I've been sitting here trying to absorb and process what happened at Cardig - make that Wimbledon - today, and one simple word keeps popping into my mind. Ugly. Maria Sharapova, James Blake, Andy Roddick. . . A faux American and two red, white and blue ones all got the gong at Wimbledon today, and I suppose it might give solace to their fans that it wasn't because their best tennis wasn't good enough. Of the three, Blake (whose match I saw the least of) seemed to be the one playing closest to his best level, so he's the one most apt to take lessons away from it.
That's how it is for American tennis these days, it seems. It's bizarro world, with the question "who's playing worse?" seeming more relevant than "who's stepping up?" By the time Roddick's match ended, the U.S. had established a new low-point for the American game at Wimbledon. It was the worst group performance by U.S. men in the Open era. The only Yank left in the draw is Bobby Reynolds.
It was all kinds of ugly today, perhaps best symbolized by the shot that's probably going to flash across Roddick's inner jumbotron often enough over the next few days, at odd enough times, to position him as the model for some artist's re-interpretation of Edvard Munch's expressionist masterpiece, The Scream. You probably saw it - that mortifying, chop forehand service return that he feebly stuck into the net - off a gift of a second serve, no less! - when he had a set point to level his match with Janko Tipsarevic at two-sets apiece. This was not the Andy Roddick we know and love; hail, it wasn't even the Andy Roddick some people know and love to hate. This was someone Roddick is not - a man paralyzed by opportunity. How odd, given all that Roddick had to gain by doing well at Wimbledon this year.
First things first, though. Although the grass at Wimbledon has slowed appreciably in the past few years, it still retains some of the properties that once ensured that the players who did the best on turf were the ones who brought the best combination of power and athleticism to the greensward. In Sharapova's loss to Alla Kudryavetska, we saw how undisciplined power (the kind that is produced with so much effort that too many things can go wrong) combined with a lack of flex and/or fluidity can add up to a kind of anti-grass-court-grass-court game. And in Blake's match, we saw how speed and even weight of shot lose what capacity they have to menace if a player isn't willing to barge through the doors cracked open by those virtues, and present his opponent with difficult questions to answer.
The limitations on display yesterday served to underscore the idea that tennis on grass is, to a far greater degree than meets the eye, about versatility, improvisational ability, risk-taking and - perhaps most of all - the willingness to finish what you start. To back up every shot with whatever ought to come next in some Platonic universe, whether it's a volley, approach shot, or pace-and-tone-altering drop shot or placement. The one common theme in all three big upsets yesterday can be summed up in a single, hyphenated word: one-dimensionality.
Sharapova's skills are so narrowly defined that she can be in trouble on any surface, on any day. That she wins so often is a tribute to her fighting spirit. Blake, always suspect in long matches, doesn't appear very interested in figuring out ways to exploit his mercurial tendencies. This will be clear to anyone who remembers the way the late Vitas Gerulaitis, who was fleet and flashy in the same way as Blake, capitalized on comparable gifts with gusto and courage. Vitas turned tennis into a kind of high-speed shell game. Granted, Blake has nothing like that razor-sharp Gerulaitis backhand volley, or that low-skidding backhand slice approach shot with which to bring it into play. But remember also that Vitas had no forehand and, to go with it, a flat/topspin backhand that was shaky on its best day. But Vitas had guts and guile. Those two virtues will take you a long way on grass, even today.
Roddick is not blessed with the talent for deceit. But he has guts, and a bread-and-butter power game that plays nicely on grass. Roddick can hold so easily on grass (or should) that he ought to be free to attack his opponent's serve almost at will. That doesn't mean he can break left and right - his return isn't expert enough for that. But he ought to have his rivals sweating bullets at the prospect of a double-fault here, a shanked forehand there giving Roddick just enough inspiration and impetus to ruin his day. That's especially true of a player like Tipsarevic, whose serve is. . . manageable.
After the Roddick match, Pat McEnroe observed that one possible explanation for Roddick's tentative, herky-jerky play is that he felt a lot of pressure - that he, in Pat's words, "wanted it too much." That uber-desire might have been fed by various forces - last year's loss to Richard Gasquet (and an accompanying, forceful desire on Roddick's part to re-assert his position as the second-best grass-court player on the planet), expectations, perhaps self-imposed, created by Roddick's wins over Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer earlier in the year, and perhaps even some innate sense of urgency in Roddick, who's no longer a fresh-faced kid who has unlimited opportunities to win Grand Slams in his immediate future.
That last factor is relevant; Roddick told me as much when we met in New York a few weeks ago."I understand that I'm kind of at the mid-point of my tennis life, and that's a humbling realization," he told me. "But I honestly believe that I was putting myself in position to win. The big difference is that this year, I actually won a few of those. I put too much pressure on myself in Australia, where I wanted to win so bad I was driving myself crazy and it showed. But I realized I need to calm down and go about my business in a more relaxed way. I did that, and it helped. I feel from about mid-February until now, I've played as well as ever in my career, including run in '03."
In light of those words, today was a setback for Roddick. But perhaps more importantly, it suggests he's in the midst of a powerful if subtle transition (his engagement to Brooklyn Decker must figure into this equation as well) in a game that has no patience for such piddling, human considerations. Tennis is a cruel game; that's probably why it's filled with so many lovely rituals and niceties.