The Blue Jet
by Pete Bodo
Long before Andy Roddick climbed back up from the bottom of a love-40 well on his first service game of the third set, long before Andy Murray flubbed a routine backhand off a Roddick service return to go down 2-4 in the ensuing tiebreaker, and long before that great backhand stab volley that staved off a potential break and eventually enabled Roddick to hold at 3-all in the fourth, before all that, you could see that Roddick was a different man today than he had been in some of his earlier matches here - a different man, in fact, from the one we've known most of these years.
For the Andy Roddick who ambulated across the lime-green lawn of Wimbledon's Centre Court was not the emotional hurricane or the swaggering gunslinger, nor the smoke-belching ace machine - blowing out his breath in great big puffs, like a steam engine - of days gone by. Today, Roddick's presence on the court evoked the single word least likely to come up as the answer to "Andy Roddick" in a game of word association: serenity.
Roddick, a man of 26-plus years who often seems as merrily adolescent as a flip-flop wearing teenager in camo skate shorts, was strikingly quiescent, and as shuttered and focused on the task at hand as a man entranced, and therefore operating in a state suggesting that he'd shed all awareness and fear of every tennis player's greatest enemy: himself.
All the familiar mannerisms were there: he tugged at the brim of his white Lacoste baseball cap until the left side of the brim bore a neat brown smudge the size of a silver dollar; that jack-in-the box serve, with the curiously (and iconoclastically) quick knee bend; that imperious sweep of the racket with which he summons a ball boy to fetch him his towel - all those were the same.
But before each of those habits, and others, seemed outward manifestation of an inward hurry; no matter how he tried, you always sensed that inner restlessness percolating in Andy, that compulsion to bite a nail, tap his heel rapidly while seated, serve a brobdignian fault and then, with almost dismissive haste, load up and pop the second - perhaps so quickly that he wasn't quite sure what to do next for lack of foresight.
Today, though, he telegraphed a purposefulness that obliterated any urgency he might have felt, in a state most comparable to the sort of hyper-clarity movie makers strive to convey by employing slow motion. And in this state Andy was chillingly in command of his raw power and absolutely the master of his emotions. All of it added it up to an inspired performance Friday at the All England Club, as Roddick broke all of Britain's heart by halting Andy Murray's drive to become the first male British subject to contest a Wimbledon final in over 70 years. Roddick won, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) in a wonderful match that nobody will ever confuse with one of those Wimbledon bludgeonings that leave pundits and spectators caviling about the inordinately large role of power in grass-court tennis.
Contemplating his state of mind later, Roddick fell back on less high-falutin' language, saying: "Yeah, you know, I'm just trying to stay the course. I'm just going about it.. . .I mean, I knew going in that getting all hyped up, and up and down, especially in an atmosphere that probably wasn't gonna be super favorable to me, wasn't probably the way to go. And especially, you know, he was probably gonna have the edge as far as, you know, kind of the adrenaline and the emotion. So I kind of just wanted to stay the course. I was fully aware that there might be ups and downs. You know, I just wanted to kind of keep the same face regardless."
Murray's own analysis was even more meat and potatoes than Roddick's. He said, "He served great. Served really, really well in the tiebreaks. I think he maybe missed two first serves. The second one wasn't until 6-4 in the (fourth-set) tiebreak (a point that Roddick lost when he charged the net and Murray whistled a passing shot by him). He was serving really well at the start. And I had a few chances, you know, in the first tiebreak. I had chances early in the third set, too. I didn't take them. . . Like I say, if someone serves 130 miles an hour consistently throughout the match, you know, in the high like 75s to 80%, it's very tough to break them, especially on a court like this that's quick."
Murray meant no offense, but it would be a mistake to write this result off as a triumph of the serve. Roddick did everything well today, and some things extremely well (approach shots, volleys, backhands beautifully modulated to suit their specific, momentary purpose - which in this case included a higher-than-usual number of deep, hard drives). And for that reason, the response of the British hordes in the grounds and those comfortably, if uneasily, ensconced at Centre Court is best described as resigned.
Murray seemed just a wee bit tight at certain points in the match; the wonder is that Roddick, who indulged his appetite for drama plenty in his match with Lleyton Hewitt, did not. His determination burned with a blue jet, not the customary orange flames. The match seemed like the ultimate reward for a player who, unlike most of his peers, really began understanding and working on his game only after he'd won his first and thus far only Grand Slam title - and after he'd briefly held the world No. 1 ranking.
Today, all those tributaries in his game and his psychic approach to it flowed together to produce a powerful, swift, undeniable river. The backhand was used tactfully; his movement was superb; his shot selection suggested that he understands the meaning of that old saw, Discretion is the better part of valor. "You know, you don't go back to a Wimbledon final by accident. It certainly is a process. And it's probably been a longer process than I would have liked. But, you know, I've enjoyed, you know, everything that has kind of gone into it."
But most of all today, there was that explosive serve that Roddick used wisely, not just profligately. Murray's quick-take analysis is a little deceiving; in fact, he out-aced Roddick, 25-20, and the percentage of unreturned serves delivered by Roddick was just one point higher, at 36 percent. The most glaring disparity was in first-serve conversion percentage: Roddick converted 75% to Murray's 52%. Each man lost just two service games. One stat that should be of great interest to Murray is that Roddick won 16 of 21 serve-and-volley points and a total of 48 of 143 points he played at the net. Murray didn't serve-and-volley once, even though he won 15 of the 20 points he played at the net.
One of the subtle side effects of the way Roddick has struggled to stay in the hunt for majors these past few years, forever experimenting and developing and trying new strategies (especially in matches with his nemesis and opponent in Sunday's final, Roger Federer), is that he's developed a highly refined sense of what works and what doesn't, and, more important, a much wider comfort zone against any opponent's wiles. As he said: "I think maybe now more than ever I can vary it and maybe have some confidence playing out of my element a little bit. You know, today I was able to come in, I think it was 68 times. It wasn't, you know, kind of all-in on a pair of twos, I felt like I was doing the right things and picking the right shots, so that's an encouraging sign."
A year ago almost to the day, Roddick left Wimbledon in a state of disarray and confusion following a dispiriting third-round loss. He'd opened his heart to his then fiancé and now wife, Brooklyn Decker, about his doubts and misgivings in London before they returned to the U.S. to spend the Fourth of July weekend in North Carolina with her family. Passing through the Austin airport on his way home from that celebration, Andy caught a glimpse of television and saw that the Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal, which ought to have been long over, was still on - the fifth set was just starting.
"I didn't want to watch, because it's tough watching when you wish you were there - especially with the kind of mental state I was in at that point. It hurt to watch. But it was the match that it was (an epic), and there was no chance of me getting out of the airport before it finished."
We don't know what role that epic played in reviving Andy's appetite for tennis, but those heart-to-hearts with his intended helped, albeit not in the expected way. "She didn't really know much about tennis," Andy said. "So she thought I was playing real great."
Did she convince him, to borrow Andy's new catch-phrase, "to stay the course?"
"Yeah," Andy replied. "She thought I looked cute in the shorts."
It's good to see that there's still some of the old Andy left.