Andy Roddick: Survival Of The Fittest
by Kate Flory
In the never-ending battle for survival on the ATP World Tour, all players must evolve to remain in the hunt. Three-time Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick is the first to admit that he's no exception to the rule.
Look for a more humble and appreciative Andy Roddick at the All England Lawn Tennis Club this year than the one who made his debut with a third-round exit to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic in 2001. Playing in the Roger Federer - Rafael Nadal era can chasten any man. With age and experience comes perspective, and Roddick has it in abundance. “There’s regrets in matches, but I sleep well knowing I’ve been professional and I’ve done what I’ve needed to,” the 28 year old tells DEUCE during the AEGON Championships.
“I’ve always been maybe a little divisive. People have loved me at times in my career and people have disliked me strongly at times in my career,” he laughs. “But I think the one thing that I have been is pretty honest and pretty forthright. I think people feel like they get a decent read on me, whether it’s good or bad. I think they feel like it’s at least genuine.”
Roddick has come a long way from the 19 year old who used to announce himself on the phone to his friend and personal driver while in London, Stephen Little, as, “Your arrogant American friend speaking”. Roddick’s Davis Cup teammate James Blake recounts, “When he was first on tour I think he was pretty brash and I’d say he was quite confident in his abilities. Amazingly, what’s really funny is that he’s had so many tremendous and amazing accomplishments and it’s almost like he’s humbled.”
Ask any tennis fan what the staples of the American’s game are and two answers come back: His fearsome serve, hailed as one of the greatest in the history of the game by former pro and close friend Justin Gimelstob and his fiercely competitive nature that is equally as apparent in a friendly game of cards as in a Grand Slam final.
Both of those weapons contribute to Roddick being among the “top four grass-court players on the planet,” according to his coach Larry Stefanki. The American is preparing for his 11th assault at The Championships, Wimbledon, the tournament he values above all others and where he is held in great affection by the British public.
Roddick is renowned as one of the grittiest competitors in the game and has left no stone unturned in his quest to squeeze every last drop out of his tennis abilities. “He competes at everything so well and he’s such a hard worker,” notes his trainer of eight years, Doug Spreen, formerly of the ATP. “I learned very quickly, after a year or two of working with Andy, that I didn’t have to worry if he was working hard when he was home.”
In a bid to keep pace with his rivals, Roddick made the decision to re-evaluate his game at the end of 2008. He hired Larry Stefanki, former coach to John McEnroe and Marcelo Rios, and dropped 15lbs in weight – a decision Stefanki credits entirely to Roddick’s own motivation. "I think he looked around and thought, ‘If I’m going to keep up with the top guys, I’m going to make some adjustments as well’,” explains Stefanki. “You carry more weight, it’s going to be tougher to lump around. You have to work on your feet, be fleet-footed.”
Roddick adds, “I think the best thing that I’ve done, as far as tennis goes, is I haven’t been too proud to adapt. Things have changed a lot in the past 10 years; it’s become a lot more about movement. You can’t really have two shots and get away with it anymore. You have to be able to move, you have to be able to work on being more complete, which I’ve tried. I’ve had to do that two or three times now. I think that’s why, 10 years later, I’m still here.”
RoddickThe effects were instantaneous for Roddick in 2009. He reached the Australian Open semi-finals and six months later was contesting one of the greatest Wimbledon finals. Amazingly, just a year earlier, the American had seriously pondered what more he was capable of achieving in tennis, having suffered a shock second-round loss at 2008 Wimbledon to Janko Tipsarevic. It was down to not just the intervention of Stefanki, but also the advice of his would-be wife Brooklyn Decker, that convinced Roddick there was more to come.
“I wasn’t enjoying it, I was forcing it a little bit, and Larry was necessary because it was a little bit of a fresh perspective on things. One of Larry’s best quotes is, ‘It’s probably never as good as it seems, and it’s probably never as bad as it seems with tennis,’” recounts Roddick.
“I openly wondered if the best was behind me. I wasn’t enjoying it and Brooklyn was really supportive. She said, ‘As bad as tennis seems right now, it’s what you’ve always loved. It’s what you do; it’s what you’ve done since you were a kid.’ So while I was thinking out loud whatever came into my head, she was actually using a little bit of common sense and reason, which when you’re an athlete, and more affected by the moment than you should be, it’s tough to be objective about it.”
Both Decker and Stefanki were present in Roddick’s corner at Wimbledon a year later when his perseverance was rewarded by reaching a third Wimbledon final. For four hours and 16 minutes against Federer, Roddick led his supporters on a rollercoaster of emotions. He had a two-set lead on his racquet in the second set tie-break, but a haunting backhand volley error reprieved Federer. In a phenomenal serving display, Roddick did not lose serve until the final game of the match as Federer clinched victory 16-14 in the 95-minute fifth set.
“I think a point here or there in that second set ultimately cost him at the end,” laments Stefanki. “But I’m very proud of the way he dug himself back out of that negative situation. As well as Andy served, I’ve been around since Roger was 17 and I’ve seen a lot of matches he’s played; that was the best I’ve seen him serve. That’s the agony of sports: There’s going to be a loser and a winner.”
Just how do you pick yourself up after a defeat like that? With Roddick, his competitive spirit just would not be quelled. Gimelstob recalls that, in typical Andy Roddick fashion, pizzas were ordered, the match was dissected, and then it was put to bed. “It hurt him a lot, and it was emotional and a brutal situation. He has regrets, but he was also proud of the way he competed and played on a huge stage.”
Roddick remembers, “A couple of days afterwards I thought every minute What if? What if? What if? What if?
Two points away four or five times.’ And I couldn’t get that out of my head. But then a month later it’s once a day, and then a year later you don’t really think of it every day. Like in anything, time helps. The problem wasn’t how I felt about the way I was playing; the only thing wrong with that match was the result.
“Honestly, I think it bothered me more after I lost to [Yen-Hsun] Lu last year,” Roddick adds, recalling his fourth-round defeat in a 9-7 fifth set after nearly four hours of play. “It was almost a year hangover.”
The defeat to Federer was the fourth time that Roddick had been foiled by the Swiss in a major final, having also lost in the 2004-2005 Wimbledon finals and in the 2006 US Open title match. Following the Agassi-Sampras glory years, Roddick has been the torchbearer for American tennis in an era dominated by two Europeans, Nadal and Federer. It begs the question: Just what could Roddick have achieved had he not been challenged by two of the greatest players ever to lift a racquet? “You take out Roger and Rafa and I think Andy would have won five or six Grand Slams,” declares Bob Bryan. “He just came around in a tough era.”
When asked, though, Roddick is quick to embrace it as a privilege, not a hindrance. “It’s almost like a healthy jealousy. You want their success. I think the game’s a lot stronger playing-wise than when I started. If I refer to any part of my life as a hindrance, I feel like that might be a little obnoxious. I feel like people expect me to throw a pity party because I’ve played with great players. What tennis has afforded me, and the opportunities I’ve had because of it, I won’t complain about it.”
Roddick is clearly one of the best of his generation. He won the US Open in 2003 and that year finished at World No. 1 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Four years later he fulfilled a life-long dream of winning the Davis Cup. There has been success for Roddick away from the court, too; in April 2009, he tied the knot with model and actress Brooklyn Decker and has seen his Foundation raise more than $10 million for children in need since its inception in 2001.
Roddick notes the proudest achievement of his tennis career as his consistency. The Texan has finished in the year-end Top 10 for nine consecutive years (2002-2010), placing him ninth on the All-Time Top 10 Finishes list. Among active players, only Roger Federer can boast such a record.
“He’s a Hall of Fame player that’s basically done everything he could do in tennis,” states Gimelstob. “His consistency will be his legacy. Top 10 player for 10 years and the trademark of his game is his work ethic, his intensity, his will. Obviously it helps by having that huge weapon of the serve.”
Says Roddick, “I’ve seen a lot of guys have two- and three-year windows where they’ve played really well and then I look back five years later and I’m like ‘Oh, I wonder what that guy’s doing now.’ To have been there as long as I have I think is a testament; I’m proud that I’ve worked. I don’t think I’m naturally as talented as a lot of guys, but I’m willing to work and I take almost a strange pride in that.”
And so it’s that time of year again. Roddick has moved in to his Wimbledon residence and the game face is on after a solid week’s preparation at The Queen’s Club. Little, explains, “When we move on to Wimbledon there is a little bit more tenseness in him, no doubt. He’s desperate to win it and he’s been so, so close. He feels the change in the pressure when we move up there.”
Critics may say Roddick’s time has passed; that his best chance was in 2009. But the mood in Team Roddick is one of unrelenting optimism. Roddick believes he has a couple of deep Grand Slam runs left in him and has come through the other side of niggling injuries and a mild bout of mononucleosis to arrive in as good a shape as he’s ever been in. The past three weeks have been spent honing his greatest weapon, the serve, and Stefanki believes it could be the key for Roddick to finally lay his hands on The Gentlemen's Singles Trophy at The Championships.
“I don’t care about all those guys (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray),” declares Stefanki. “I know they’re great tennis players, but on this surface I don’t put any of those guys over Andy if he’s in a right spot like 2009. He knows if he’s right, and he allows himself to free up and his serve is repeating, no one wants to play this guy in best of five. As you get older you have to be ready to perform on the biggest stages, because he’s a great competitor; he’s one of the best competitors out here by a mile.”
In 2001, Goran Ivanisevic defied all expectations as he clinched the Wimbledon singles title after three runner-up finishes. For Roddick, it is a healthy reminder that “there’s no script in sport. You get a rush of blood, you get a little luck, and you play some good tennis and anything happens.”
Roddick may not get his fairytale ending at Wimbledon. Whatever happens, though, nothing can dampen his competitive edge or love for the game. “He just views [setbacks] as a challenge and seems to find a new source of motivation and just works even harder,” states Gimelstob.
“What else am I going to do?” says Roddick. “I know a handful of people who really enjoy what they do and I really enjoy what I do. So there’s really no reason not to keep driving on.”