— MELBOURNE, Australia - A new look Andy Roddick showed up at the Australian Open, anxious to better his 2003, 2005 and 2007 results when he was a semifinalist.
He’s off to a good start, a straight-set win in the first round over Bjorn Rehnquist of Sweden and a second round, come-from-behind four-set win over Belgian Xavier Malisse. Next up for Roddick is Fabrice Santoro, a crafty veteran who at 36 is the oldest player in the draw.
Last year, after a good start, Roddick hit a plateau and could go no higher. He lost in the second round at Wimbledon but made the U.S. Open quarterfinals where he fell to Novak Djokovic. So in November, looking to get back to playing as he did when he was at the top of his game, he made changes.
Roddick asked Larry Stefanki to become his coach. Stefanki’s a man with an impressive resume. Among those he has coached are John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman and Fernando Gonzalez.
Stefanki’s first move was to encourage Roddick to become as fit as he was in 2003 when he finished the season ranked No. 1 in the world and won his only Grand Slam, the U.S. Open. During the offseason Roddick lost fifteen pounds, and is now sleek and toned. He wasn’t heavy but the weight loss shows his commitment to being in great shape. And that can only help him on the court.
It’s not exactly like Roddick has been ordinary on the tour. He has won an ATP title for eight consecutive years (tying him with Roger Federer for the longest streak), and has finished in the top 10 for seven consecutive years. This is a testament to his ability to compete, week in and week out, even when he doesn¹t have his best stuff.
If you mention Roddick’s name, most tennis fans would say, “Big serve and bigger forehand.” But there is more than that in the story of success in the men’s game nowadays. Players have started to read Roddick’s serve and many have caught up to him on the forehand. I like that he got Stefanki to come on as his coach because Stefanki is very smart about the game and about technique.
Stefanki played nine years on the men¹s tour but he is better known for his coaching work with John McEnroe at the end of his career and helping both Ríos and Kafelnikov become No. 1. Last year, under his direction, Fernando González reached a career-high No. 5 in the rankings.
Besides getting Roddick to lose weight, Stefanki wants him to make some adjustments in his game. He believes that if something is practiced enough, it gets easier to do in matches. That’s his philosophy and it’s proven to work.
He wants Roddick to improve his balance on his approach shots moving to the net. Personally, I would like to see Roddick stand closer to the baseline.
When you are far back, your opponent has more time to anticipate shots and you lose power. On his backhand, his arms are too stiff so his racquet head doesn’t accelerate. I would like to see him get looser and make the shot more penetrating. I also think he needs to knife his backhand slice instead of using it just to keep the ball alive. Doing this makes the shot heavier and skids it low. He should use his athleticism to his advantage and make his game more effective.
Though Roddick was a Wimbledon finalist in 2004 and 2005 and at the U.S. Open in 2006, I am not sure he can win another Grand Slam tournament. If Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray continue to do what they have been doing, it will be very tough for Roddick to capture a major. He reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal last year, the U.S. Open, and is seeded No. 7 in Melbourne.
In order to win Down Under if the draw holds to form he would have to defeat Djokovic in the quarterfinals and Federer in the semifinals. That is a lot to ask of anyone. And then Nadal or Murray could likely be his opponent in the final.
Roddick was the 2000 Australian Boy’s Junior champion and he won a Grand Slam record 21-19 fifth set match against Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui in the quarterfinals here in 2003. So Melbourne has some good memories for him.
Stefanki gives him a new spark and new voice to listen to. This is exciting but Roddick is 26 and at the midpoint in his career. He has won 26 tournaments and one major. Most players would take that as a solid career. Nadal and Federer wouldn’t but they are not most players. But most would feel good about it and maybe Roddick does but he is not ready to concede he can’t add more highlights to his run on the ATP Tour. Don’t write off Roddick – not just yet.