To TennisOne Readers,
We're proud to bring you the best tennis minds and writers each week at TennisOne. I wanted to thank and and acknowledge Paul Fein, one of our regular contributors for his contributions in this effort. Besides his regular excellent contributions to TennisOne, Paul's writing awards include:
— Tennis Writer of the Year with Tennis Week in 1991.
— 10 1st Place awards in the US Tennis Writers' Association writing contest.
— His article, The Escape Artist, was recently awarded 8th Place in the Magazine Feature Article category of the 81st Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition.
— 15 awards in the International Writers-Editors Writing Contest.
Join me in congratulating Paul on his continuing contributions to the tennis world.
Kim Shanley, Publisher, TennisOne
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The Best Bad Tennis Player of All Time — Andy Roddick
“Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” —Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
When Andy Roddick turned 10, his birthday present—a trip to the US Open— turned into a life-altering adventure. He snuck into the Player’s Lounge where he stole a cheesecake and whipped Pete Sampras in a video game of Mortal Kombat. Ever since, Roddick has combined an unadulterated passion for tennis with a boyish devilry.
Fast forward seven years. After hearing all the hype that a hotshot high school senior had the game to become America’s future star, I eagerly watched all of Roddick’s matches at the 1999 Orange Bowl World Junior Championships. He lived up to my expectations in more ways than one.
Not only did Roddick perform with a fiery competitiveness reminiscent of Jimmy Connors en route to winning this prestigious title, but afterwards he entertained the media with an unexpected sense of humor. When asked what his father did for a living, he replied, “He used to own Jiffy Lubes, but now he thinks he’s a stockbroker”—explaining that his father logs on to his computer every morning and “tries to figure out what’s happening” in his new field.
When I interviewed Roddick after his victorious final and asked him to describe himself with three adjectives, he quickly replied, “Cocky, funny, and happy.” He added that Andre Agassi and Sampras were his two favorite players to watch. Then he revealed that winning wasn’t everything in an individual sport by saying, “Those two are great for tennis.” This smart 17-year-old—he boasted an A average in school—already recognized that entertaining the sporting public was also a high priority.
On competing in front of large crowds, Roddick enthused, “It’s fun. It adds a whole new dimension. I like it.” He acknowledged, though, “It’s a rare occurrence when I don’t get a [misconduct] warning. Hopefully, someday I can make it big and not be such a head case.”
Click photo: Tarik Benhabiles, who guided Roddick from age 16 to 20, talks about what he saw in the young Roddick.
Tabbed as “America’s Next Great Hope,” the kid from Nebraska did make it big. He was great for the sport of tennis, too. But he never came close to matching the achievements of all-time greats Sampras and Agassi. Sampras captured a then-record 14 Grand Slam titles and ranked No. 1 for six straight years, while Agassi won eight major titles, plus an Olympic gold medal.
A-Rod—his short-lived nickname—managed to win only one major, the 2003 US Open, ranked No. 1 once, in 2003, and helped the U.S. win a Davis Cup title, in 2007. Yet when he retired, a Fox Sports headline read, “Roddick retires a step shy of greatness.” In truth, as much as we rooted for him to do more, Roddick’s career record wasn’t close to greatness, though he will likely make the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
A New York Post headline asserted, “Unfortunate timing defined Roddick’s career.” This line of reasoning contends that if Roger Federer just hadn’t arrived as a superstar during Roddick’s prime, Roddick would have accomplished much more. After all, The Mighty Fed defeated Roddick in four Slam finals and racked up a lopsided 21-3 record against him.
Actually, Roddick was quite fortunate to come along when he did. His career year, 2003, was fashioned against the weakest opposition of the century. To win Flushing Meadows, he only had to beat Xavier Malisse, Sjeng Schalken, David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero. None of them would ever win a major hard court title and only Ferrero even made a major hard court final. Every era features at least one great champion. During 2004-2006, Roddick had only Federer to worry about on hard courts and grass, Roddick’s best surfaces, before Rafael Nadal emerged as an elite grass court player in 2007 and a top hard court player in 2008.
One statistic best reveals how far from greatness Roddick ranked. Before beating Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2009, he had defeated only two other top 5 players at a Grand Slam event (or Olympics) during his then-nine-year pro career—Ferrero in the 2003 US Open final and Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open.
Overachiever or Underachiever?
What happened to all this early promise? Roddick’s defenders say he was actually an overachiever who maximized his talent. On the other hand, his critics argue he underachieved and should have won more prestigious titles.
Click photo: Andre Agassi thought Roddick's backhand was awkwardly stiff and lacked power because he used both hands equally rather than using his left hand to provide almost all of the force.
In 2004, always-candid Roddick acknowledged, “I got to Number One in the world without being really a complete player.” He later described himself as “the best bad tennis player of all time.” While an exaggeration, of course, that description contained plenty of truth. In his 2010 book, Hardcourt Confidential, U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe rightly pointed out, “Nothing has ever come easily to Andy, except for that gigantic serve…. Andy’s still got holes in his game, and that won’t change.”
How could a player ranked in the top 3 from 2003 to 2005 and the top 8 from 2006 to 2010 possess such a flawed game for his entire career? Part of the blame lies with his early coaches, particularly Tarik Benhabiles, who guided Roddick from age 16 to 20 when strokes are refined and strategy is developed.
During a 2007 US Open appearance in the TV booth, Agassi explained that Roddick’s backhand was awkwardly stiff and lacking in power because he used both hands equally rather than using his left hand to provide almost all of the force. Opponents sought out that weak link and regularly exploited it.
Poor positioning was another major liability. During rallies, he positioned himself much too deep—5 to 10 feet behind the baseline. That forced him to do much more running defensively and hampered him offensively because he couldn’t attack effectively or take sufficient advantage of short balls. When volleying, he often stood too far from the net and not at the center of possible returns.
Although highly articulate and thoughtful off the court, Roddick was not intelligent on the court. For example, he often approached net with crosscourt shots and was easily passed; he rarely used sharp angles and drop shots; and he wasn’t easily able to create openings to finish points.
Larry Stefanki was able to reinvigorate Roddick's game in part by convincing him to drop 15 pounds.
Roddick rightly labeled himself “a plodder,” in a sport where speed of foot had become more important than ever as speed of shot steadily increased. Never a speedster, 6’2” Roddick had put on 15 pounds, prompting Sampras to remark that he looked like a football tight end when he needed to sprint like a halfback. He belatedly returned to his 2003 US Open weight of 192 pounds in 2009 only after his seventh and best pro coach, Larry Stefanki, urged him to.
Stefanki, an outgoing, former journeyman pro from California, specialized in igniting slumping, underachieving players and guided Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marcelo Rios to the No. 1 ranking. He also enjoyed successful coaching stints with John McEnroe, Jonas Bjorkman, Tim Henman, and Fernando Gonzalez.
The new tandem clicked, and the leaner, sounder, smarter, and more confident Roddick quickly started producing encouraging results on different surfaces. He knocked off Djokovic en route to the 2009 Australian Open semis and easily reached a career-best fourth round at the French Open (where he previously had a dismal 4-7 record). At Wimbledon, Roddick took out No. 3 and British favorite Andy Murray, and then valiantly battled the incomparable Federer in an epic 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14 final. Afterward, Centre Court spectators surprisingly saluted not the champion but the loser, chanting, “Rodd-ick! Rodd-ick! Rodd-ick!”
That heartbreaking defeat featured one of two unforgettable points that helped define Roddick’s career. Ahead a set and 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker, he was a point away from leading two sets to love. Fate was unkind to him when he missed a high backhand volley on a floating ball pushed around by the wind. After holding serve an amazing 37 straight times, Roddick lost it only once—in the last game of the riveting match—against the opportunistic Fed, a Wimbledon champion for the sixth time. On his lost set-point chance, a philosophical Roddick said, “We’re human. We’re not Cyborgs.”
The other fateful point came during Roddick’s 6-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1, 6-3 triumph over Nalbandian in the 2003 US Open semifinals. He was down two sets to love and serving at 5-6 in the third-set tiebreaker. Match point! Roddick smacked a 138-m.p.h. service winner to escape and then fashioned a comeback victory.
“It has been a road with lots of ups, a lot of downs, and a lot of great moments,” Roddick would tell the Flushing Meadows crowd nine years later during an emotional farewell after losing his fourth-round match to Juan Martin del Potro. “I’ve appreciated your support along the way. I know I certainly haven’t made it easy for you at times, but I really do appreciate it and love you guys with all my heart.”
His fan appeal started early in his pro career. As a teenager, Roddick pledged he would sign autographs for his fans “until my hand cramps.” He frequently did. He “high-fived” front-row spectators after big victories, particularly at Flushing Meadows.
He was popular with guys because of his power game—especially a rocket serve that he hit for a then-record 155 m.p.h. in 2004—and never-say-die spirit. As ESPN and CBS analyst Darren Cahill said, “He may not have been the best tennis player on the court, but he was always the best competitor on the court. He threw his heart and soul into every match.”
Women of all ages also liked his good looks, winning smile and engaging personality. During a Centre Court match at Wimbledon in 2005, a chorus of girls sweetly shouted, “We love you Andy!” On the opposite side of the stadium, another group of girls shouted, “We love you, too!” And then the first group countered, “We said it first, Andy!”
In 2006 Roddick quipped about the female admirers who sent him underwear in an envelope: “Luckily my new address isn’t listed so my parents get a lot of fan mail. It’s funny because my mom will open some of it and read it and say ‘Not with my son, you won’t!’ ”
Roddick’s steadfast commitment to Davis Cup and his
6-0 singles record led the team to the first Cup win
American fans especially appreciated and respected Roddick’s steadfast commitment to Davis Cup. His four career goals were to win the US Open and Wimbledon, finish a year ranked No. 1, and capture the Davis Cup. Going 6-0 in singles in 2007, he led the U.S. team to 4-1 victories over the Czech Republic, Spain and Sweden, before they crushed defending champion Russia 4-1 in the final in Portland, Oregon, for our first Davis Cup since 1995. “He was the rock of the Davis Cup team for so many years,” praised doubles star Mike Bryan. Roddick wound up with a 33-12 career singles record in 25 ties (from 2001–09 and 2011), one of the most successful and longest in American history.
Every Cup match mattered to patriotic Roddick. Soon after a dispiriting first-round US Open loss in 2005, Roddick and his then-coach Dean Goldfine went back to Austin, Texas, where they began training for a relegation match in Belgium. “We were up 2-1 and Andy was playing Olivier Rochus,” recalled Goldfine. “It went five sets and Andy was cramping, but he found a way to win. He gutted it out. It was a really courageous effort, and he kept us in the World Group.”
Just as noteworthy as his success was his exemplary leadership. Cahill, a former Australian Davis Cupper, believes Roddick’s most important legacy is the culture change toward Davis Cup he brought to American tennis.
“America has such a great reputation in Davis Cup. They’ve won many titles (32) over the years,” Cahill says. “But it’s always been a group of great champions—Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang. There was never really a team [in the 1980s and 1990s] that stuck together, practiced together, ate together and won together.
“Andy Roddick has completely changed that,” Cahill says. “If you look at the guys, [Mardy] Fish and [James] Blake, and you go to [Sam] Querrey and even Ryan Harrison, he’s made playing Davis Cup for America something everyone has to do. Now they do everything together. I give 100 percent credit to Andy Roddick for that.”
Roddick’s reputation suffered, though, when he occasionally abused umpires. When an over-rule by a chair umpire enraged him during a five-set quarterfinal US Open loss to Lleyton Hewitt in 2001, he shouted, “What is wrong with you? The ball is right on the line. Are you an absolute moron?” In a 2007 Australian Open first-round match, Roddick angrily lashed at chair umpire Carlos Ramos: “I’ll end the discussion as soon as you say something intelligent.” Heaping more abuse on Ramos, he charged, “You are scared to get involved in a match. You sit there and you are a glorified scorekeeper.”
Toward his opponents, however, he always played fair and square. He once overturned an Italian Open line call in his favor on match point and then lost the match to Fernando Verdasco. He invariably helped fellow players in times of need. When the United Arab Emirates’ denied Israeli Shahar Peer a visa to play in the WTA Tour event there, the following week he protested by refusing to defend his title in Dubai. In 2004, he heroically saved fellow tennis player Sjeng Schalken and his wife from a Rome hotel fire—with nowhere else to go, they moved out to their balcony and jumped three meters to Roddick’s balcony and into his open arms.
Entertaining News Conferences
Roddick also displayed something of a split personality at his always-entertaining news conferences. He could be sarcastic and prickly, particularly toward the media and late in his fading career. When comments by ESPN’s John McEnroe angered him, he barked, “Being a TV tennis analyst is the easiest job in the world because it just doesn’t take much thought.” Miffed by a Chinese reporter who asked him what ranking he would have to fall to before considering retirement, he retorted, “I think that you should retire.”
But more frequently, Roddick was humorous. After being trounced by Federer in the 2007 Australian Open semifinals, he agreed with a journalist’s summation: “My performance here is better than on court? No shit. If there were rankings for press conferences, I wouldn’t have to worry about dropping out of the top five.” On his wife, 23-year-old super-model Brooklyn Decker, who was co-starring in her first feature film, Just Go With It, he said, “She’s in some sort of love triangle with people named Sandler and Aniston. She had to make out with one of them. So, we’re excited about it. Not the making out with Sandler part.”
Andy Roddick during a guest host stint on
Saturday Night Live.
Roddick could also be endearingly self-deprecating. After appearing as a cool guest host on “Saturday Night Live,” he confided, “The way I see it, the more matches I win, the cooler I get. You can ask anyone who knows me. I’m still the biggest dork that ever lived.” When asked about his family gene pool and tennis, ever-candid Roddick quipped: “What gene pool? My father was a farmer and my mother was a bowler who bowled about 93.”
Life after pro tennis? Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor quipped: “All right, Andy Roddick. You’re 30 years old, you’re healthy, wealthy and married to Brooklyn Decker. You haven’t retired. You’ve gone to heaven.” Hyperactive Roddick will nevertheless channel his passion for tennis in that heaven. “I don’t think I’m one of those guys who won’t pick up a racket for three years,” he said. “I still love the innocent parts of the game. I love hitting tennis balls. I’ll miss the relationships probably the most. As time passes, I’ll probably miss the tennis more.”
Like many past tennis stars, Roddick will give back to the sport that has given him so much. The Andy Roddick Foundation plans to build a tennis complex with eight courts and a learning center in East Austin. His foundation recently hosted a fundraising gala with some of the money targeted to help six local nonprofits focused on children. “I’m trying to teach others all the lessons I’ve learned through sports, and I feel like I can do that a lot better if I’m on site,” he said.
Roddick’s sharp mind and quick wit have already found a perfect venue, too. He hosts a Saturday afternoon syndicated sport talk show on Fox Sport Radio that also delves into pop culture. Roddick describes the show as “edgy and fun”—much like him.
He’s interviewed superstars Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and the great Serena Williams. Serena left him almost speechless on air when she blurted, “Your wife spanked me on the ass,” referring to their antics the night before.
Life after the extreme highs and lows of the pro tour should bring the irrepressible Roddick happiness and success in whatever he chooses. Don’t be surprised if you see this passionate supporter of tennis in the commentating booth, coaching a rising star or competing again on the Champions Tour.
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