By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009
It has been four weeks since Andy Roddick played arguably the most brilliant match of his career yet lost, to Roger Federer, in a Wimbledon final settled by the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history.
And not a day has gone by that he hasn't thought about it.
"It has been a process," Roddick said in a telephone interview this week. "Every day, the way I look back on it might change a little bit. There are good days and bad. At least it wasn't one of those matches where I walked off and said, 'If I had played better.' "
And whenever Roddick has left his house since the heart-rending loss -- to run, go to the golf course or scoot out to dinner with his wife -- he has been bombarded by compliments on his effort and grit.
Even his mailman, conceding he didn't really know anything about tennis, had a thought to share. Roddick would have won the match, he told him when delivering a package one day, if he'd only changed his shirt more often during the four-hour plus marathon.
"God bless the guy! He meant well," Roddick said with a laugh. "I don't think that I've been part of something like that in my career, where I haven't gone five or 10 minutes since the final without somebody coming up and saying something nice. I don't know that I've ever had that much public support."
And it has played a big part, Roddick said, in helping him get back to the sport he loves.
Roddick returns to competitive tennis this week in Washington, choosing the Legg Mason Tennis Classic as his first tournament since Wimbledon. He'll open play Wednesday night.
When last seen on Wimbledon's lawn, Roddick was playing terrific tennis, with more variety in his strokes and more poise on court than he has ever shown. But given his month-long hiatus (partly to recovery from an injury to his right hip suffered in a nasty fall during the fourth set), Roddick is hardly predicting an immediate return to form.
"I think it would be presumptuous of me to come and expect to play as well as I have a month ago in my first match," said Roddick, 26, a three-time Legg Mason victor and the tournament's top seed. "I think if I can get past the first match or two, I'll be okay. Right now, I want to get through a match at a time. The goal is to find your form by the U.S. Open."
The Open, of course, is the only major Roddick has claimed in a decade as a pro. And his boyish face dissolved in tear-streaked disbelief when he won it, at 21, in 2003.
The achievement heralded the emergence of a new tennis star -- a golden-haired American with a booming serve and pulverizing forehand who would take up the mantle of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe.
But Federer derailed the narrative -- as he has the arc of so many careers -- by hitting every shot Roddick hit a bit better.
The two had met 20 times leading up to last month's Wimbledon championship, with Federer holding an 18-2 edge that included victories when it mattered most -- the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals and the 2006 final of the U.S. Open.
And it had become increasingly difficult to watch Roddick flail away at the Swiss, always trying but never gaining ground. Roddick changed coaches. He tried different tactics. But once he'd fall behind, he'd revert to form -- blasting his serve, crushing his forehand and hoping for the best.
Still, Roddick reveled in success most professional athletes only dream about. He was ranked among the top eight in the world, with nearly $15 million in winnings, lucrative endorsements, fame, friends and a beautiful fiancee. But as he sized things up at the end of 2008, Roddick decided it wasn't enough.
"The way I looked at it, tennis in the grand scheme of what my life is going to end up being is going to be small number of years in which I actually got to play it," Roddick said. "I don't know that I'd be content playing at the level where I was playing at the end of last year. I didn't want to be on tour just to be on tour. I enjoyed competing and playing, but traveling six weeks in a row doesn't appeal to me that much. So I figured if I'm going to put in four or five more years, I may as well try to get the best of it."
He hired veteran coach Larry Stefanki, impressed by the fact that he'd found success with players of myriad styles and temperaments, whether right-handed or left-handed, baseline-hugging or attacking, subdued or ornery.
And from the outset, he cast himself as Stefanki's pupil rather than employer, vowing to follow orders and not give them.
Roddick showed up at Wimbledon 15 pounds lighter and boasting an arsenal of new shots and tactics -- an authoritative volley, an effective approach shot, a punishing down-the-line backhand -- and rock-solid emotional resolve.
The latter proved critical after Roddick squandered four set points that would have given him a two-sets-to-none lead.
Said Roddick: "I had a game plan and executed it pretty well. I was there mentally the whole time. Even after that second set, I stayed there. That was good sign for me -- something that before this year might have gotten to me and affected me more."
He attributes most of his new skills to "confidence things."
"It's easier to make a decision on what you're going to do if you have confidence in hitting the shot, just like it's easier to shoot a three-pointer when you don't think your range is [only] 16 feet and in," Roddick said. "Getting in good shape really helps mentally. You know you can stay the course. You don't need to rush shots or play a certain way before you get tired. I think I've gotten maybe a bit calmer during matches. Maybe a little more shortsighted, in the sense of, 'Okay, that point is done. Play the next one.' "
Said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who knows Roddick's game as well as anyone: "Even at least year's U.S. Open, there were things Andy was doing better, but he wasn't doing them all in tandem. He wasn't always picking the right time, all the time, to do the right thing -- whether to play a defensive shot or play an aggressive shot. At Wimbledon we saw the more mature Andy Roddick on a lot of different levels -- competitively, emotionally and physically. We saw the whole thing come together."
As a result, McEnroe thinks Roddick has a great chance to reach the U.S. Open finals and win it again. And he predicts he'll be a factor at Wimbledon, as well, for the next few years.
"You hope he'll get that other major," McEnroe said. "Even if he doesn't, I think he made a major statement in who he is as a player and a person with Wimbledon."