Andy Roddick: When the No. 1 American won his first and only slam at the 2003 US Open, he did it by serving big, cranking forehands and just generally believing he could stay with anyone.
In the years since then tennis has seen forehand power become commonplace, and Roddick’s faith in himself has at times been shaken because of the lopsided nature of his “rivalry” with Roger Federer, having won just two of 21 matches they’ve played.
All the while, Roddick has sought to add depth to his game, coming to net more frequently, relying more on a slice backhand, and attempting to force mistakes from opponents through a greater reliance on defense.
Through all the disappointments and the changes in coaching, it has been easy for commentators (this one included) to decry that change in his approach, as Roddick’s speed cannot be confused with that of Rafael Nadal’s, and he has never been known for having hands like John McEnroe’s.
As of this week Roddick may have proved us wrong. The American ace machine’s serve remains deadly as ever, but faced with players with superior back court games, his net rushing proved the difference against Nadal and his choice to take the speed off the ball left Tomas Berdych completely flustered. In doing so, he won his first Masters shield in nearly four years.
After a lackluster season post-Wimbledon last year, Roddick has now won two titles in 2010 and reached the finals of two Masters Series events in a row. Now, how does he approach clay, having made measurable progress on the surface last year? He could do as he did then, and skip the first few events, but in ’09 he was getting married; he probably doesn’t have such a good excuse this time.
Tomas Berdych: The lanky Czech is one of those to make the term “big forehand” passé in recent years, as he is unquestionably one of the game’s biggest hitters, yet has had middling results, peaking at No. 4 and never getting past the quarters of a major.
Anyone who hates to see human potential wasted has to hope that this result will be a breakthrough. For one, Berdych beat Roger Federer for the first time in nearly six years. For another, he could easily have suffered a letdown from that result, but managed to overcome Fernando Verdasco in the following round. Meanwhile, Robin Soderling is probably still smarting from the beating Berdych administered on him on the semis.
What’s worrisome is that, after achieving all that, Berdych was taken so completely out of his own game by Roddick’s off-speed pitching in the final. For all the pluses his win over Federer revealed – his accurate serving, his ability to crush short balls off either wing – there were also shortcomings revealed, particularly in his return of serve and the margin of error on his forehand.
Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard finishes the spring hard court season, having won no titles since last year’s clay season began. Still, this writer isn’t worried, at least not yet: In his semifinal performances in Indian Wells and Miami Nadal racked up quite a few impressive wins, only to fall to a hard-serving hot hand in three sets.
That Nadal is more talented than Roddick or Ivan Ljubicic would be hard to dispute, so his losses to them must be frustrating. Still, when he arrives on clay, that little bit of extra time ought to make all the difference in restoring him to his winning ways.
If he fails to lift the Monte Carlo trophy for the sixth (has it been that long already?) straight time, then we’ll be worried.
Roger Federer: The Great Swiss has not won Indian Wells or Miami since 2006, when he won both for the second straight year. For now Federer still has 16 Masters shields, one shy of Andre Agassi’s record. Even with 16 the more prestigious Grand Slam titles to his name, Federer’s frustration in his narrow loss to Berdych was speaks clearly as to what that record would mean to him.
In the last two seasons, a switch to clay brought an upswing in Federer’s play, something which ought to make the rest of the tour highly uncomfortable.
Larry Stefanki: Perhaps Roddick’s current coach does know something that Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert did not, as his protégé has succeeded in lifting his play following a series of setbacks. For Roddick, whose results have tended to stagnate when under the same coach for more than a year, this is good news.
It also is for Stefanki, whose job looks safe for the time being.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray: We aren’t enjoying this any more than you are.