After his latest loss can Roddick turn his career around and win another grand slam title at this point in his career? Roddick (Age 28) is ranked number 8 in the world but he went down in straight sets in his fourth-round match at the Australian Open to the journeyman Swiss player Stanislaus Wawrinka.
On paper Roddick has all the advantages in this sort of matchup. He has the ability to hit a 155 mile an hour serve (the fastest recorded serve in the history of our sport) and he’s appeared in 5 grand slam finals, Wimbledon 3 times and twice at the U.S. Open. Oddly enough it was his first final at the 2003 U.S. Open against Juan Carlos Ferrero where he first hoisted a major trophy where you might expect him to win Wimbledon with that titanic serve. However, it was Roger Federer who stunned Roddick with a straight set defeat of the American at Wimbledon in 2005. Federer demonstrated that the way to nullify the booming Roddick serve was to simply block it back deep. Roddick visibly struggled as Federer time and again returned his serve with ease.
This defeat showed not only the tactical brilliance of Federer on defense, but also a psychological achilles heal in the mental game of Roddick. Roddick allowed Federer to get away with blocking back his serve partly because he was surprised Federer could consistently do it over the course of the match, but also because Roddick did not back up his serve by effectively coming to the net behind it. Part of this is because despite having an amazing serve and forehand his volleys are only average at his level of the game. Another area of his game that is problematic in my view is that two-handed backhand. Rather than argue about which is better a one-hander or a two-hander I’d say that in certain situtations one hand is sometimes better than two despite the barrage of male players ranging from 6’4 to 6’10 who use the double-fisted grip. The difficulty comes in the transition game where it can be a liability at the top of the game when players are dealing with low short balls in the middle of the court.
Roddick causes his opponents to regularly hit weak shots off of the return of his serve but a two-hander finds himself making a split-second decisions to hit an outright winner or an approach shot. If it’s above the net you’ll see two-handers go for the winner, but if it’s low or angled away from them then they’re forced to carve under it while reaching forward with two hands or hitting a one-handed slice shot which more players have developed, but I would argue these players either hit it with too much slice and it pops up or they’re just not used to hitting it effectively against the top players. Obviously both Federer and Murray attempted to use this strategy of hitting off speed shots to the backhand to throw off Djockovic but the Joker loves this surface at the Australian Open and he triumphed over both of his top rivals with quick feet and a refurbished first serve.
Aside: Another reason for this rise of all-court baseliners is due to the fact that the surfaces have been slowed down perhaps due to the sharp criticism back in the 90s that watching short points and booming serves was too boring. There were several years where the common wisdom said the sport was not appealing to the masses the way it did when you had the violent personalities of Connors and McEnroe drawing spectators to see the blood sport aspect of the game these American players brought to the game. In my view, real tennis fans still loved the sport after the decline of those colorful players but not all of the folks who watched them really cared or knew anything about the game. Changes that were discussed or put into practice were playing loud music, changing the rules of the game, and all of this criticism seemed to disappear since the Federer-Nadal rivalry has emerged. But I digress, can you imagine what terror the 6'6 Juan Martin del Potro would strike in his opponents if he hit a kick serve and followed it into the net?
It was the Swiss Stanislaus Wawrinka who took a page out of Federer’s book to mentally and physically take the match from Roddick by using a strategic game to underscore Roddick's weaknesses. Whenever A-Rod seemed to get ahead in the point he seemed to play passively and allow Wawrinka to exploit his neutral two-hander and then turn defense into offense.
It might be ridiculous to suggest that a one-handed backhand is always better than two. Not what I'm suggesting at all, but I have noticed a trend in professional tennis which seems to be dominated by big men who move like gazelles with Thor-like serves and forehands but play like they have to skitter around on the baseline as though they are afraid they might be passed at the net if they come in off the backhand. It's analagous to the 6'11 basketball player who decides he's a three-point specialist. Yes, he might have a nice outside shot but why not maximize your natural gifts? Let's face it, it is an awkward shot for a two-hander.
I would even suggest it’s those darn two-handed backhands that have forced them to play this way. Now, I have to back track and say yes Soderling has an amazing flat two-hander and there are others but in the transition game only a few players over the years have overcome this problematic issue of the transition game. Number one, to the detriment of many of these top players there isn't much of a transition happening and it's awkward to do the graceful shuffle with the feet to hit an effective approach shot when you have both hands on your racquet.
Jimmy Connors had probably the greatest two-handed approach in the history of the game while Mats Wilander who went 3 for 4 in the grand slams in 1988 with his new secret weapon—the one-handed slice backhand. Players can hit this shot but largely it’s just to pin their opponent on the baseline rather than a threatening shot like the infamous knifing Ken Rosewall stroke. In addition, the racquet technology of the game has given rise to another phenomenon that almost everyone on the men’s and women’s tour now has a very serviceable backhand. I think this is a case of technology over technique. Another point I’ll throw in there is that strategy and the ability to change game plans in the middle of the match separates Nadal and Federer from the pack. So many technically brilliant players seem to be out there whacking the ball for all their worth but hitting through the opponent and chasing down balls seems to be the go-to plan which in my view is no plan at all.
On the other hand, I watched a couple of Francesa Schiavone’s matches and was reminded of a time when players actually tried to exploit weaknesses and take control of the net. More players than you can shake a ripstick at seem to be playing in the Agassi style these days which I think has shown one great weakness which is currently being exploited by the world's best players. Nadal and Djokovic use two hands too, but they have had more success because of their conditioning and quick feet in my view—and they aren’t afraid to be aggressive and take over which, if you’ll remember, Nadal was tagged with this criticism earlier in his career.
In this vein, I believe Roddick could improve his chances against the field in general if he concentrates on backing up his serve by taking those floaters in the air, improving his conditioning for his movement’s sakes, and developing his transition game. I’m sure great coaches like Stefanki have been begging him to do this but it’s up to Roddick to get outside of his comfort zone in order to compete with the greatest players of his generation: Federer, Nadal, and revived Novak djokovic. No easy feat I’ll grant that but he’ll have to take more chances particularly on the return of serve.
A-Rod is moving in the right direction with Larry Stefanki as his coach, but the real question is will he listen to Stefanki? He’s been through a numer of coaches including his brother, and more notably Jimmy Connors, and Brad “Winning Ugly” Gilbert to name a few. Does the Nebraska native’s recent loss at the Australian Open mean he’ll soon be shopping around for another new coach? (I hear Patrick McEnroe is free.) Let’s hope not. I haven’t noticed Roddick’s game improving or changing for the better but I suspect that his on court woes are a combination of strategy and confidence issues. Against the top 5 players in the world he will definitely have to produce brilliant tennis. His tendency to stay back and wait to hit a big forehand will just not work against Nadal and Federer who frankly can do everything he can and a little better. His movement is good but it’s not at the level of the top contenders. I believe he can get back into the mix again but it will take work if he's willing to dedicate his 2011 to finding the right formula for his game.
Don’t feel sorry for Roddick. He is, after all, married to the beautiful swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker besides being a grand slam winner. But it would be nice to see him as a serious contender for future slam titles for the sake of American tennis.