The Big Interview: Andy Roddick - London Sunday Times
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The Big Interview: Andy Roddick
11 Jan 2004
The Sunday Times, London
On superficial observation, Andy Roddick can excite anti-American prejudice. He dresses as a skateboarder; he pumps his fist in irritating self-inflation; he exudes his country’s certainty; and he enjoys the power that comes from the barrel of the biggest weapon in the game. And like America, around the globe he’s No 1.
But it pays to talk to somebody to find out what they’re about, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of quiet conversation with Roddick to prove, once again, that stereotypes and their attendant assumptions are usually worse than worthless. Roddick’s tennis may be wham-bam ugly and destructively effective, but his off-court character is honest, straightforward, generous, highly intelligent and, well, gracious. Whatever you think about George W Bush and Ronald McDonald, Roddick is the good guy.
HE IS No 1. But is that merely a statistic or the truth? Is he the best? “I’m not going to sit here and say I’m the best player in the world,” Roddick says. “To be honest, I feel rather fortunate to be No 1. And I’m just so thankful for what I was able to accomplish last year. For the rest of my life I will be able to say that I’ve won the US Open and I’ve been No 1 in the world. That’s pretty cool. It’s still surreal for me. It just doesn’t sound right, the two together with my name next to them. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.”
Such status brings many privileges, including the offer of the sumptuous office of the tournament director at the Qatar Open for the interview.
It is early in the week and Roddick is playing his first event of the season, en route to Australia and the opening Grand Slam event of the new campaign. Fresh from the practice court, he attentively sits forward in a large leather armchair, speaking quickly, almost nervously, to keep up with his tumbling thoughts.
It is not so much the main man in tennis granting an audience; rather, a clever, serious young person who has submitted to an interview and is anxious to make the right impression.
Roddick recounts the day of his signal achievement, defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets last September to win the US Open, signing off with four unstoppable serves. “I was surprisingly calm that morning, especially since it was such a huge occasion and something I’d been dreaming about for most of my life,” he says.
“Brad (Gilbert), my coach, and I treated it as a normal day. I woke up, did the breakfast thing, went to the courts, hit balls, played baseball a bit with my racket after practice and felt pretty relaxed. The closer it came to the time to play, the more jittery I became, but once I got out there into the stadium, I had a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time. It was almost like I was in a different state of mind. I was so calm. I didn’t even pump my fist once until the second-set tie-breaker, and I’d been on court for an hour and 15 minutes at that point.
“I was in a weird state, just playing the next point, then the next point, so focused on the task in hand that my mind didn’t wander at all. I wasn’t trying to do it; it just clicked in. When it came to the third set, I didn’t let up, I just worked on getting the break of serve.
“It was only when it came to the last game that I started thinking about the occasion. I was up 5-3 and serving. My serve had only been broken once in two days, over eight sets, and against good returners. So I knew it was in my hands. After what happened (the victory), people said I wasn’t nervous. Actually, I was crapping my pants.
“But it’s all about being able to handle it and not letting it consume you. I just tried to play that final game as fast as I could, so my thoughts didn’t get the better of me. I literally stepped out, hit one serve and was ready to go again. Then I hit another as soon as I could. And another. Four straight aces, and I had won. As far as dreams go, that, the US Open, was the biggest dream I could ever have.”
At the winner’s press conference, Roddick grabbed the microphone and opened proceedings. “No more ‘What’s it feel like to be the future of American tennis?’ crap. No more,” he said.
It was spoken mostly in jest, as the question that Roddick had fielded at almost every press conference since turning professional 3 years previously had become a running joke. But his impromptu declaration also betrayed relief. His burden of expectation had been heavy indeed. With Pete Sampras in retirement and Andre Agassi almost at the end of his career, American tennis needed a champion successor.
It was not a difficult search. In 2000, Roddick was ranked the top junior in the world after winning the junior singles title at the US Open and becoming the first American since 1959 to win the juniors event at the Australian Open. Soon after turning professional that year, he was invited to assist the US Davis Cup team as a hitting partner.
With his all-American demeanour, slash-and-burn game, “24/7” passion for music, scruff-cool wardrobe and popstar girlfriend, Mandy Moore, Roddick was the chosen one, the one with a following beyond the hardcore of tennis fans, the one to market.
When he was asked that irritating question about being the future of American tennis, Roddick used to trot out a programmed response. “I play for myself, my close friends and my family, and that’s it,” he would say. But he knew that much more was at stake. He was playing as America’s Great Hope, and since the treasure-laden edifice of the world professional game is built on American sponsorship, it wasn’t just American tennis but the worldwide game that was waiting and praying for Roddick to deliver.
Having delivered, he can now admit it. “Before I won the US title, there had been a lot of hype rather than substance,” he says. “I got a lot of it before it was deserved, so the win was almost like validation for me, proving that maybe I was there.”
THE triumph had been assumed in advance and heralded by all, with the curious exception of Roddick himself, who still finds it hard to believe. The reason for this lies in his boyhood, in the story of his early development as a tennis player and young man. It is this story that proves he is right to be amazed by his rise to the top, for it is a kind of miracle.
He was born in Omaha, Nebraska. The family moved to Austin, Texas, when Roddick, the youngest of three brothers, was four. “My mom played tennis at a local club, but my dad had given it up,” he says. “He played for about a year and then decided it wasn’t for him. But they both believed in what individual sports taught: self-reliance, responsibility and so on.
“My eldest brother, Lawrence, was a springboard diver, and a very good one. John, my other brother, went for tennis, and he was also very good. In fact, he was national junior champion. In those days, bumming around junior tennis in Austin, when I was eight, which is about the time I played my very first tournament, I was known as ‘Little Roddick’, because the real Roddick was my brother John.”
And he was small. In fact, Roddick, who now stands at 6ft 2in, did not exceed 5ft 2in until he was 14. Since he was so small, he had no choice but to play the small guy’s game, popping the ball into court on service and scrapping away from the baseline, with speed and tenacity his only weapons.
In the garage at home, he used to hit balls against a rebound net, springs making the ball bounce back. He imagined he was Ivan Lendl or Michael Chang, Boris Becker or Stefan Edberg, and when his mother asked him what he had been doing, he would say he had been beating the best players in the world.
The first full match he watched on television was in 1989, when Chang lost the first two sets against Lendl in the fourth round of the French Open and overcame cramp to win in more than 4 hours. That was the kind of player Little Roddick was — small and indomitable. After watching Chang and Lendl, Roddick went out to the courts himself and played for three hours.
The next year, at Christmas, Roddick’s dreams were becoming grander. He presented each member of his family with the same present: a box containing a tennis ball that he had signed with a felt-tip pen. “Hang on to it,” he told them. “It might be valuable one day.”
That hardly seemed likely. When he was 10, his family moved to Florida. For several years he remained a gutsy, short and limited player, scratching away from the baseline. But from 1997 he began to grow, and once he had grown, he accidentally found what every player covets — a brilliant, cannonball service.
“One day, I was practising and I got pissed off,” he recalls. “I just stepped up to the line and took a wicked swing at it without really going through the proper motions, and it went in, and I did it again and it went in again, and it was pretty hot, and the rest is history.
“I started doing it that day, then I used it in a tournament and it worked well, felt good. It’s completely natural. There’s not a lot of thought put into it.
“I get asked all the time how I get so much power in my serve, and I feel like a dumb-ass because I never have an answer. It just happens. I’ve no idea where it comes from.
“But since that day, it’s just always there for me, the one thing I can rely on.”
From that day to this, his service action remains the same. And with that action he can serve flat, or kick the ball high and wide, or into the body, or slice it out of reach. “I just do whatever pops into my mind. I go with my gut. And I don’t imagine it or think about it technically; I just do it.”
It goes like this: tossing the ball skywards with a jerk, he stands on his tiptoes and bends at the knees in a semi-crouch, his lower body becoming a loaded spring.
To release the spring, he leaps upwards and forwards and flails with his racket arm and wrist. All this energy of body weight, hand speed and anger is forced by percussion to the ball, which screams its departure like a shell from a field-gun. As with a gunner, if he misses the target, Roddick reloads, makes his adjustment and fires again. He rarely serves a double-fault.
His service is not pretty, but it is without doubt the greatest weapon in the modern game. “I’m just thankful for my serve, because it has saved me so often,” he says. “It allowed me to win matches right away when I first went out on the tour, even if I wasn’t ready to do so, because I had that one weapon I could go to.
“Since then, I’ve been learning on the trot, improving the other areas of my game. It also wears on the other guy. If I’m having a really good serving day and they’re thinking there’s no way in hell they’re going to break serve, and suddenly it’s 30-all on their serve, they know if they lose their serve, the set’s over.
“So it’s an advantage even when I’m returning. I can take more chances in return games.”
It is the serve that has enabled Roddick to dispose of so many players with a minimum of fuss; when he has been embroiled in epic five-set matches it is the serve that has come to his rescue. Twelve years after watching Chang beat Lendl in Paris, Roddick found himself playing Chang on the red clay of Roland Garros. This time, however, he was the one who suffered cramp in the fifth set, so severely that he dared not sit down in his chair when they changed ends, for fear that he would not be able to get up again.
Instead, he paced around the baseline, to the cheers of the Paris crowd, who took him to their hearts that day. Unable to rally, he tried to win every point with one shot, and managed enough aces to prevail. He served 37 in the match, a record for the French Open.
NOW, more than ever, and even though he is No 1, Roddick knows he must get better. “I’m not consumed with numbers, with being No 1 at all times through the year,” he says. “My main goal for 2004 is to keep improving on every aspect of my game. That is what keeps me optimistic. And I know that it is absolutely possible for me to improve yet still go down to four or five in the rankings.”
The reason is that there is so little to choose between the best players in the men’s game. Roddick is numerically superior at present, but Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, has a much wider range of skills; Ferrero, the French champion, is the current king on clay; and Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt are both determined to return to the top spot and are both capable of doing so.
Roddick, who often applauds opponents’ shots, is especially generous in his admiration for Federer, who beat him easily in the Wimbledon semi-finals, and again in the Tennis Masters Cup in Houston in November.
“Roger’s game is so complete,” says Roddick. “It comes so easy to him. He can make really good players look bad. He’s the most talented player in the world for sure, and he knows he can do almost whatever he wants. But his one problem is that he has the luxury of being bored sometimes, and that’s why he loses, while the rest of us lose because we’re struggling.”
Last June, after he had been beaten in the first round of the French Open, Roddick dispensed with Tarik Benhabiles, his French-Algerian coach, and replaced him with Gilbert, who had once been Agassi’s coach. The change was immediately beneficial: Roddick won at Queen’s Club, reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, won his first Grand Slam title in New York and became No 1.
It was unfortunate that such a transformation was bound to reflect badly on Benhabiles. Roddick realised as much when he won the US Open, and did the right thing: “I called him on the phone that night. When I got to my hotel, I put my bags down, took a shower and called him straight away. He was in Florida. We live four blocks away from each other. He said he always knew I would accomplish it.
“People have to realise, and I told him he has to realise as well, that my winning the US Open reflects on him as much as anybody. He took me from an amateur who was 10 minutes away from signing to go to college, persuaded me to turn professional straight away and took me to six in the world in professional tennis. Tarik has been such a huge part of my life. I just needed somebody to take me over the last hump, and that was Brad. He was just the guy I needed at that time.”
If Roddick and Gilbert getting to No 1 was notable, their task in staying ahead of a pack that includes Federer is Herculean. “Andy has to get better in everything he does,” says Gilbert, who accompanied Roddick to Qatar. “He has to work on getting to the net more and he has to be more aggressive. He has to be quicker and, yes, he has to improve on his serve. He has to think about his serve, and he has to develop his options with it. At the moment he serves at 140mph, but in five years’ time I think he can serve at 160mph. He thinks that is physically impossible, but I don’t. Why not? All the time, the bar goes up.
“Andy is physically tremendous at 21, but mentally he really is 21. He can get way better tactically, and he has to. I learnt that from Agassi. He’s 33, but he believes he can get better. That’s why he’s still in the thick of things. You know, Agassi was a great player in 1989, but the Agassi of 2003 would have crushed the Agassi of 1989.
“That means that if Andy is not much better in 2010 than he is today, he will have been left behind. One thing is for sure, and that is that the other guys are working hard and they’re going to get better.”
Gilbert talks sense, but he’s pushing at an open door. Roddick knows what he has to do. “People laugh when I say I can improve my serve, but I honestly think I can,” he says. “I can volley a lot better and I can serve and volley more.
“But then I’ve led the Tour statistics for the past two years in service games held, so I’m not exactly weak in that area. What I would really like is to be in the top 10 for return games won. Returning serve is the most obvious area I have to improve.”
Essentially, Roddick trains for the days when his service isn’t working at its best, when his first-service percentage drops below 50%, as it did against Federer in the Wimbledon semi-final. That day, he was made to look clumsy and limited by comparison.
“The biggest part of my off-season work was on fitness,” says Roddick. “I thought I could do a lot better physically; get quicker and lighter on my feet. Brad lives on the west coast, so I had to motivate myself for the first time, which was good for me. I had a fitness trainer living with me for two months and I worked very hard. I feel better for it, but I won’t really know how much fitter I am until I’m deep in the trenches in a fifth set under a hot sun.”
After Christmas, Gilbert arrived in Florida and worked with Roddick for 10 days. “He suggests technical adjustments here and there, but it’s also about being positive,” Roddick says. “Brad encourages me to take what I have and attack the other guy with it, rather than trying to protect my own deficiencies.”
Gilbert’s forte is the mental game, the cool use of the brain to find a way to win. For Roddick, the secret is to play with passion but calculation. “It’s about passion and emotion,” he says. “Passion is a huge part for me. It allows me to play well in big matches, so it’s something I don’t want to lose. But I can’t let it take over at the wrong time. There’s a difference between passion and emotion on court. I need passion, but I know that it’s not good to be too emotional.
“That’s not easy, because I’m insanely competitive. I’m a completely different person on and off the court. On court, something gets inside of me. I’ve made friends who have never seen me play tennis before, and then they come to a tournament and they can’t believe that it’s me out there. My brother John was the same — the most playful, nicest guy you could meet, but on court he could break six rackets.
“I hate to lose, but I know that there’s more to life than tennis. When I’ve been beaten, I’m the kind of guy who needs 15 minutes to myself. I could break a racket or scream at myself, I could do anything, but then you’ll never see me really angry later that night. I can leave it behind.”
THE battle for supremacy in men’s tennis during 2004 promises to be tremendous. Gilbert, who has been involved as player and coach for more than 20 years, insists that the standard of the men’s game has never been higher. “The quality of the top men is unbelievable,” he says.
“They talk about men’s tennis being down. In fact it has never been better or deeper. There is an unbelievable core of young guys, all with different styles and all great players. They should be given the credit.”
Roddick is ready. “It should be fun,” he says. “It’s going to be great over the next few years for me, to see if I can take the Wimbledon title away from Federer, for us all to see whether someone can play better than Ferrero on clay.”
And indeed whether anybody can knock Roddick, the king of the castle, from the heights he occupies with some bewilderment. “I’m still trying to get used to it,” he says. “I can’t help thinking of myself as this little runt kid from Nebraska and Texas, so it’s very weird for me to be No 1. But it means I’m doing something right.”
Last edited by Deboogle!.; 01-11-2004 at 07:21 PM.