Capitalizing on strengths is next step for Roddick

In an all too familiar scene, Andy Roddick has exited recent Grand Slam events sooner than expected. AP Photo/Mark Baker

Fighting for the game's most prestigious titles doesn't figure to be easy, but then again, Andy Roddick has never shied away from putting in what his Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe likes to call "the hard yards."

Gauging the future of America's best men's tennis player is a tough proposition. The contemporary tennis landscape is thick with competition. At 25, Roddick is a tennis veteran, if not exactly a statesman, certainly experienced enough to know how rough it is among the elite. Newly-crowned Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is five years younger than Roddick. Others, such as the surprising Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roddick contemporaries David Ferrer and David Nalbandian, are potentially rough customers. Rafael Nadal is still only 21, and Roger Federer is but a year older than Roddick.

What's easier than predicting Roddick's prospects is to take a clinical look at the steps Roddick has taken, and see how his tools perhaps can position him for a run to the top of the game -- even in the wake of an earlier-than-expected exit from the Australian Open.

"I made a point of being in very good shape coming into the Australian Open this year, and I was," Roddick said last week in a conference call. "That being said, I think I might have relied too much on movement. Long story short, I should have let my forehand ride a little bit more. Kind of watching the tape [of his three matches in Melbourne], I realize that. I needed to kind of establish that shot in rallies a little bit more, maybe not let guys take control of it and take pot shots, make them a little bit more uncomfortable."

And yet in many ways, inside the lines Roddick is caught between a rock and a hard place as he tries to sort out his mix of offense and defense. Over the course of 18 months under the tutelage of Jimmy Connors, Roddick has worked to improve his backhand, frequently (but not constantly) attempted to take away time from his opponents and, as you'd expect most of all from a Connors client, compete with exceptional urgency.

But it's not easy to overhaul a game based on certain techniques -- particularly at the highest levels. While Roddick's serve and forehand do much to open up the court for him, his transition tools -- approach shots and volleys, as well as service returns -- do not often capitalize on his two big weapons. Knowing this, opponents often float back service returns, confident that Roddick will rarely serve and volley or effectively penetrate with his second shot. And when serving to Roddick, it's frequently comforting to know when spinning one to his backhand that he'll rarely take advantage of it and pound one with exceptional force.

Given Roddick's massive serve -- he won 91 percent of his service games last year, second on the tour -- he could well consider playing his return games as boldly as possibly. The mindset would be to take big cuts at returns, drive balls hard and deep, follow a few into the net -- in short: more or less take the racket out of the server's hands in the pursuit of one break to win the set. This was the approach Pete Sampras often took, a tactic Jim Courier called "pure offense."

But that style hasn't always suited Roddick. Like Connors, Roddick often prefers hitting a lot of balls to grind his way through a match. Word had it last month that instead Roddick was looking to rely on his fitness, movement and dogged focus to make opponents work as hard as possible on every point. Then again, Roddick himself noticed that in Australia he overemphasized movement at the expense of offense.

That early loss was a jolt for both Roddick and Connors. "He takes [the losses] rough also," said Roddick of his fiery coach. "I think it all hit us badly because we thought I was playing well enough to make a run there. The way the draw was, we liked the way it was going to shake out. I think we're all pretty upset with it. That being said, I think his biggest thing as far as coaching was, 'Don't let this discourage you. You put in a lot of hard work. You were very prepared here. Don't let this kind of get in your head and stop working.' He was calling me every day after Australia and really trying to push that point home."

The configuration of Roddick and his coaching staff is unusual. Roddick's brother John, a former All-American at the University of Georgia, is at heart the day-to-day coach, with Connors acting as senior consultant-guru.

Connors travels selectively. He was not present at last year's season-ending Tennis Masters Cup or the Davis Cup final. Connors won't be at this weekend's forthcoming Davis Cup tie, nor will he be in attendance when Roddick kicks off his North American season in San Jose, Calif., the week of Feb. 18.

"I think it's going to be more preparation-based this year," said Roddick. "I knew when we started working together that Jimmy is not going to come out of retirement and travel 35 weeks a year. That's just not something that he's going to do."

In large part, Roddick's days as tennis' crossover icon are in the past, going back to 2003 when he was No. 1 in the world and became only the second tennis player to host "Saturday Night Live." Instead, each morning he wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and grapples with the question every tennis player must answer: How do I get better? No one can anticipate the results -- but rest assured that Roddick will give it his all.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.