No Quit

by: Steve Tignor | February 25, 2009

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ArIt didn’t take long for the widely anticipated “bump” to happen. By that I mean, it didn’t take long for Andy Roddick’s results to improve under the watch of a new coach. When he hired Brad Gilbert, he won the U.S. Open. When he hired Jimmy Connors, he reached the Open final and put the heat on Roger Federer when he got there. Now, a couple months after hiring Larry Stefanki, he has won . . . the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis.

OK, that doesn’t have the quite the same ring as “U.S. Open." Regions Morgan Keegan sounds more like a teenage TV star than a tennis tournament. And rather than being played in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the event is held in a racquet club with a low, triangular roof and wooden, high-school-basketball-style bleachers. Nevertheless, Memphis is a 500-level tournament, and to take home his 27th career title Roddick had to avenge a loss from the previous week against the always-tricky Radek Stepanek in the final. As Stefanki said afterward, “He’s done this 26 times before, so he knows how to win. But it feels good.”

We can assume that a major part of these bumps in Roddick’s play come not from any technical changes that his coaches make, but from the fresh energy and belief they instill in him. Unlike Federer, Roddick likes and needs mentors—he’s a younger brother at heart. But Stefanki did come in with definite technical and tactical ideas about how Roddick could get better—has he made a difference on that front?

The first thing I remember Stefanki mentioning when he got the job was Roddick’s return of serve. It was hardly a secret that this was a weakness; no less an authority than Andre Agassi had called Roddick out on it while commentating for ESPN at the Aussie Open in 2007. He said that Roddick simply didn’t do enough with the ball, particularly on second serves, and this allowed his opponents to take control of points right away. It appears that Stefanki has been addressing this. Against Stepanek, Roddick was taking his returns earlier and hitting them farther out in front of his body on both sides. More crucially, he was “cutting off the angle,” as tennis coaches like to say. Rather than waiting for the serve to reach him, he was moving on a diagonal to meet it earlier and get his body moving forward.

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s easier to return aggressively against a serve-and-volleyer like Stepanek. You have a target, you have a reason to keep the ball low, and you don’t have to worry about the depth of your shot. All these elements help focus a returner, and it was true for Roddick on Sunday. Even when he missed, he punched back with more conviction and forward motion on his return. Doing that requires shortening your normal backswing, which isn’t easy; Roddick was most successful on his backhand side, where his two-handed swing is naturally shorter. At 6-5, 30-30, he reflexed an inside-out return pass winner by Stepanek to get to set point. In the past couple of years, outright, head-turning winners like that have been rare from his racquet.

Stefanki believes in the power of practice and repetition, and in Memphis this seemed to have paid off on Roddick’s backhand side. He was hitting the ball a little more crisply, especially when Stepanek pressured him; the American knocked off a few down the line passes on key points. On the forehand side, Roddick has added a little extra whip upward for topspin. I don’t know if this is intentional, but my first reaction is that it will only encourage him to keep pulling off the ball on that side, which has already robbed that shot of power for years. The biggest weakness in Roddick’s game is his crosscourt forehand, particularly when he uses it as an approach shot. It already has too much topspin, which makes it sit up in his opponent’s strike zone—it’s a shot that has helped make Roger Federer look like an athletic genius for years.

Compare Roddick's game to Stepanek’s. The Czech is a more natural shot-maker; his strokes take less time to happen but produce more penetration through the court—his timing is better. Stepanek also peppered this match with unlikely winners, such as a running shoe-top crosscourt forehand volley. Only a natural talent can improvise like that on a regular basis. Besides that, he made me laugh with one of his usual stagy antics: After winning a point on a lucky let cord, he held his racquet out for a few seconds in apology, then, in the same motion, began to shake the racquet in a “come on!” gesture. Finally, an honest reaction to a lucky winner.

But while Stepanek was the better shotmaker and entertainer, Roddick won the match. We may complain that he doesn’t do enough with the ball, but is his safety-first approach the smarter way to go? Roddick spends most of his time spinning his forehand down the middle and blandly chopping his backhand far from any line. While this has made him a whipping boy for Federer, it’s worked against virtually everyone else—as I mentioned, he has won 27 ATP tournaments. At some point, you can’t disconnect his safe style from his consistent success. In this sense, Roddick, despite Connors’ attempt to make him more aggressive, remains a product of Gilbert’s coaching—take away Andy’s serve and his game starts to look a little like Brad’s. The results do as well—Gilbert won 20 tournaments but never went deep at a major. I get the feeling Stefanki realizes this and will work around the edges of Roddick’s game without trying to make him into anything fancier than he is.

I can’t say Roddick’s game itself thrills me, but I have always found him interesting to watch, in part because his personality is much roomier and more contradictory than most athletes’. Cocky, crestfallen, deferential, smart, down-to-earth, funny, fratty, rude—like a little brother, he’s always out to prove himself, which is what makes him such an enthusiastic competitor after all the years and all the Grand Slam disappointments and all the drubbings by his old rival Federer. If the mantra of this country in the Obama era is going to be, “We’re not quitters,” it would be hard to find a better role model than Andy Roddick.

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