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Roddick's rebirth worth the wait

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 Rafael Nadal, then simply baffling Tomas Berdych, Roddick walked off with the title and, even more importantly, an enhanced reputation.

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 Roger Federer last year? It seemed clear that he would never beat the great man, under any circumstances, so what's the point of the maniacal workouts and grueling tournament schedule?

When Roddick's right shoulder acted up during his quarterfinal against Marin Cilic at this year's Australian Open, the scene carried ominous implications. Surely, Roddick would be stripped bare without his serve; he wouldn't have the weapons to dominate. As it happened -- and it's quite amazing, in retrospect -- that signaled the most graphic evidence of his tactical shift. Down two sets, Roddick summoned some raw aggression, went on the attack and turned the match into a five-set thriller. Cilic prevailed, but not before being thrown completely off by Roddick's barrage.

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 Larry Stefanki.

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 Mary Carillo told reporters on the scene, "and to see just how much Andy has learned about his game and how to approach a match. He knew he had to play a little out of his comfort zone. He had to force things, had to be willing to volley on big points, and he did that. That's how Andy might be able to take a second major."

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."

KEY BISCAYNE NOTES:Venus Williams was almost comically bad in her straight-set loss to Kim Clijsters in the final, but to her credit, she refused the tour-created option of on-court coaching (from her father, Richard). "No," she said. "It has to come from within me." Words for the WTA to live by . . . One guarantee whenever that matchup comes around: If Clijsters is consistently on top of her groundstrokes -- every bit as powerful as Venus' -- she's going to win every time . . . The most unpredictable matchup has to be Clijsters-Justine Henin, a bizarre mix of brilliance and the absurd. It certainly makes for compelling theater, and that matters above all . . . Henin can't seem to crack a decent overhead, she's not getting results when she rips an inside-out forehand to an open space, and her serve lacked variety against Clijsters. On the Fox Sports Net telecast, Lindsay Davenport admitted being "startled" by Henin's incessant serving to Clijsters' forehand, especially from the ad court. Davenport said Clijsters won a lot of big points with forehand service returns "because she knew where it was going." . . . . Henin glanced toward the stands (coach Carlos Rodriguez) so often, it brought to mind the most insecure days of Martina Navratilova. It was telling, though to hear her say she had been taking anti-inflammatory medication for soreness in the muscles around her lower back and hips . . . Anyone's groundstrokes can go on holiday, and Clijsters' certainly did, but when the momentum turns and you're double-faulting into the net, that's choking. The two Belgians seem to bring out the best and worst of each other.

Follow-up to Jon Wertheim's note about the scarce newspaper coverage these days: In the Bay Area, where I live, the San Jose Mercury and San Francisco Chronicle buried Roddick's two big wins in a general-sports digest, to the tune of one paragraph each time. As much as Indian Wells and Key Biscayne mean to the players and hardcore fans, they have no impact on the general public, and that will be the case until the tour is restructured and simplified . . . How strange to see a decidedly ill-tempered Federer lose to Berdych -- especially after one of his most memorable shots of recent years. Berdych had the third-set tiebreaker on his racket -- up 5-4 with two service points to come -- when Federer brazenly sliced a cross-court backhand drop shot from just inches inside the baseline (what a combination of guts and conviction), too good for Berdych to properly handle. Federer also served for the match at 6-5, only to watch Berdych line up a cross-court forehand and drill it for a winner. Federer was so erratic in this match, you can't quite be sure if Berdych, known for mental lapses in the clutch, has truly turned the corner . . . And what did Federer's loss really mean, from his perspective? Someone asked a lengthy question about goals at this stage of his career -- major titles, No. 1 ranking, the whole list -- and he abruptly answered, "To win Wimbledon." . . . Nadal is looking a bit too conventional out there. Let's see him bust out the sleeveless shirts and pirate pants for the clay-court circuit . . . It's one thing to watch a potential opponent's match on television, but Nadal sat in the stands to get a first-hand look at Federer. Somewhat dismissively, Federer said he's never watched Rafa in person . . . Last note on Federer: He has a special relationship with the Tiger Woods family. Accompanied by her one-year-old son, Charlie, Elin didn't mind being seen (or photographed) with the Federers and their twin girls in the shade of a poolside awning at a fashionable Key Biscayne hotel.

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