Tuesday March 27th, 2012

Andy Roddick

Andy Roddick gets Juan Monaco in the fourth round. (Cynthia Lum/Icon SMI)

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Over the course of 23 matches dating to 2001, Andy Roddick had, for the most part, played the part of the lunatic to Roger Federer's genius.

But on Monday night in front of a packed Miami crowd, Roddick finally played the way so many have urged him to do, pounding his forehand and staying aggressive to upend Federer 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-4 in the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open.

It's hard not to wonder what Roddick's career would have looked like without Federer's constant intervention. He's lost to the Swiss in seven finals, four of them at Grand Slam events (three times at Wimbledon, once at the U.S. Open), and four more times in major semifinals or quarterfinals. Federer has been the roadblock, and there hasn't been much Roddick has been able to do about it.

Often content to play long rallies, Roddick was rarely able to change his mindset against Federer to be more aggressive, to attack the ball, close the distance between himself and the baseline and take more risk. His unwillingness to do so led to a 2-21 head-to-head record entering the Miami clash, with the matches ranging from heart-rending close calls (2009 Wimbledon final, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14) to embarrassingly lopsided defeats (2007 Australian Open semifinals, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2).

So on Monday, you'd be forgiven (well, by anyone other than Roddick or his team) if you though this might be another walk-through for Federer, who has been on a 40-2 tear since last year's U.S. Open. With three consecutive titles, the world No. 3 (who had a chance to leave Miami as No. 2) had spent the last month re-establishing his aura of invincibility.

Roddick, on the other hand, has been struggling with injuries since the Australian Open and suffered losses to the likes of Denis Istomin and Xavier Malisse, putting the 29-year-old American outside the top 30 for the first time since 2001. It was getting to the point where journalists were left trying to figure out creative and respectful ways to bring up the dreaded "R" word. Needless to say, that conversation never got very far with Roddick.

But if Federer was turning back the clock to 2006 with his recent play, Roddick upped him on Monday by dialing it to 2003. Back then, a spiky-haired, visor-wearing, 21-year-old punk was all offense, all the time. With a serve like a thunderbolt and a forehand he never hesitated to clock, that Roddick won his first and only Slam at the U.S. Open. Somewhere along the line, Roddick went away from that style and molded himself into a baselining grinder, which is precisely what has never worked against Federer.

So instead of playing the role of the puppy running into the sliding door over and over and over again, this time Roddick adjusted. He came out with an aggressive approach, committed to hitting his forehand flatter and with conviction. The tactical change worked, and it was a sight to see.

Roddick won the first set with a well-played tiebreaker and looked to be soaring as the second set began. But then Federer seemed to restore order. As Roddick backed off his groundstrokes ever so slightly, Federer tightened his grip on the match and raced to clinch the second set 6-1. Things got worse when Roddick fell behind 0-40 on his first service game of the third set.

The break felt inevitable the way Federer's game was flowing, but nothing is certain when a player possesses a serve like Roddick's. He dug out of it with the help of three service winners, two overhead winners and a couple of errors from Federer.

Then, in the next game, Roddick put together what he called "probably one of the best games I've ever played to break." Roddick, who moved like a man who trusted his body again, went all out on his forehand, hitting three winners and then punctuating the break with a running forehand passing shot that curled in.

“It was kind of a game of chess," Roddick told reporters after the match. "I stayed back on the returns [initially], which is something I have not done with him often early on. I think he might have been a little bit surprised by it. He made the adjustment like he does because he’s Roger. [He] started coming in a lot and putting the pressure on me, and it was down 6‑1 in the second and Love‑40 early in the third.  It was apparent that that wasn’t going to work much longer.

"So I said, 'Well, all right. Let’s kinda go over‑the‑top aggressive.' I was able to get out of that game and play that really good game to break, and then my serve held up from there.”

That over-the-top aggression was the most notable difference on the night, and it's something one hopes Roddick will continue to apply in the future. The reality is that Roddick isn't getting younger and his body, which has been relatively injury-free for most of his career, is beginning to break down. Grinding out points and matches isn't just bad for his body, it's also bad for his game -- the tactic simply doesn't work against the best.

If Roddick needs inspiration, he can look at another American player in the draw for a blueprint on how to force yourself to be aggressive. Venus Williams is into the quarterfinals of Miami while playing an all-out attacking game in order to keep points short. Why? Because given her illness and fatigue issues, she simply no longer has the luxury to run around along the baseline for rallies of 10-15 shots. The irony with Venus is that this mentality is precisely what makes her so successful on grass, but for whatever reason she's consistently reverted to the baseline toil on hard courts. Now that that's no longer an option, she's playing the hard courts of Miami as though it's Wimbledon.

Roddick doesn't have to take it to that extreme, but as Monday's performance showed, ratcheting up the aggression at the right moments can turn a match on its head and subdue even the greatest.

“I could have been up a break in that second game of the third, but to his credit he held on," Federer said. "And in the game when I get broken, he really goes for it -- all credit to him.”

"All credit to him" seemed to be the motto of the match. There are a lot of criticisms that can be laid on Roddick: his temper, his penchant for speaking to umpires in a less-than-cordial manner and his unwillingness to play more aggressively on a consistent basis are a few. But one critique that will never fly is that Roddick doesn't work hard enough or doesn't want it enough.

In fact, it could just be that Roddick's desire is precisely what was holding him back against Federer. In the past he's looked shackled to a game plan or style built around not losing. Fire aces to hold your serve, minimize unforced errors and grind your opponent down on his service games.

Just as in the women's game, that protective style doesn't work in the big matches against the big players. On Monday, Roddick flipped the script and played like a man who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. In so doing, he notched his biggest win since beating Novak Djokovic in Cincinnati in 2010, though this one felt even more monumental.

"There is no script in sports," Roddick said. "I think that's what makes it the best entertainment in the world. Nights like tonight are why you play the matches." Perhaps Monday's performance will remind us all -- fans, pundits and players -- that indeed, there are no scripts. Observers shouldn't always pre-write them, and players shouldn't always stick to them.

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