Tag Archives: Grand Slam

The Chronicles of Roddick

Editor’s note: So I was slated to do a story on Andy Roddick last summer because he was going to appear at the now-defunct Indy Tennis Championships and interviewed numerous people, like his brother, his mom, Sam Querrey, Robby Ginepri, Patrick McEnroe and even Johnny Mac. And I was on a quick conference call with Roddick himself. Anyways, he bailed out because of injury and I never got to write the story. UNTIL NOW. A year later, and about 2,000 words longer, we get this…

As a rule, tennis doesn’t reward those who take their time. The sport caters to the fleet-footed and swift-minded. It goes without saying that a player can’t think at length about whether he hit his groundstroke deep enough to put his opponent at a disadvantage and thus should rush the net.

A player must react. A player must decide. A player must be ready to change in a match – be it a change of position, strategy or mental state.

This rule of tennis, of course, applies everywhere throughout the sport and not just in the basics of play.

Yes, transformations are rapid. Metamorphoses seem to occur overnight if not quicker. Sam Stosur was barely a top 50 player a year ago. She’s now a contender in Grand Slams. Robin Soderling was dubiously known as one of the ATP’s best indoor court players. He’s now seen by many as the best player behind Federer and Nadal.

Yet as rapidly as players’ fortunes rise and fall on the courts, their reputations change faster. Andre Agassi was a rebellious prodigy whose shallow persona prevented his play from reaching its ultimate depth. Then he was a wise philanthropist, a man who made use of his talent to reach out to others.

Federer was a talented headcase. Then he was the undisputed king of tennis. Then he was washed up. Then he was back on his throne, the billowy white jacket with a gold 15 emblazoned the lower corner at last year’s Wimbledon illustrating that.

Federer slipped on that jacket after a match against Andy Roddick that lasted 30 games into the fifth set. It was in those five sets, in those 30 games that a transformation, rapid even by tennis’ standards, occurred.

When it was over, Roddick was the bruised and battered hero. He was vulnerable. He was wounded.

And we saw that.

One day we felt iffy about Roddick, the next day we admired him.

This is about that transformation. This is about the origins. This is about a man who was misunderstood for so long.

This is about him, and it’s about us.

Why didn’t we feel passionate about Roddick from the beginning? Why did we have to change?

What took us so long to like Andy Roddick?

***
The rule was no basketball. And that was an order straight from Roddick’s coach, Tarik Benhabiles. He coached one of the top juniors in the country, and he didn’t want to see him get injured playing something that wouldn’t improve his tennis.

This wasn’t a typical rule for a tennis prodigy. Can you imagine a young Ivan Lendl even considering picking up a basketball?
But Roddick was never like the others. A tennis life for an ordinary kid began, where else, the Midwest. There, in Omaha, Roddick joined a class of 7-year-olds at Westroads Racquet Club. He was 3 1/2.

Blanche Roddick, his mother, knew he would fail. She only enrolled him because the class would shut down for good if another student didn’t join. So she signed him up.

“If you want to get rid of him,” Blanche would tell the instructor, “go ahead.”

Nobody got rid of Roddick. Even if he wasn’t better than the rest of the class, they couldn’t have. He would stand in front of the club’s rebound wall and pound the yellow ball endlessly, not budging for anyone.

Years went by and Roddick improved and he hit a growth spurt and soon he was one of the better young Americans and then one of the best young players in the world. He still wore a hole-covered Nebraska Cornhuskers hat when he played. He still spent his formative years in the Midwest. He still played basketball.

And when his family finally did move to Florida to further his tennis career, Benhabiles began working with him the way a typical coach would work with a tennis prodigy.

And one of his rules was no basketball.

So one night Roddick told Blanche he planned to see some friends, left the house and came back late. Blanche scanned the paper the next day and stumbled upon the box score from the Boca Prep basketball game. There, printed among the Boca players who scored, she found an interesting name. It was Andy Roddick.

***
Robby Ginepri knows a Roddick none of us know, the one without the Mach 3 serve and baggy Lacoste polo.

“He was a grinder,” Ginepri says.

Roddick had to be a grinder. He was small, almost comically small until midway through his high school career. The wall measurements were posted in the Roddick’s house in Austin, and Blanche can’t remember his exact height by his early teens, but…

“He couldn’t have been more than five feet,” she says.

This meant that Roddick came up with deceptive ways to win points. This meant that he put himself in better condition. This meant that he outworked his opponents so that he still finished near the top of the 14-and-unders despite standing smaller than all but one of the top 128 in the rankings.

But he did grow, and he grew into, well, Patrick McEnroe tells it through this story.

Tennis has taken McEnroe all over the world and then back to those places again, every year, as a commentator and a Davis Cup coach. Yet he vividly remembers Basel.

It was 2001. He was a freshly-minted Davis Cup coach and high on his list of priorities was finding a spot for a teenager who had not only turned professional but rose higher than any young player ever had. That player was, of course, Roddick.

McEnroe invited him to Basel for a match against Switzerland and held a practice for the entire team on the day they arrived. Todd Martin was there, so too were Justin Gimelstob and Jon-Michael-Gambill, and jet lag threw off everyone’s timing.

Roddick stepped on the court and began rifling 140 mph serves like he was in a Grand Slam match. McEnroe turned to Martin. He saw energy, and he still saw that grind-it-out mentality.

“I’ve seen that side in Andy many times in distant lands,” McEnroe says, “and it’s something few people have.”

***
“Andy Roddick can’t find the remote either.”
L. Jon Wertheim used that sentence to begin an SI story on Roddick shortly after he won the 2003 U.S. Open. You get it, right? In a tennis world where top players like Marcelo Rios ran over their trainers in SUV’s and punched Roman taxi drivers, Roddick never missed a Nebraska football game and played poker with Mardy Fish and James Blake.

He may have dated Mandy Moore and earned millions of dollars, but he was one of us. Roddick was the everyman.

Of course, he was one of us back then because he just won the U.S. Open. In September of 2003 the future of American tennis established himself as the present.

He had a world-record cannon serve. He had a sense of humor, too. He’d poke fun at media members during otherwise boring press conferences.

But he wasn’t Pete or Andre.

A few years later, we discovered that. He lost in the first rounds of Grand Slams, and when he did reach the semifinals or finals, we knew he didn’t have a chance. And he didn’t. By 2008, Roddick had never won that second, third, fourth or fifth Grand Slam like we expected.

His serve no longer struck awe. He was called one-dimensional, lazy. His outbursts to the media weren’t hilarious but instead moody and aloof.

He still advanced deep into the draws of most Grand Slams. He planted himself in the top 10, finishing eighth or higher for the year-end rankings every year since 2002. He helped several people escape a hotel fire in Rome. He started the Andy Roddick Foundation, a charity unmatched by anyone in tennis except for Agassi. Through it he started tennis academies in poor areas and sent tons of kids, including a young Jozy Altidore, to school at Boca Prep.

“Where would be without him?” McEnroe asks.

Where would we be without him? Did we even notice that we had him? Everything Roddick did seemed to spur feelings of apathy, or worse.

I remember the fall of 2008. Roddick played an early round match at the U.S. Open against Ernests Gulbis. Gulbis was a rising star, a young Latvian riding a summer hot streak. I remember watching the beginning of the match at a friend’s house and mentioning to the group you wanted Gulbis to win.

They shrugged their shoulders.

They felt the same way.

***
There’s another layer to McEnroe’s story about Basel. The U.S. lost that Davis Cup match to Switzerland, and the main reason why McEnroe remembers, was because of a young man named Roger Federer.

That same man was wearing white on championship Sunday at Wimbledon last year and staring across the net at Roddick like he had so many times before. Roddick was 2-18 against Federer in his career.

Then the match started, and Roddick won the first set, and he had the second set won if he just made that volley. But he didn’t. He did come back to win another set though, and it went to the fifth, then it went to the 22nd game, then the 24th, then the 28th and Roddick still hadn’t been broken.

Yet no matter what we may have thought there was no way he was going to win. Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras had come to England to watch. This was about the coronation of Roger Federer. A dreamer serving aces on fumes wasn’t about to change that.

And Roddick didn’t. He did get broken. He did have to watch Federer put on that white jacket with a golden 15 emblazoned on the side and hear him apologize for the defeat.

Later, night fell on Wimbledon and McEnroe rushed over to Roddick’s rented townhouse to see if he’d be able to play in the Davis Cup event the next weekend.

Roddick was there with his wife, Brooklyn Decker, his trainer, Doug Spreen, and coach, Larry Stefanki. He was gutted. He was defeated.

McEnroe couldn’t do much to change that, but he felt he needed to say something.

“I know this isn’t going to make you feel any better,” McEnroe said, “but you’ve earned more fans with this loss than you did with any of your wins.”

The next week Roddick traveled to New York so a doctor could check on his hip. People stopped him on the streets, more than ever had before. They all gave him words of encouragement.

“I couldn’t go a block without people telling me how much they enjoyed the match,” he says.

Perhaps Joe Posnanski captured the zeitgeist best by writing “he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together.”

It was true. Roddick had played with the guts of the grinder Ginepri knows, with the rebelliousness and joy of the kid who snuck out for a basketball game, with the energy McEnroe has seen thousands of times away from the TV cameras.

Really, he played the way he’s always played: the way we had previously never noticed.

Roddick didn’t change. We did. That quickly, how it always is in tennis, we converted.

We couldn’t get enough of Andy Roddick.

***
The draws are out for this summer’s Wimbledon. Roddick is ranked fifth and is placed in Novak Djokovic’s quarter. TV reports, blogs and news stories will bring up last year thousands of times over the next few days. They’ll show the English crowd chanting Roddick’s name as he vainly tried to win in the fifth set.

Then on Monday, the matches will begin. Flashbacks to last year will stop. Roddick will have to defeat six opponents, possibly Djokovic and Federer, just to get back to the Final.

It won’t be easy. He lost to Dudi Sela at a Wimbledon tune up last week. He played well on the hard courts in the spring but has slogged through injuries and inconsistencies the last two months.

Many wonder if Roddick has been able to recover from last year’s Wimbledon. The match that marked his mid-career resurrection and endeared him to us could have caused permanent damage to his game.

To be able to advance deep into the draw, he’ll have to forget about it. He’ll have to forget that he did everything he could against Federer for five hours and still couldn’t win.

As for us, we’ll remember. We’ll watch him hit bullet serves on the pristine grass and remember.

Our views of Roddick changed suddenly in one afternoon, and now we can take our time admiring his career.

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Ode to the Aussie Open

A quick thank you to Rustin, for keeping this blog afloat as I slacked for about two weeks. Maybe I’ve just been too busy watching the Australian Open…

If you stare long enough, the rubberized blue surface begins to morph from mere tennis court to bottomless ocean.

This happens after hours of watching the men and women who are standing on top of it as they hit the golden ball back and forth, lulling you with repetition and pulling you under.

And I greatly enjoy sinking into this sea.

The above happens every year; it, in fact, is happening right now. The best tennis players in the world are playing in the world’s most tennis-mad country, Australia, in the Australian Open.

Rafael Nadal thrashed his first two opponents then needed a little extra effort against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Roger Federer had a little trouble in round one. America’s sweetheart Melanie Oudin lost, so too did Motherhood’s sweetheart, Kim Clijsters. Serena Williams didn’t threaten anyone yet. Justine Henin upset a top-10 player. And James Blake came heartbreakingly close to beating Juan Martin del Potro in five sets.

There’s the hot news from Australia. The short summary tells everything that’s apparent on the surface.

But the Australian open has never really been about what’s on the surface. Indeed, the literal surface has changed several times throughout the years. As recently as 1987, the major was played on grass courts. Since then, it’s moved to the greenish Rebound Ace to what it is now: the deep blue Plexicushion.

Anyways, like I said, the Australian Open is about so much more than surface characteristics. The tennis played there once a year is the kind that makes you think.

In a way, tennis has always been like that. It’s only natural. Games of tennis begin with the score at Love-Love, and the back and forth patter of the ball from each person’s racket creates a steady rhythm incomparable to any other sport.

All kinds of writers have captured this sort of phenomena. A book called “Tennis and the Meaning of Life” features brilliant authors all telling their tennis stories.

With that book containing only pieces of fiction, the Australian Open gets no mention. In real life, though, the event is mesmerizing, boasting a setting, a time and place, no work of tennis fiction can match.

That time is, of course, right now, in January. I suspect many people would consider January the worst month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the only month that doesn’t include a real holiday (no offense to MLK, but that doesn’t count). It’s the only month that doesn’t include warm weather. It’s a month that follows Chrismukah and New Year’s Eve and the college football season.

And it’s a month of transition. A new year has begun and with it comes all the hopes and challenges of something different.
For college students, the second semester begins. For businesses, the new fiscal year starts. The classes might get easier, or they might not. Investors might become bullish or they might not.

In short, January is a month of harsh uncertainty. There are no breaks from the routine and no breaks from the conditions.

You’re in Dallas. You’re in Kansas City. You’re in New York. You’re in the best place in the world. You’re in the worst place in the world.

You are where you are and transition doesn’t come quick or easy. You push through January knowing the weather will get warmer and that the new problems you encounter will go away when you discover solutions.

But when I watch the Australian Open, it feels like I’m cheating. It feels like the solutions are here, and I’m moving to some place else entirely.

The month is January, yet the women tennis players wear tank tops. The time on your cell phone says 8 p.m., yet Marin Cilic is pounding serves in 99-degree heat and sunlight.

On Sunday, I watched Yanina Wickmayer win her first round match while writing a small piece for the Dallas Morning News. Three years ago, I watched Andy Roddick defeat a young J.W. Tsonga the night before Daily Kansan orientation. Five years ago, I listened to my high school locker partner discuss how he stayed up until 2:30 a.m. so he could watch Marat Safin defeat Roger Federer.

Time, place and circumstances change. The Australian Open doesn’t.

Some may argue this same point about other sporting events. The World Series happens every fall, the NCAA Tournament every spring and so on.

But they don’t carry the same magic as the Australian Open. They don’t take place during one of the strangest times of the year, and they don’t provide such a drastic change to that setting.

And every year, the Australian Open does.

It begins in January and brings with it the comfortable certainty of men and women slapping a ball back and forth over a blue expanse.

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Pistol Pete

*Quick housekeeping note. In case you didn’t notice. Rustin and I combined blogs. We’re still working on getting this site to look cool, but hopefully we’ll have all the bugs out soon. On to the post…

The phone call from Pete Sampras was supposed to arrive at 12:10. Not noon.

“He’s very regimented, always right on time,” his PR guy said.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Sampras was coming to Dallas for an exhibition match against Todd Martin. They play tonight.

As the de facto tennis writer for our paper, I got the assignment (ran in the paper on Thursday). Of course I crave writing these stories. Since about the 2005 U.S. Open, when James Blake had his coming out party, I’ve enjoyed tennis as much as any sport, perhaps except college basketball.

And it’s strange, I seem to levitate more toward tennis with each passing year, each passing Grand Slam. This September I watched at least one match every day during the U.S. Open. Maybe it was because I didn’t have to waste my time doing any homework, or because of the great storylines of Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin and of course, Roger Federer. I’m not sure. But I watched more tennis than I ever have and read every store there was to read on SI.com.

Anyways, Sampras’ reign ended long before I became a true follower. But I still knew about him. I want to say my first memory of watching tennis involved him. It’s quite fuzzy, but I remember seeing a guy with brown, curly hair playing on TV and then later saying he was my favorite player.

Because of this, because of his 14 Grand Slams and because well, I’m 22 and still new to this writing business, I fretted about the conversation I would be having with Sampras.

I sometimes get nervous before I interview high school cross country coaches. And a tennis legend was going to call my cell phone.

Then I heard that comment from his agent. This made it infinitesimally worse. Yeah, of course I knew Sampras was the silent assassin. He would rock his opponents to sleep before attacking when the match got too close and then say four words about it if he was in a talkative mood. He was great, but he was an enigma. He was either aloof or just quiet.

This scheduled 12:10 thing made it seem like he would call in a hurry, answer questions with short sentences and announce that he had to go after five minutes.

The night before the scheduled interview, I jotted down several questions – something I always do but not as strictly as I did for this. That morning, I arrived to work at about 9:30 and made a few phone calls for some other assignments.

At about 10:30, my phone rang, flashing a 310 area code on the screen. That’s Los Angeles.*

*Why do I know that area code by heart? It must be from this Ludacris song. I’m still upset he didn’t mention the 913, or at least the 816 or 785.

“Hey Mark,” the voice said. “This is Pete. Hope this isn’t too early for you.”

The most regimented man in tennis called me almost two hours before his schedule. He had just dropped off his oldest child at school.

For about 20 minutes, I asked questions. He answered them and went off on his own stories, laughing a few times while telling them.
In sports writing, you’re not supposed to admire or really, get anxious talking to anyone, but when it’s one of the all-time tennis greats, you get nervous that you’re talking to him, and you get nervous that he could come off as too big-time.

Sampras didn’t necessarily ever have a reputation of being hard to deal with, or even having a mean streak, like say, Michael Jordan. But he was never quite open to the public. He was kind of a mystery man.

Because of that and the 12:10 call and warning from his PR guy, I thought this Sampras interview could have gone either way. Any person, especially one as famous and busy as Sampras, could have cut short an interview or not taken it seriously with a small-time, rookie journalist.

He didn’t. He may not have genuinely cared, but it sure seemed like he did.

The fact that Sampras seems to be a great guy shouldn’t rock the world as great news. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. He played sports well and still puts on shows at exhibitions.

But to know he does that and cares about the public, well, doesn’t that make the sports world shine a little brighter for everyone?

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