Returning the favor: Much of the scrutiny of Andy Roddick's more diverse game has focused on his play at the net. Yet in the last six months, he's quietly upgraded his return of service as well.
"I think that goes along with confidence," Roddick said earlier this month in San Jose. "When I'm confident, I've returned OK and been able to get my breaks. That being said, my positioning has changed a little bit [and is] a little more aggressive. I used to stand back.
"I think I play kind of opposite even than when I was number one. It was a necessary adjustment, a little bit of a compete overhaul on the run for lack of a better term. It's still a work in progress, but I feel like it's improving."
Players with serves as powerful as Roddick's sometimes tend to treat their return game with benign neglect, the way great pitchers don't spend a lot of time in the batting cage. But just as a pitcher helps himself by occasionally getting on base, a big server can boost his own cause by pressuring the very first shot, putting his opponent back on his heels or at least preventing him from jumping on the ball.
Sometimes the other player simply doesn't allow that to happen. Tommy Haas was literally untouchable in Memphis, where he beat Roddick in the final last weekend, and didn't face a break point in any of his matches.
As Roddick has stepped up his efforts to find openings and create something off a return, "It's more of a mind-set change than a technical change," his brother and co-coach, John Roddick, told ESPN.com.
"It doesn't feel good to try to do damage off a first serve. When you miss it a few times or you get aced, it gets frustrating. You just want to try to poke it in play and hope the guy misses.
"A lot of times before, Andy would just try to make returns, and then run around and figure out a way to win a point. Now he's doing a little bit more with the returns. If he misses 'em, he misses 'em."
Andy Roddick's other coach, Jimmy Connors, had one of the best returns of all time, and his input has helped Andy with the shift, John said.
"You'll see [Andy] sometimes now, he'll make a return but it'll be short, and he'll get on himself about it because a short ball doesn't scare anybody," John Roddick said. "That's what Roger [Federer] does so well. He doesn't necessarily hit it that hard all the time but he's just so precise with getting it back all the time, making the guy take a step back after his serve."
Coming into this week, Federer, one of the most effective, consistent returners in the game, was winning 38 percent of the points off his opponents' first serves to Roddick's 23 percent. [Federer had played seven matches at the time, Roddick 15.] The gap is smaller on second serves, where Roddick had won 50 percent of the points to Federer's 61 percent.
"Andy's not going to chip as many, he's going to try to hit over it a little more, but I think that's the difference between a one-hander [backhand, used by Federer] and a two-hander, too," John Roddick said. "On the one-hand, it's harder to move the grip around, so you end up having to do that hard chip."
Andy Roddick's longtime pal Mardy Fish said he understands the challenge.
"You can't have everything," Fish said. "You can't have the fastest serve ever in tennis and then have great returns. Andy breaks a lot, he's got a great ground-stroke game and a huge forehand. It's asking a lot to say, why isn't he a [Patrick] Rafter-type volleyer, why doesn't he have the backhand of [Marat] Safin? Guys have weaknesses.
"He's got good hands. Maybe he's applying them more, maybe Jimmy has given him something to think about on the returns, maybe he's concentrating more on the return games. Sometimes when you get in the swing of serving well and holding all the time, you say, 'Let's just hold every time, and eventually you're going to get chances to break.'"