Interview: Andy Roddick
Monday June 6, 2005
With an expression of wistful patience Andy Roddick gazed up from the dining area of Queen's Club towards an elongated TV monitor where Rafael Nadal and Mariano Puerta were knocking up for yesterday's French Open final at Roland Garros.
Roddick, who is going for a hat-trick of wins in the Stella Artois tournament this week, had come to England for the start of the grass-court season a little early after his second-round defeat by the Argentinian Jose Acasuso in Paris where, with four wins in five visits since 2001, he truly has feet of clay. "It's not my best surface, for sure, and I don't know whether I'll ever win there, though I enjoy the challenge."
At Wimbledon, which starts in a fortnight, it is a little different. He remains one of the favourites. The world No3 was runner-up last year and his record serve has been timed at 155mph - the cut-off speed for a number of performance cars. His serve, measured at a record 153 at Queen's a year ago and extended a few months later, is brutal, a real monster -perhaps it should be roaming Grimpen Mire along with the Hound of the Baskervilles instead of creating havoc on these manicured lawns. He is also the owner of a devastating forehand. But is it enough?
No one would want his race to be run when he is only 22 but there are some who feel that Roddick might struggle to win another slam after his US title two years ago. Where will the next one come from? He will never be Nadal's equal on clay and on grass Roger Federer appears to enjoy a nonchalant superiority. Then there is Lleyton Hewitt, and Marat Safin, the winner of the Australian Open at the start of the year, is another huge if inconsistent talent.
Federer, though, remains the main man. When Bettina Bunge was asked what she had learned from a number of quick defeats by Martina Navratilova she replied "How to shake hands" and most of Federer's opponents, Roddick included, have felt the same way in the past year or two.
"There are no second acts in American lives," F Scott Fitzgerald once observed, and there are some who think Roddick might already have had his strut on centre stage. The sense that he might already be glancing in life's rear-view mirror must have entered his intelligent mind but he is not letting on. "I find that talk humorous," he said, almost convincingly.
"People can't call me a one-slam wonder because I've been pretty consistent and finished No2 last year. It's not as if I've tumbled to 20. I can't remember a time when you've had four young guys who have all been No1 and all won slams. Then you throw in Nadal and Guillermo Coria and, wow, the top 10 is looking really deep right now.
"Roger has to be a clear-cut favourite for Wimbledon because he hasn't lost on grass for two years. He's the best player I've ever seen, though I didn't play Pete [Sampras] when he was at his peak. What Roger has done in tennis is very similar to what Tiger Woods has done in golf. Tiger was dominant but Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson all became better players. There's a direct correlation. We're all pushing each other to get better." He revealed something of his concerns when he added: "My goal is to win at least another slam". Only one? The Fed could well win three or four more titles at Wimbledon alone.
It is the thought of winning at the All England Club that consumes Roddick these days. "I'm hitting the ball better than I did last year. And I'm more professional with my fitness and preparation these days. But I have to do better on the return to put pressure on the server.
"I badly wanted to win the US because I had been going there since I was a kid and it was my home grand slam. But if I had to choose one tournament to win now it would be Wimbledon.
"It can be won from the back of the court and Lleyton and Andre have given us two recent examples. And the courts are slower than they were. Apart from the top seeds I think that Tim Henman and Sébastien Grosjean could be dangerous. But this is the one I really want. I love the tradition of the place, the way it's been around forever. And the coverage it gets in England is great. In the States it comes in sixth or seventh as far as sport goes."
Being obsessive about winning Wimbledon, however, is not enough. It was not enough for the stylish and dapper Ken Rosewall, the ironically nicknamed "Muscles", whose four final defeats here were spread over 20 years.
Nor did it bring triumph for the robotic Ivan Lendl, a man who so craved a more human persona that it was once alleged he underwent surgery to remove the bolts from his neck; Lendl was beaten five times in the semis and twice in the final.
Roddick has no special plans for Federer, who also beat him in the 2003 semis. "Last year I won the first set and was a break up in the third. It will be more of the same if we meet again. He's not going to go away. I will have to take the game to him."
The pressure on Roddick has been immense. As Sampras and Andre Agassi faded from the scene he emerged as the new champion of American tennis and there has been little in the way of support.
In Paris the United States did not have a single male player in the last 32 for the second successive year, equalling their worst showing in a grand slam in the Open era. There is not much coming through either, though great things are expected of Donald Young.
"Donald is being pushed a bit fast right now. He's got a lot of potential but he's still very young and played five weeks on the pro tour without winning a set. So we've got to be patient. The pressure's been on me to come through since I was about 18."
Roddick, extrovert and aggressive, with his back-to-front baseball cap, is the all-American boy, which some might interpret as meaning his game is based on immense power and no subtlety. But there is more to Roddick than just tennis. When he became the world's leading player at the end of 2003 he was hailed as the player for the MTV generation. He is intelligent and articulate. He has presented the comedy programme Saturday Night Live and appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.
He has a passion for music and U2, the Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer are his favourites. "Last time I came here I went to see the Chilli Peppers in concert and this time I will be going to see U2. I don't think about tennis 24/7. I enjoy time on the lake at my Florida home and just being lazy on the sofa."
When he was only nine years old he presented each member of his family with a tennis ball which he had signed, telling them to "hold on to this - it might be valuable one day".
He laughs at the memory. "I would like to think I was being extremely confident about my future. On the other hand I might have been extremely frugal. I didn't have any money and used to wrap up a lot of stuff around the house." He is tall, 6ft 2in, but he was short as a boy when he was little more than a baseline scuffler. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but his family moved to Texas when he was four. He was the youngest of three brothers and used to hit the ball against a garage wall. When he went in for his tea and his mother asked what he had been doing he replied: "Beating the best tennis players in the world."
At that time brother John was the tennis player of the family. Then, in 1997, Roddick sprouted and with his height came an unusual talent for serving meteorites. We will see plenty of them at Queen's and Wimbledon in the next few weeks.