Catching the Tape: Maestro for a Day

Saturday, August 03, 2013 /by

The mens’s Masters event in Montreal is getting underway, but two of its recent former champions won’t be making the trip. Andy Roddick is retired and starting a new gig on the other side of the TV screen, at Fox Sports, while Roger Federer pulled out yesterday with what we can only presume is a bad back. Life goes on, we know, but it goes on very fast in tennis.

Just yesterday, it seems—or a few days ago, anyway—these two were playing each other in Canada. Roddick beat Federer in the semifinals in Montreal in 2003, and Federer returned the favor in the Toronto final in 2004. You might say that the latter match was the beginning of their non-rivalry, as Federer would elevate his game far above Roddick’s from then on. He wouldn’t lose to him again until 2008. 

Today I’ll mark the absence of Andy and Roger from Montreal in 2013 with a look at the highlights of their semifinal there in 2003.

*****

—Unfortunately for Federer fans, this is a one-sided set of clips: I think Roddick wins every point over the course of the five minutes. I tried to restore some balance by adding the third-set tiebreaker below it, but that went Roddick’s way as well. It was a good day for him, and it looks even better here.

—This was the fifth time they had played, and it would mark Roddick’s first win; it would also, as I said, be his last for five years. In 2003, the two of them were still on level terms in general. A month earlier, Federer had beaten Roddick in straight sets on his way to winning Wimbledon. A month later, after his titles in Montreal and Cincinnati, Roddick would cap the best run of his career by winning the U.S. Open. 

It was this match, which was decided in a tiebreaker, that made the difference in the year-end rankings, as Roddick edged Federer for the No. 1 spot. As he was doing that, though, the future was approaching with ominous velocity. In my memory, it was at the final event of 2003, the Masters Cup in Houston, where Federer began to take full flight, to become the Federer. He beat Roddick in Houston, and closed the tournament with a rout of Andre Agassi. By then, he looked like he was playing on a different level from everyone else, and Agassi knew it.

—But that summer in Montreal, despite his Wimbledon title, Federer wasn’t soaring yet. Historically, we wonder what happened to Roddick after ’03. Why did he finish 3-21 against Federer? Why did he never challenge for the top spot again? What happened to his forehand? But watching this, you can see that Federer became a better, more self-assured player. Granted, we see virtually none of his winning shots here, but there’s enough evidence to know that his backhand would improve, and that he would develop a more confident strut and demeanor. He doesn’t own the court, or the game, yet. 

It’s jarring to see Federer double fault at 0-1 in the third-set tiebreaker and follow it with an indecisive forehand error. But that is my recollection of watching him pre-2003. You would often find yourself wondering why he had tried that shot, on that point.

—As for Roddick, the difference isn’t so much in his technique as it is in his attitude. It’s Andy who, despite the fact that he is 0-4 against Federer, has the confident, court-owning strut. His forehand, along with the rest of his game, would become more conservative as the years went by and he had to work to maintain his place near the top of an ever-more-athletic sport. But here Roddick goes after his forehand with abandon. He even snaps off a buggy-whip crosscourt pass from his shoe tops and beats Federer with a down the line shovel shot after a long run. He would never be one step ahead of the Maestro again.

—Watching their games and their attitudes in the third-set tiebreaker here, you might have predicted that Federer would always have the talent, the style, and the athleticism, but that Roddick would always the competitive edge. It was only true for a day.

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