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Roddick Keeps Moving Forward

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Andy Roddick© Getty ImagesAndy Roddick is one of only two players, along with Roger Federer, to rank in the year-end Top 10 since 2002.

Andy Roddick might have spent almost one decade in the spotlight, but the American remains enthusiastic about the sport, driven to improve and determined to land another Grand Slam title.

There had been many losses leading up to this one. A year earlier at the same place he’d suffered one that left him wondering at age 25 if the whole tennis life was worth it. But for Andy Roddick, no defeat was as distinctive as this year’s Wimbledon final. For four hours and 16 minutes he’d gone toe to toe with Roger Federer. He’d held four straight set points for a two sets to love lead, seeing the last evaporate when he missed a seemingly benign backhand volley. Not until he was serving at 14-15 in the fifth did Roddick buckle. 

“It’s evolving how I’m feeling about it,” Roddick told me last month. “The first couple of days it was tough to look at objectively. There were easier losses to deal with. Having been that close, thinking how that changes the dynamic of my career if I win. But it’s not one of those things where I could beat myself up for not putting in the effort.”

Hours after the final, as Roddick sat in his home in the Wimbledon Village, his Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe, dropped by. Well aware of how his older brother’s popularity had been aided by an epic loss to Bjorn Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final, McEnroe says, “I told Andy he made more fans and earned himself more respect for that loss than he did with any win. The average fan saw from him the competitiveness I’ve seen from him so many times, for so many years. What the fans also saw was the maturity of his mind, of his body, of his spirit.”

If those qualities haven’t always been fully appreciated, surely they’ve always been present. Like most of us, Roddick takes two views of himself: eternal and dynamic. According to Roddick, “The meat-and-potatoes of me hasn’t changed. But aren’t most people more mature at 27 than 21?”

Roddick will turn 27 the day before the start of this year’s US Open. While he’s correct in assessing matters of emotional growth, what’s also true is that by age 21 most people aren’t millionaires, the best in the world at a childhood passion – and by dint of all that success, compelled to come of age in a fishbowl.            

Says Roddick, “I’ve been portrayed as every kind of character. When I was young, I was the future great American, the polite kid from Nebraska. Then the crossover guy who was on ‘Saturday Night Live.’  Then you’re a punk, then you’re a has-been, then the comeback, then irrelevant, then Joe Everyday.”

As McEnroe notes, “It’s a lot to be the number one American. To have come in after the greatest generation was going to be tough no matter what kind of player you were. But when you see Andy’s numbers and consistency over the years, it’s impressive.” Only Roddick and Roger Federer have held spots in the year-end Top 10 since 2002.

But there’s no question that the last few years have been a time of soul-searching. Having reached at least one Grand Slam semi every year since 2003, in ’08 the best Roddick could muster was a quarter-final showing at the US Open. Those efforts at the majors were but a symptom of a man aware he faced a crossroads.   

In the fall of 2008, Roddick and his then-fiancée, model Brooklyn Decker, took a hard look at the state of this tennis – even contemplating the notion of retirement. Says Roddick, “At the end of ’08 it was a little bit frustrating. I was in and out of health and had some okay results, but not that great. I was closer to the outside of the Top 10 than on the inside. But I didn’t want be the guy out there just collecting paychecks. So you either play it safe – or try to make something happen. The latter won out.”

The biggest step was getting Larry Stefanki on-board as his coach. Says McEnroe, “Larry tells it to you right between the eyes: good, bad or indifferent. He puts it out there.” 

Having worked with a variety of coaches, including Jimmy Connors, Brad Gilbert, Dean Goldfine, his brother John, Patrick McEnroe and Tarik Benhabiles, you’d think Roddick had heard enough coaching verbiage to fill a library.

But in retrospect, all prior to Stefanki was incremental; useful, yes – jarring, no. And Roddick at the end of ’08 was a man in search not just of new ideas, but of big ideas. “Emotionally it was tough,” says Roddick. “You’re battling how much of the results are based on not being healthy, or is it self-belief and have I lost a step? You love to take the side of health, but you’re trying to figure out what’s what.” 

Never reluctant to offer a recommendation, Stefanki gave a blunt one to Roddick: lose 15 pounds. Certainly Roddick had always been fit, the result of his own strong work ethic, including frequent off-court workouts with Austin trainer Lance Hooten.

It wasn’t just that dropping weight helped make Roddick more nimble around the court. It was the very process of shedding the pounds and committing to both himself and Stefanki’s belief in him that instilled Roddick with a new kind of confidence – a belief that even past the likely halfway point of his career that he can make radical changes in the pursuit of excellence. Says Roddick, “The toughest days are when it’s 30 degrees outside and I’m on a football field, doing workouts with Lance and a bunch of other guys – baseball players, martial artists, football guys.” As Stefanki told Tennis Channel’s Steve Flink shortly after he started working with Roddick, “I have never seen a guy who is willing to work harder than Andy. If he keeps getting sounder, which I believe he will, good things are going to happen for him.”

Coming into this year’s US Open, Roddick feels he’s playing some of his most sustained, consistent, quality tennis. Says McEnroe, “He goes in with a legitimate shot.  No one would have said that in January. But he’s played that way into the top four or five.” 

In large part, Roddick’s maturity has most surfaced in his understanding of his game. Never fully comfortable as a flashy shotmaker, netrusher or highly-defensive player, Roddick has worked to alter his court positioning, to appropriately stand closer to the baseline and become what you might call an air-tight grinder with a big serve and a willingness to strike big when the opening is there, most often with his forehand but also on the backhand side. One of the key principles Connors learned from his mother and coach, Gloria, is relevant here: Smother them with footwork. To some degree Roddick’s application of this concept began during his 18 months with Connors, but this year such factors as improved movement and the relentless engagement of Stefanki have greatly accelerated his growth. 

Another new element in Roddick’s life was his April marriage to Decker. “Not much has actually changed,” says Roddick. “We wanted to commit to each other. And we knew that career-wise, for both of us, the next four to five years were going to be about kicking butt where it needs to be kicked.”

The year Roddick turned nine, his parents gave him the birthday present of a trip to the 1991 US Open. Joking about the impish boy who snuck into the player’s lounge, Roddick now says, “I don’t have to sneak in anymore. But I wasn’t a kid who expected to be a pro, certainly not at that age. Now, of course, I completely understand the process, the importance of training, of nutrition – and a good idea of what I need to do to improve. That certainly hasn’t always been the case.”

He will continue to be the Andy Roddick the tennis world has known for a decade – driven, emotional, ready to verbally counterpunch if necessary. As an athlete he knows that history is largely written by the winners, in tennis particularly by those who rack up multiple Grand Slam titles. But even if his Wimbledon effort proved that in some way history can also be written by the losers, there’s much more he hopes to accomplish. “Trust me,” says Roddick, “I didn’t walk off Centre Court smiling. You ask yourself: sulk and feel sorry. Or you pick it up and move forward. Moving forward is just my nature.”   

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