Classic scene from an old black-and-white Western: huge brawl breaks out, chairs flying across the room, saloon girls bopping unruly cowpokes, just complete and utter chaos. Just as the last punch is thrown, the piano player slides onto his stool, cracks a smile, and hammers out a lively tune. A little honky-tonk to settle things down.
That's what is known as a mood-changer, an adjustment, some well-timed spontaneity. It's a stage actor forgetting his lines, panicking for a second or two, then blurting out a passage more inspired than the original. In sports, it's that sudden switch to a zone defense, a grind-it-out team throwing deep on second-and-one, a slumping slugger laying down a bunt.
We don't get much of this in tennis. As the sport evolved from wooden rackets and ingenuity to slam-bang equipment and baseline monotony, a given player doesn't have a whole lot of spontaneity in his bag. Plan A must work, for there is no B. That's why it's so refreshing to witness the evolution of Andy Roddick's game, so clearly illuminated at Key Biscayne over the weekend. Throwing a shock into
When Roddick first came onto the scene, a lot of us were appalled to see his quickness and long-limbed athleticism go so horribly to waste. He had a massive serve, no doubt, but the rest of his game was sheer tedium from behind the baseline, painfully reminiscent of some 12-year-old hitting his 285th consecutive two-handed backhand in practice.
Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, but it wasn't long before the men's elite got wise. He went from cherished American hero to lamentable robot, trapped in the quicksand of predictability. People always appreciated his desire, his remarkable ability to bounce back, but I doubt they expected an outright career resurrection at the age of 27.
Weren't there legitimate questions about Roddick's future after his heartbreaking Wimbledon loss (16-14 in the fifth) to
When Roddick's right shoulder acted up during his quarterfinal against
In truth, Roddick has been working on his backhand, his volleying and his overall variety for years. Only recently, though, has he been able to unnerve great players at a crucial time. Nadal had a one-set lead on Roddick in Friday's semifinal and was serving, at 3-4 in the second, when everything changed. Flattening out his delivery for a running, down-the-line bullet, Roddick uncorked his first forehand winner of the match for 0-30. On the next point, he crushed a forehand with such force, Nadal was late with his footwork even though he was in perfect position to set up. Roddick went on to break serve at love with another huge forehand, and Nadal admitted later, "It was a change. He started to play more aggressive. It was a surprise for me."
As Roddick said later, "My heavy forehand doesn't work against Rafa, so I had to hit it flatter, which is a higher risk. I took some really, really ridiculous cuts at a lot of forehands."
For anyone who has followed Roddick's career, the stat-sheet numbers were stunning. In the third set alone, he won 12 points from the net and came in behind his second serve five times, winning four of the points ("I'm thinking maybe that's my best approach shot against him.") The visuals weren't bad, either, particularly the backhand volleys struck with such force and precision, and the look of measured satisfaction on the face of his coach, the long-respected
Sometimes players peak too early when they're on a newfound roll, but Roddick didn't let down in the finals. He was nothing short of a masterful chess player against Berdych, keeping the Czech constantly off-balance with his variety of spins, angles and depth. His serve, of course, was the final word (Berdych never had a break point) as Roddick ran his season record to a tour-best 26-4.
"It was a pleasure to watch," CBS commentator
Stefanki, noting that Roddick "works as hard, if not harder, than anyone on tour," indicated that the real payoff lies ahad. "This is just the infancy," he said. "He hasn't tipped the iceberg. He could be similar to Agassi, where his best years are from 27 on. I've seen it done before."