Bad Things Come to Those Who Wait
Don’t sleep on Johnny Mac. His voice, after all the years and all the hours of commentating at the Open, can begin to seem like the tournament's verbal wallpaper—that New York accent blends in well with the sound of the nearby 7 train. But that doesn’t mean McEnroe can’t still spot a trend in a tennis match as early as anyone. Earlier, in fact. Near the start of the second set of Wednesday night’s match between Andy Roddick and Janko Tipsarevic, McEnroe noted that Roddick had stopped doing much with the ball, much like he had when he lost a lead, and a match, to Yen-Hsun Lu at Wimbledon two months ago.
I wasn’t so sure this time. Through the first set, which Roddick won 6-3, he had been energized by his first night match in a year. He had the old aggressive strut, the same one he’d used when he tore Rafael Nadal limb from limb on this court six years ago. When Tipsarevic gave him a sitter volley, Roddick slapped it into the open court with ostentatious disdain.
But it quickly became clear that McEnroe was right. His brother and booth mate, Patrick, echoed his thoughts about Roddick's passivity and Tipsarevic's growing confidence a few minutes later. Roddick, content to give his forehand plenty of air and float his backhand slice from corner to corner, was ceding territory to Tipsarevic and allowing him to hit what he wanted to hit. This was obviously a dangerous trend. Tipsarevic is small and underpowered, but he’s a clean ball-striker who, on the right day, can match up against anyone—he played one of the finest matches of 2008 in a losing five-set cause against Roger Federer in Melbourne in 2008, and a few months later knocked off Roddick at Wimbledon. One thing that makes him tough is his versatility; his backhand is as much of a weapon as his forehand. There’s no obvious weakness to try to exploit.
Still, a repeat of Wimbledon 2008 looked like a long shot. No matter what Roddick did with the ball, Tipsarevic was always going to be hitting uphill against him, if only because of the disparity in the quality of their serves. But as the second set progessed, you could see that Tipsarevic had begun to realize that a door had been opened, and with a little luck he had the shots to break it down. When Roddick ran him wide, instead of looping back a rally shot, Tipsarevic started drilling the ball to the corners. When Roddick sliced the ball up the middle, the Serb went inside-out with his backhand for winners. By 4-4, Roddick was struggling to hang on.
It all came to a head with Roddick serving at 5-6. Tipsarevic, in full tree mode by now, played three fabulous points to go up 0-40. He won the last one with a brilliant, curling crosscourt backhand pass that he flicked across his body and against his momentum. The match was poised to turn entirely, but Roddick still had his serve,and true to form he drilled two of them for winners to get back to 30-40. If he could win one more point, and escape this game, the momentum would shift back in his direction. Roddick knew it, too. Afterward he said that he believed that there “had to be an expiration date” on Tipsarevic’s strong play, and that he’d be OK if he could wait him out long enough. On the final set point, Tipsarevic reigned in his go-for-broke game just a bit, but still moved Roddick around the court. The American, waiting for what part of him must have thought was an inevitable error from a nervous opponent, finally let loose with a forehand and sent it wide. It was the beginning of the end. Tipsy’s inspired winners came with no expiration date, after all, and Roddick would never regain the initiative. A few games later, rattled, down a break, about to be down a set, he was venting his anger, and ranting irrelevantly, at a line judge about foot-fault semantics (One question, though: Did the lineswoman ever correct herself and say that she had mistaken left foot for right? Wouldn’t that have saved us some trouble?)
After the match, Tipsy said that Roddick has stopped going for his forehand the way he once did, and that these days he plays primarily not to miss. These are hardly controversial assertions. Last month in Toronto, local TV networks filled up a few rain delays with clips from old Canadian Open finals. One that was re-run repeatedly was the 2004 final between Roddick and Roger Federer. Roddick simply hit the ball bigger and flatter, and went for more earlier in the point. He lost that match but still blitzed plenty of winners past a 23-year-old Federer from the baseline. He hasn’t hit the ball that way in quite a few years. I’m not sure exactly when the change came, but I remember him beginning to put more air under that shot when he worked with Dean Goldfine in the middle of the decade. Even during the in-your-face Jimmy Connors years, it didn’t get much flatter. The one exception to this rule came during his Wimbledon loss to Federer last year, when Roddick's forehand flowed more freely than ever.
Serve big and never miss has, for the most part, been a winning tactic for Roddick over the last couple of years. He used it to near perfection this spring on the slow hard courts in Key Biscayne and Indian Wells. And it’s an intelligent way to play on a tour where slow hard courts have become the norm. But the courts at the Open are faster than that norm, and it’s more difficult to win with defense over the course of a three-out-of-five-setter. As a defender like Andy Murray has learned, a streaky shot-maker benefits from having an extra set to find his range.
Roddick has had a tough summer, and, as he said afterward, he was beaten by a better player on the night. His usual resources, his serve and his pugnacious competitiveness, nearly rescued him in the second set, and again in the fourth set. Roddick, usually so reliable against lower-ranked players, fell victim to them at all four Slams this year. His forehand remains a mystery, one for which there is no easy answer. We always hear about the improved depth of the men’s tour, and maybe Roddick’s 2010 Slam season is a testament to that. There’s always someone knocking at the door. As Johnny Mac knows so well, it only takes a few loose games to let them in. Contrary to popular opinion, bad things can come to those who wait.