by Pete Bodo
The other night, I was prepared to write about the match between Andy Roddick and Igor Kunitsyn, but Fernando Verdasco got in the way. But watching those two matches, more or less simultaneously, presented an interesting and valuable contrast. Roddick, by the way, is playing in the second match on Hisense Arena later today, where he'll be facing a potentially dangerous opponent in Netherlander Robin Haase.
The two have never met, but I'm thinking this will be a shoot 'em up, because once you get beyond the resume items (Roddick has a Grand Slam title, a Davis Cup championship, five Masters 1000 titles and three Wimbledon runner-up trophies; Haase has, well, two runner-up trophies—in doubles), the physical and stylistic similarities aren't just noteworthy, they're striking.
At 6'3", Haase is an inch taller (as well as five years younger) than the 28-year old Roddick; the men are built alike, although Haase is leaner, more sinewy, and less broad in the brisket. Roddick's serve is bigger, but Haase can sizzle it as well. The Dutchman is more than solid off the ground (his favorite surface is clay) judging from the little I've seen of him lately, his two-handed backhand is more lethal than Roddick's—he likes to drive it and penetrate. Haase also looks more comfortable attacking, and he's not afraid to use the drop shot.
Most significantly, for our purposes, Haase shares a signature vulnerability with Roddick. Both men have a natural preference to retreat from the baseline, trusting that their long legs and reach will allow them to successfully defend a lot of territory and occasionally turn their defense into offense. During some points, they'll run up to take a short ball on or inside the baseline, but just like someone running down to the shore to test the frigid water with a toe, they're both apt to turn around and run right back to the blanket spread, well back from the seafoam.
If you've been watching ESPN's coverage of the tennis, you know that Pat McEnroe and company have become a sort of one-note band when it comes to Roddick; they fear for his competitive well-being because of Roddick's dogged insistence on giving up so much of the court. Against Juan Monaco, Haase was able to post a relatively comfortable win while playing from far back in his court. That should trouble Roddick, going in, because he's giving away five years in age (despite the excellent shape he's in), and because Haase enjoys an edge in the touch department, and also in a comparison of their backhands. Of course, wise use can trump technical superiority, and it will be interesting to see if that becomes a factor.
The intriguing thing here is that these are big men who play small. Either of them, playing in an earlier era, might have entirely different games. A few years ago, while visiting Andy, he challenged me to identify the biggest change in pro tennis over the past two decades. I searched my brain and came up with an answer (I forget what it was now) at which he only scoffed before declaring that the most profound change was the universal embrace of slow courts, especially on outdoor hard and other surfaces that were originally designed to showcase the aggressive, serve-and-volley "power tennis" games favored by so many pioneers of the early Open era.
Watching Verdasco mount that furious fightback against Janko Tipsarevic, I felt that the No. 8 seed may be the outstanding proponent of what passes for "power tennis" under today's changed conditions (although Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and a few of the other ball bangers are equally good or better representatives). Verdasco wants to hit big; he is big. And he certainly has the tools to whale on every ball, especially on the forehand side.
But it was also clear to me as we switched back and forth between his and the Roddick's match that Roddick, while well-designed for aggressive tennis (most noticeably with that serve, one around which you can build an entire game plan), made a decision to go another route. This is not stop-the-presses news, but I think it's still surprising, even though we've grown quite accustomed to Roddick's impersonations of Michael Chang.
Verdasco is who he is, and apparently he likes it that way. It's hard to imagine him departing far from his big game mentality. But Roddick's career path has been a genuine, transformational journey and it represents an admirable feat (put it up there with Rafael Nadal's transformation into an all-court hero, or Roger Federer's basic mental flexibility, even if the order of magnitude is different). One of the key crossroads in that journey lay at the semifinal stage of the Australian Open in 2007, when Roddick, under the tutelage of Jimmy Connors, that paragon of aggressive tennis, went right at Roger Federer. Roddick and was swiftly and savagely blown apart, suffering one of the most humiliating losses (if a loss to Federer can be described that way) of his career, a lightning-fast 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 blowout.
Roddick was never the same player after that; he actually became a better if not significantly more successful one. It was Roddick's rubicon, in some ways. And while he'd already been trying to shore up that weak backhand and otherwise improve his all-court game, the loss seems to have hastened and firmed up his commitment to playing small. And given that Roddick has found a way to hang in there as a Top 10 player for almost a decade, and still is a prime Wimbledon contender, who can question his choice?
I marvel at all this, when I look at the larger context. Roddick, after all, is a big guy, as well as a big personality. He's got a certain swagger, and he doesn't shy away from confrontation or controversial positions. He's a smart alec and a well-established star who's transcended the tennis milieu and become a staple of pop culture in the U.S. Some people believe his fame and fortune are larger than Roddick deserves, but mercifully none of them are in a position to apply their innate, presumed superiority to dictate who gets what. But what sometimes gets overlooked, even as more and more people have embraced Roddick because of his drive and work ethic, is a more fundamental point.
Roddick has a healthy ego, no doubt about it. But he checked it at the gate in order to wring the most out of his talent and career, and that could not have been easy. Nothing about Roddick says "small" except for his...game. Sure, that big serve enables much of his success, but he grubs and grinds and plucks at his shirt with the best of them, droplets of sweat dropping from the brim of his hat, alert and bright-eyed, always ready to get into some stupid little hassle with the guy sitting in the high chair. He's become fun to watch despite playing a game that's a monument to the idea of toning it down. His game is that of a guy who prowls a beach with a metal detector, patiently hoping for a find, happy to come upon a quarter, or a St. Christopher medal, without ever giving up on the idea of finding that $50,000 Rolex.
I don't know where they found this Haase kid. He looked a lot better than No. 62 in the world the other day, and better than his career-high ranking of 56. Haase ended his 2010 campaign in early November; in his last tournament (Basel), he outlasted John Isner in the third round before he fell in the quarters to Novak Djokovic. So Haase has had plenty of time to work on his fitness and game, and get some much needed rest (by my count, he played 28 tournaments in 2010). So far this year, he's 3-2 with losses to Isner in Auckland and to Stan Wawrinka in the quarters of Chennai.
Roddick gets a huge edge in the mental/emotional column, but this match is still apt to be a lot closer than it may appear. In any event, it will be agreeable watching two big men playing small.