Roddick amps up game
September 11, 2006
The Beautiful Loser, that's what Andy Roddick was.
His effort was faultless. His daring unquestioned. For three-quarters of his U.S. Open final against peerless Roger Federer yesterday, Roddick was inching closer to the lead, staying in the match. He was ignoring Federer's peerless reputation and storming the net with more resolve against Federer than he ever had before.
It was a calculated risk, all right - that Roddick and new coach Jimmy Connors knew. Roddick was baiting Federer, the best shotmaker in the game, to reach into his quiver and make some magic, shoulder the pressure, be more perfect. Then Roddick kept coming in, even when Federer blasted passing shots down the line or curled wicked crosscourt winners. And for a while there, it was working.
Roddick rebounded from an 0-5 start to the match and took the second set. At one point in the third, with the crowd howling for him, Roddick turned to Patrick McEnroe, his Davis Cup captain who was courtside, and screamed, "I'm having more fun than I can handle!"
"I felt like I had him a little bit off for, you know, a little bit of that third set, and it could have gone either way," Roddick said later.
Then Federer ended it with astounding suddenness. He reeled off seven straight games, and eight of the last nine to seize the match with the ease of a man running downhill.
"The start was great, the finish was great," Federer said after holding off Roddick, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. "What was in between really doesn't matter."
Maybe it doesn't. Maybe it does. Given Roddick's 1-10 mark against Federer before the match, some change in strategy was a no-brainer. And you knew a give-no-quarter man like Connors, Roddick's coach for just the last month, would come up with something. But still ...
What every serve-and-volleyer has to be willing to accept is losing the small skirmishes for a point here or there to win the bigger war. But it's an especially big leap of faith for a baseliner like Roddick, who was weaned on radar-gun readings and ear-ringing raves about his 140-mph serves and monster forehand. It's even tougher to believe such a change will work in a major final. And against the likes of Federer.
"Well," Roddick said with a smirk, "if you throw enough crap against the wall, something's going to stick sometime."
Roddick will never be a panther at the net with the footwork of a Rod Laver or the soft hands and volleying artistry of a John McEnroe. But tennis has been waiting and hoping for someone to trouble Federer, to walk on court and ignore the Swiss star's best-ever reputation and reduce the task at hand to simply trying to win a match. Roddick was as understandly guilty of that as anyone. When asked Saturday if there's ever been a time when he visualized beating Federer on an occasion as big as a U.S. Open title match, Roddick truthfully answered: "No. I got to get to that point. But I don't know if I can create it in my mind before it happens."
Rafael Nadal, 20, has done it now and then against Federer, though mostly on clay. If Roddick takes anything away from yesterday's loss, it should be the memory of the small window of opportunity he'd flung open and nearly climbed through against Federer, too, before Federer slammed it shut.
"I was definitely under pressure in the third set," Federer allowed.
What came next from Federer wasn't all that surprising. Not for a man who improved to 9-1 in major finals. When troubled by Roddick, Federer came up with the goods. He had 17 aces to Roddick's seven. He struck 69 winners to Roddick's 33, and 23 of them came in that hotly contested third set that Federer didn't pry away from Roddick until he seized a set-deciding break with Roddick serving at 5-6.
Roddick seemed to deflate a bit after that and Federer began to swing more freely and without fear. A tormented Roddick, knowing he was getting the bum rush toward the door, actually screamed at himself "Win a damn game!" when he was serving at 0-5 and trying to avoid being bageled in the final set.
It was a small triumph when he pulled it off. The bigger victories will have to wait.