Saturday, September 03, 2005

Hard Hits: Roddick Needs To Find Mojo

Andy Roddick came on the scene a few years ago as the future of American tennis. He was going to be the new star and win lots of majors taking the mantle from legends Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

As a 19-year-old teenager four years ago in an electrifying U.S. Open quarterfinal, he had Lleyton Hewitt on the ropes in the fifth set only to see a key line call go against him erupting in protest. Roddick would get broken and lose the match while Hewitt wound up winning his first ever slam title dismantling Sampras in straight sets. At that time, it was understandable that Roddick fell short because he was inexperienced but showed so much potential in defeat that you couldn't help but think he would be winning those types of matches in the future along with some big trophies.

In 2002, at 20 Roddick was one of the favorites to win his first ever Open. He served his way into a quarterfinal dream match-up with Sampras, who was only making one of the greatest runs to finish a brilliant career. Most expected Roddick to rip serves and forehands taking out Sampras. But a nervous Andy wasn't ready for a primetime night match against Pistol Pete and got blitzed off the court in three sets with Sampras on his way to a storybook finish winning his men's record 14th slam title in his final match against Agassi.

The next year, he fired his coach and hired Agassi's former mentor Brad Gilbert, who got great results with Andre turning around his career. Under Gilbert, Roddick netted similar results right away, making his first Australian Open semifinal after outlasting Younes El Aynaoui in a five hour epic prevailing 21-19 in the fifth. Predictably he had little left when he lost to Rainer Schuettler the next round. He carried the momentum into the summer making his first Wimbledon semi losing to eventual champ Roger Federer but avenged that loss at a Montreal semi on his way to a hard court title. It would be his only career win against Federer in 11 tries.

Roddick entered Flushing Meadows red hot along with trophy girlfriend Mandy Moore. Even with that distraction, he showed more guts than ever coming from two sets down against David Nalbandian in a great semifinal to make his first ever slam final. At 21, he dismantled then number one Juan Carlos Ferrero to finally win his first slam. The monkey was off his back. Things were falling into place. Roddick would become the number one ranked player at the end of the year and was at the top of the sport.

Fastforward to his first ever Wimbledon final in 2004 when he got the first set off Federer and had him on the ropes up an early break in the second set. Then the rain came and the defending champion adjusted winning the next three sets for his second crown. Though Roddick lost, the consensus was that he had never played better. That day, he left it all out there and got beat by the best in a very compelling match.

Entering his title defense in New York, he parted ways with Gilbert and Moore. He made it to the quarterfinals but lost in a tough five setter to Joachim Johansson. It was a match where he won more points than his opponent and cameback from two sets down to force a deciding set. But even with all that, Roddick blew chance after chance to break Johansson, eventually getting broken losing in stunning fashion because nobody saw it coming. There would be no repeat and no additional slams for the year.

In Australia this year, he made the semis and faced nemesis Hewitt. After playing a brilliant set and a half, Roddick lost his poise and ultimately the match in four sets to the fiesty Hewitt. It was supposed to be Andy's time. But he was outworked in sets two and three, then took a long break and never recovered for an uncompetitive fourth set. At Roland Garros, he bowed out in the second round on the unkind clay surface which has never suited his power game. At Wimbledon, he gutted out two five set wins to setup a championship rematch with Federer. But Roddick was out of ammunition and Federer played brilliantly winning in straight sets for his third consecutive Wimbledon crown. To his credit, he tried different tactics including going to the net but nothing worked. He was simply overmatched.

The year still couldn't be a loss with the Open around the corner. Right? Roddick had a strong summer winning two hard court tournaments to claim first prize in the U.S. Open Series. He even got some revenge on Hewitt in a semi at Cincinnati for just his second career victory in eight tries to jump over Hewitt to third in the rankings. In the final, he lost again to Federer. He had to be sick of it. You figured he'd take it out on his bracket at the final slam event of the year. Right?

Wrong. Shockingly, Roddick bowed out in the opening round Tuesday night, losing three heartbreaking tiebreakers to Gilles Muller from Luxembourg. Make no mistake about it, Muller played the match of his life in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium pro-Roddick crowd. Roddick didn't play badly but he was up 5-2 in the first set and lost his focus at 5-3 trying to serve out the set. Maybe if he doesn't make three unforced errors when he hadn't made one till that point, he closes out the set and cruises to victory. We'll never know.

By all accounts, Roddick has improved his fitness and is moving better. He also has made strides at the net and been coming in more behind his big forehand. I don't doubt his commitment to tennis. After the stunning match, he said he'd never felt this bad after a loss because he had never felt better coming into a slam. I'll take him at his word. Sometimes, your opponent just plays a great match and there's nothing you can do. But Roddick still could have adjusted to what Muller did and comeback. Mentally, he claims that he's stronger now than he was. It just wasn't evident Tuesday or in Melbourne when he lost his composure against Hewitt.

This isn't to say Muller was a bad opponent who just came off the street. He was a capable player who had wins over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and Agassi at Los Angeles last year.
It just means that even with better fitness, Roddick still isn't all the way there yet as a player. He can still improve his backhand, which Muller worked over repeatedly with good results Tuesday. He can still get tougher mentally when things aren't going his way and is forced to change the gameplan.

Roddick entered the Open with much fanfare. America's posterboy with endorsements featuring him driving a Lexus, the official sponsor of the tournament. And of course, those funky American Express ads where Andy loses 'his mojo.' Only it wasn't supposed to happen so early at Ashe. Meanwhile, other Americans including Agassi, James Blake and Robby Ginepri are thru to the fourth round with Taylor Dent having a chance to join them when he plays Hewitt later today. It had to hurt a little seeing Ginepri easily dispose of Muller in the second round.

Roddick is still ranked third depending on what happens. A reporter after his loss pointed out that this sort of thing has happened before to favorites. Agassi was victimized at the same age by Thomas Enqvist 12 years earlier. The next year, he cameback and won the whole thing for his second slam unseeded. When they emphasized that, Roddick couldn't help but smile and candidly remark, "I hope I'm not unseeded next year."

He has a great personality and is one of the classiest players on tour. Maybe he needs more of an edge. Time to find the mojo.

Hitting Back:

-If anyone can explain this New York baseball season, please try without failing a lie detector test. One minute, the Yanks and Mets look like they're on the verge of being in the clear for the postseason. The next, each falls flat and looks as appealing as the Knicks.

-Whatever happened to Mike Jacobs being the next big prospect who takes the league by storm? Oh wait. He finally faced some real pitching instead of seeing those worldbeaters out west in Arizona. Well, he could still be the next Gregg Jefferies or Shane Spencer.

-Do you think just once the Mets could score more than two runs for Pedro and pay him back for all those games he kept them in?

-When do the Mets get a real second baseman or is Kaz Matsui really the reincarnation of Juan Samuel?

-He showed a lot of heart returning to the lineup a few weeks ago but now it's time for Carlos Beltran to earn his money.

-So Joe Torre takes Aaron Small out of the rotation and then when he puts him back in with Moose out, Small only tosses a shutout in the biggest game all year at Oakland. So, does Torre actually take credit for that?

-Now after all these months The Unit decides to show up and earn money for a change instead of stealing it.

-Let's see if I got this right. Alan Embree. Mark Bellhorn. What Red Sox castoff will be part of the Yankee roster next? Curt Schilling?

-If this is his last season in Pinstripes, Bernie Williams is sure finishing strong.

-Those earplugs are really working for Rafael Palmeiro. What's his excuse now?

-What happens if Eli Manning can't start next weekend against Arizona? I'd be more comfortable with Dave Brown than Mr. Elisabeth Hasselbeck at quarterback.

-And finally, our prayers go out to the families in New Orleans, Louisiana enduring some of the worst circumstances this country's ever seen. Nobody should have to go through that. God bless them all. Storms like Hurricane Katrina can't be prevented but couldn't President Bush have a quicker response to such a catastrophe. If only it was as dire as Iraq but anything to justify a war, right?


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