Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Andy Roddick Beat Me With a Frying Pan -- Taking the Field with Pro Athletes and Olympic Legends to Answer Sports Fans' Burning Questions" by Todd Gallagher. The author takes sports greatest debates and puts them to the test on the field of play with some of the world's greatest athletes. The excerpt focuses on Gallagher's battle with a pan-wielding Roddick.
Andy Roddick is a 25-year-old professional tennis player with 23 ATP titles to his credit, including the 2003 U.S. Open. Having spent his entire childhood training on the tennis court, sometimes for as many as 10 hours a day, he now has the ability to strike shots at speeds and with a level of accuracy that are almost impossible to comprehend. Andy has hit the fastest serve ever recorded, at 155 mph. If you had never played tennis before and hit with Andy, you would immediately understand that you were dealing with an incredible athlete. You wouldn't win a point and would possibly get injured by one of his serves.
I play tennis, too! While Roddick was the world's No. 1 player, I made it to No. 2 on my high school team the season I played. Like Roddick, I can hit all of the shots. Unlike Andy, I can't hit any of them particularly well or with any kind of power or placement. I hit my first serve around 105 mph, which is slower than his second serve, and it doesn't have anywhere near the kind of action Andy's ball does. I pray to God the first one goes in, because if it doesn't, I could easily double fault.
The best way to make the comparison is to say that there's no comparison. Roddick spends his time plowing through opponents in major tournaments, while I spend too much time on my couch watching him do so. Still, like Roddick, I am a tennis player and a competitive guy, so although I never had the dedication or the talent to play at his level, I wanted to know what a win over a player as great as he is felt like. In my heart I knew that I had what it took to beat him. I just had to figure out an unfair way to do it.
As to how unfair, well, that would take some thought. While someone with no tennis experience would not win a point from Andy in a set, I probably wouldn't have a prayer of winning more than a point or two either. This is, in part, because I'm not that good, but also because the difference between a recreational player and an actual pro might be greater in tennis than in any other sport.
I would venture to say that Roddick is significantly better than the players who beat me so easily in high school, so if I wanted to be able to beat him and make it feel like a real win, I would have to come up with a handicap that seemed reasonable enough, on the surface at least, to make Andy emotionally invested in the match.
• The first thought was to make Andy play with one hand tied behind his back.
• What if we made Andy wear an eye patch?
• What if Andy gave me the use of the doubles alleys?
• Ask Andy to play left-handed.
After too many hours of thought, finally I gave up and said, "F--- it, make him play with a frying pan."
First, even a player as great as Roddick would be hindered by having to lug around this heavy, cumbersome piece of hardware. Second, the skillet would severely limit his booming serves. Third, only one side of a frying pan can be used to strike the ball, meaning that he would have to flip over the pan every time he switched to his backhand. Fourth, a frying pan has no strings, taking away Roddick's ability to use a variety of spins that help him hit powerful and well-placed groundstrokes. Lastly, it would force him to expend a lot of mental energy to resist making bad "out of the frying pan" puns when he won a point.
On the appointed day I arrived in Boca Raton, Fla., ready for battle. We started rallying, and Roddick was, unfortunately, amazing. He was able to center the ball on the pan immediately and consistently put his shots deep in the court. Considering that a frying pan is heavier than a racket, has a smaller surface area, and has no strings, that he could hit the ball right away with no trouble is beyond belief. Although Ichiro might disagree, top tennis players, more than other athletes, have this kind of hand-eye coordination. I was getting a little concerned.
But as we continued to hit, it became clear that Roddick had major difficulties to overcome. The main one was his inability to put spin on the ball. Hitting every shot flat may not have been a problem for his coach, Jimmy Connors, who struck everything on a line, but for any other tennis player in the world, not being able to use spin to control your power and depth is a real issue. It also meant that Roddick had to abandon his typical grip on his strokes, going from western to continental.
The backhand was a beast unto itself. Making solid contact with a frying pan is hard enough, but once you have to flip it over and coordinate the grip change, you're getting into unmanageable problems. Any shot to his backhand made for just too much work. This was an even bigger issue on volleys and the net game, where I was worried Andy would take control. In fact, volleying was eliminated entirely because of the shorter amount of time he had to make the flip to the backhand.
To Roddick's credit, though, he fought through these problems. Almost immediately he identified the need to stay at the baseline, and after only a couple of minutes of warmups he recognized that the backhand had to be avoided at all costs. Playing from the back court, he made a concerted effort to run around any ball hit to his backhand -- no simple feat, since I kept putting the ball to that side. "I see what you're trying to do, and I'm not going to let you do it," the defiant Roddick yelled to me. If not for his footwork, speed and anticipation, he would have been shanking backhands into the stands all day. As it turned out, the entire time we played he ended up hitting all but two shots with the forehand.
But ultimately, while Roddick consistently put the ball in the court, he wasn't able to hit shots with enough speed or accuracy to control points, which in this matchup would be a particular problem. I'm what in tennis circles is called a "push." Players of my style simply "push" the ball back to their opponent without any particular power, the idea being that if you keep the ball in play long enough, your A.D.D-riddled opponent, who wants to pretend he's Andy Roddick and hit the ball hard, will do something stupid and miss.
Roddick, however, actually was Roddick and was more concerned with winning than with being a tough guy on the tennis court. Recognizing that the pan limited his options for aggressive shots, he attempted to match me at my own game. The best tennis player in America did an impressive job keeping rallies going, but I didn't bail him out by making errors. My handicapping was on the money. Andy was good enough to think he had a chance, but I was in the driver's seat. As hard as he tried to keep the ball in the court, the frying pan I had saddled him with eventually did what I wanted it to. He started missing, and pretty soon I was cruising.
I was closing in on finishing Andy off when the unthinkable happened. Wanting to put on a show for the adoring (my word, not theirs) crowd, I let my ego get in the way and went for a big shot down the line that missed by inches. It was only one point, but I knew what my dad would say when he started giving me a hard time: Andy Roddick beat me with a frying pan. Still, no matter what kind of nonsense I'd have to hear, I knew that if I closed out the game without further incident I'd show the world the full extent of my abilities … in other words, that I was just competent enough at tennis to defeat a man who was using a frying pan.
On match point, Roddick slapped a forehand wide and the guy with the racket won. Oh, and the guy with the racket also did some exaggerated fist pumps and gave high fives to the crowd, yelling something about the "heart of a champion." Of this display it was later said, "That was an appropriate victory celebration for someone who had just won Wimbledon." I finally knew what it was like to beat Andy Roddick: embarrassing.
But I didn't care how embarrassing it was; I finally had my win over a top player, and even better, in the process I drew blood. Defeated, Roddick slammed the pan to the ground in frustration, breaking the handle. Andy, don't you realize a good artist never blames his instrument?
I'd like to say my sensational victory was a testament to my greatness, but really it was just my brilliant strategy. With a frying pan, no player, even one as great as Roddick, can hit the shots needed to defeat a decent player who keeps the ball in the court at all costs. There are just too many ways to make an error with a frying pan, and our points ended with Roddick either being caught in an incredibly awkward hitting situation or being forced to go for an aggressive shot that he didn't yet have the feel for making. However, against a more aggressive/dumb player who made unforced errors, even someone on the intermediate level, Roddick would have taken over. He'd have patiently dinked his opponent to death and run down balls until the player went for too big of a shot and missed.
You may find this hard to believe, but as impressed as I was with myself, I came away more impressed with Roddick. Even using a frying pan, he could make almost any high school tennis team and be considered a solid player at all but the best of programs … although this would unquestionably be very awkward given the age difference and his insistence on using the pan and all. That he was this good after just 15 minutes of practice (or a week, depending on who you believe) was remarkable.
"I think if I had more time to practice, I would improve," Roddick said. "A lot of the shots I didn't quite know how to hit with the frying pan. You saw on that volley I hit that went flying. The adjustment to the backhand was the biggest thing. I kept running around it but you can't do that forever. If I could fiddle around with it, I'd be OK."
Roddick within a week would most likely start limiting his errors and punishing floaters. In a month or so, he'd be keeping most every ball in the court that he was willing to play conservatively. Pretty soon he'd adjust to the loss of his biggest weapon, his powerful serve, and learn to minimize the problems with the backhand, returning serves, and dealing with hard-hit balls.
And if he became so obsessed with beating me in a rematch that he dropped off the tour for a year to spend hours a day hitting forehand after forehand, learning to use the edges of the pan to slice the ball, mastering how to flip that pan quickly enough for volleys, learning whether a nonstick pan would be more effective than a traditional one … he would be declared criminally insane and possibly institutionalized. And is finally being able to beat me really worth all that, Andy?