By Stephen Tignor
Andy Roddick began his 2011 season with a Tweet. “2-week boot camp started yesterday. Having breakfast and fearing the rest of the day.”
Being a tennis player, Roddick’s year began three weeks before the rest of the world’s. Boot camp started in his hometown of Austin, Texas, on December 9. It had been less than three weeks since he had played his last match of 2010, at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, but there was no time to waste. Roddick’s fitness trainer, Lance Hooten, had him moving from the track to the tennis court and back. They alternated short sprints with long ones, and threw in a few 50-meter runs up a hill just for fun. When Hooten tried to start him off slowly, Roddick wouldn’t have any of it. “You don’t win the Australian Open by cutting your workouts short,” he barked.
Being a tennis player, Roddick took those workouts right through the Christmas holidays. He made a brief stop in New York City to visit the family of his wife, Brooklyn Decker—“13 people, 5 dogs, and 2 cats at the Decker home stuffed into four bedrooms,” was how she described it. But the holiday didn’t last long. By December 26, Roddick was snowed in at JFK airport, waiting to begin a 20-hour airplane journey that would have him in Australia three weeks before the season’s first Grand Slam.
“We got started a week earlier this time,” says Roddick’s longtime trainer, Doug Spreen. “We went straight to Brisbane and played that very first week.”
Roddick didn’t win in Brisbane—Robin Soderling knocked him off in the final—and he didn’t win the Australian Open, but the 28-year-old came into this season, his 11th on tour, feeling as fresh and eager as he has in years. “The biggest thing for me was getting right, getting healthy, that was the focus,” Roddick said.
“It all begins with that,” says Spreen. “Andy had a knee problem coming into last season, so we were starting behind right away. Then he was ill, so we missed out on the middle of the year. This time we could build the physical base to begin. So we feel good about where we are.”
So where is Andy Roddick right now? At first glance, he’s a married man closing in on 30, with double-digit seasons on tour behind him and recent Grand Slam results that can only be called disappointing—as he told Hooten, he didn’t go through boot camp to lose in the fourth round in Melbourne.
In some ways, Roddick still labors under the burden of living up to his signature accomplishment, the US Open title he won in 2003 at age 21. He’s had a lifetime’s worth of triumphs and heartbreaks since. While his heartbreaking five-set loss to Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon made him a sympathetic figure the world over, his devotion to the U.S. Davis Cup cause, which finally paid off in a title in 2007, was the shining example of his perseverance. It’s the latter trait that stands out most when you look back on Roddick’s career as a whole. Through all of those ups and downs, he’s finished the last eight seasons in the Top 10.
That’s a long time in tennis-player years. Roddick even admitted at the start of 2011 that sometimes a player has to delude himself a little if he’s going to find the motivation needed for another 11 months of the pro-tour grind. In most cases like Roddick’s, questions about retirement would be dogging him from one press conference to the next. But there hasn’t been a lot of that thus far. Whatever struggles and frustrations Roddick has had with injuries and losses, his desire doesn’t appear to have been affected by them.
“I’m certainly still motivated,” Roddick says. “I love what I do. I certainly realize that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to do this. It’s about treating it with respect, being prepared, and not short-changing yourself. I think I do that.”
“I saw him down in Austin in December, and I saw the same energy as always,” says U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier, a man who knows something about the frustrations that aging can bring in tennis.“I know when I was 28, 29, I wasn’t as enthusiastic as he is. It wasn’t long after that before I was ready to hang it up. But Andy’s not worn down at all. I think he gets the short end of the stick sometimes. To be in the Top 10 for as long as he has is an incredible achievement.”
Those years at the top have made Roddick a visible spokesman for the American game and a role model for many up-and-coming young U.S. talents. “It’s a responsibility that has great benefits,” he said recently, “and it’s hard sometime as well. The benefits for me have far outweighed the downside of it. But obviously, for many reasons, I would love to have guys [at the top] with me all the time.”
Still, despite being healthy and energized and motivated and putting in all the work on track and tennis court alike, the year began on a down note for Roddick in Australia. His blowout loss to Stanislas Wawrinka marked the fourth consecutive major in which he had been beaten before the quarterfinals, and the fourth straight time he had lost to a player ranked below him, something that had been a rarity for him in the past. In Melbourne, Roddick’s style of play, which is based around a big serve and consistent play from the backcourt, began to come under scrutiny. Other players, most conspicuously Wawrinka, were dictating play from the baseline against him. Was Roddick in need of a new look? Was his famous willingness to fight no longer enough? One former player who has seen his game at close range for many years believes that may be the case, that Roddick may be at a crossroads with his game.
“No one can doubt his effort,” says former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. “And he’s very good at thinking out there and finding his opponents’ weaknesses.” McEnroe cites a number of Davis Cup matches in the past where Roddick quickly diagnosed what a player was incapable of doing and went about forcing him to do it over and over. “I would tell him to mix it up,” McEnroe adds. “When it didn’t work he would look at me like I was an idiot. So he’s a good tactician, and he’s a savvy competitor. He knows how to win matches.”
Case in point was the way Roddick handled his third-round match in Melbourne against Robin Haase. The Dutchman, ranked No. 65 in the world, was on fire through the first two sets. He won the first 6-2 and reached a tiebreaker in the second. But Roddick didn’t panic. “If a guy is 65 in the world and is coming out of his shoes,” he said, “you’re trying to figure out during the course of the match why he’s 65 in the world. I started coming in a lot more. I stayed the course and figured it out.”
It’s the latter tactic that McEnroe thinks Roddick should use more. “A lot of people say Andy should just start ripping the ball harder,” McEnroe says. “You know, ‘Bring the wood!’ or ‘Bring the heat!’ or “Play aggressive!’ But you can’t just do that on command. What I’d like to see him do is take a couple of steps forward once he’s got a guy on the move. I think he sits back and waits for the next ball to come to him far too often. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s capable of dictating more points with his court positioning.”
Roddick left Melbourne saying that he would sit down with his coach, Larry Stefanki, and try to figure out what went wrong, and what he might improve. It sounded like he may be thinking along the same lines as McEnroe. “I’ve got to figure out in slower conditions [like those in Australia] how I can impose myself on some of these guys.”
Up ahead, a tough Davis Cup tie in Chile loomed. But no one was more upbeat about Roddick’s prospects than the man who would be his captain at that tie. “The good news with Andy,” Courier says, “is that he’s got a 20 percent to 30 percent upside still, in my opinion. He has the ability to be more offensive minded, and if he’s committed to that, it could be really exciting. He’s fit again, he still has a huge advantage with his serve, and he’s a total professional. You might not have seen the best of Andy Roddick yet.”