10 player since then-against Nadal in the World Tour Finals last year on Nadal’s worst surface.
Without getting into too much detail, I want to discuss Roddick’s quarterfinal loss to Marin Cilic in that 2010 Australian Open because I feel that match shows us exactly why Roddick has declined so much these past two years. Roddick lost the first two sets playing tentative, defensive tennis. He hit a lot of slices and was solid, but he didn’t have a way to win points. He trusted that if he played good-enough defense that his opponents would leave openings for him. When he fell into the 2-0 sets hole, he opened up his game and went for more on his shots. He hit Cilic off the court for two sets to bring it to a fifth. In the fifth, he once again returned to his defensive game and ultimately lost.
We have only seen flashes of that attacking Roddick since that match. He played brilliant offensive tennis in Miami, Indian Wells, and Cincinnati that year. That is why he fared no worse than a semifinal in all three of those tournaments. That is why he could beat top 10 players. I have not seen Roddick attack that way since Cincinnati, not even for part of a match. Playing his defensive style is solid and good enough against the middling players. But against anyone near the top of the game it just leads to defeats, usually with a quite-lopsided scoreline.
His team and fans can blame it on whatever they want. They can say he is still recovering from mono. But illness or injury can’t change what we see with our own eyes. Roddick’s forehand used to be one of, if not the, biggest weapon in tennis. On several occasions it was clocked at over 100 miles per hour. It was flat and tough to deal with. Now, watching any match, you can see that it has more topspin and the pace is gone. Roddick uses the slice backhand much more than he used to. It has gotten much better over the past few years (it used to be practically nonexistent and terrible when played) but it is still not a weapon. It is nothing more than a rally shot, designed not to lose the point but it will never win one. Roddick’s arsenal seems empty right now. None of his shots, except the serve, will do anything to challenge the top players anymore.
The question we all have to ask is why. Why are the weapons gone? Roddick’s serve, while no longer clocking in the 150s, is still one of the best in tennis. There is no reason to think that the forehand has just gone away. It’s just a change in Roddick’s mentality. He has started playing not to lose matches and stopped playing to win them. Andy Roddick is a great athlete, but he is not the type of tennis player who can get away with only playing defensive tennis and still win big matches. His game just isn’t made for that. His movement has gotten better but he has nowhere near the speed or finesse of a Murray that he can pull off counterpunching. Andy Roddick was designed to be an attacking tennis player. When he stopped doing that he stopped winning, plain and simple.
So who do I blame in all of this? In my mind, the finger is pointed straight at Larry Stefanki. Someone in the Roddick camp has to realize that his current style of play isn’t working and that starts right at the coach. Roddick is known for his desire to win and fierce competitiveness. I am also sure that he is not the easiest player to coach but it is the coach’s responsibility to step up and say, “This just isn’t working”. I don’t think we can tie Roddick beginning this more defensive style solely to when Stefanki began coaching him (though I am sure someone will try) but we can definitely blame him for not stopping it.
Roddick has managed to stick around the top 10 because (outside of clay) he has managed to avoid losses to lesser players. He gets dominated by the top players but his solid, defensive style gets him past those outside the top 30. But he cannot keep that up forever and I am sure that Andy Roddick is not content with fourth-round Slam losses and trips to Masters quarterfinals. Andy Roddick is a competitor and we all know he wants more than that. Show us something, Andy. Bring back the game that got you more than that in the last decade.
What to Watch this Week:
There are two ATP World Tour tournaments this week. There is a 500 level in Hamburg as the post-Wimbledon European clay court swing continues. There is also a 250 level in Atlanta, the beginning of the US Summer Series on hard courts. If you want to start sizing up potential dark horses for the US Open this year, look no further than Atlanta this week.
Hamburg presents us with a 48-player draw and quite a good one at that. 16 first-round byes for the seeds leave us with some mouth-watering potential third round matches. Albert Montanes and Nicolas Almagro, two Spaniards and clay court specialists, will meet if they can each win their second-round matches. The pair have only met four times but the matches have been tight three-setters in three of them. Fernando Verdasco should also meet either Nikolay Davydenko or Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round. Both of those potential matches look very exciting. And don’t forget to watch Fabio Fognini, who is in his second tournament back from his muscle injury at Roland Garros (third if you count two Davis Cup matches) and could meet Jurgen Melzer in the third round. The lineup is loaded with 11 top 30 players and 20 of the top 50.
Atlanta presents an entirely different style of tennis and player. Milos Raonic, unfortunately, will miss this tournament as well a most (if not all) of the summer hard court season after undergoing hip surgery for his injury sustained at Wimbledon. Tommy Haas is worth checking out as he continues his return from his own hip surgery, meeting Robby Ginepri (returning from injury himself actually) in the first round. Yen-Hsun Lu has had a mediocre season so far but is definitely someone to watch out for here on his favorite surface. Lleyton Hewitt also returns as he recuperates from a foot injury and will try to regain his ranking after slipping to #174 in the World. Mardy Fish will be the favorite here and has a lot of points to defend this summer. He won here last year and will have to defend 600 points for his runner-up finish in Cincinnati in mid-August. Also look out for Xavier Malisse, a veteran who always does well on this surface and in this part of the season.
Take a look at the rankings tomorrow because that will be what direct acceptance into the US Open will be determined from. By my count (but I could be missing someone), there are only three players who will enter the tournament by using their protected rankings (Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Haas, and Ivo Karlovic). Since 104 players enter the tournament by direct acceptance, this means that everyone ranked 101 and above will be safely in the tournament. If you see your favorite player at 102 or below, which right now looks like it will be Michael Russell, you should start hoping that players start pulling out of the US Open or be prepared to go to New York a few days early for qualifying.
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