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Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Are we too focused on Roddick's failures?

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Andy Roddick
Frustrations have mounted for Andy Roddick, who has never lived up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon him as a junior.

It could be said that if it weren't for Roger Federer, Andy Roddick could be displaying at least three Grand Slam trophies at home instead of being a guy with only one major victory.

So what?

Why does the No. 7 Roddick get a bum rap when he has proved to be a hard-working, dedicated player who readily accepts challenges? Certainly, his curriculum vitae is plumped up by 26 career titles -- a figure that includes the 2003 U.S. Open title, three additional Grand Slam final appearances, a leadership medal for guiding the U.S. to the 2007 Davis Cup title -- and he is likely to finish the year in the top 10 for the seventh consecutive year.

It should be noted that all three times he lost in Grand Slam finals -- 2004 and '05 Wimbledon, '06 U.S. Open -- he lost to then-world No. 1 Roger Federer, a guy dangerously close, as in one title away, from equaling Pete Sampras' Grand Slam title record of 14.

Less than two weeks out of the season-ending tournament in Shanghai, Roddick is hoping to shore up a sixth successive berth at the Tennis Masters Cup this week at the Paris Indoors -- injury forced him to skip playing the event in 2005. Though Roddick has failed to reach a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time in six years, he will close out the season having won at least one title for the eighth straight year, winning at San Jose, Dubai and Beijing. And for the first time in his career he beat the top-three-ranked players in the same season -- chief among this achievement is a win over Roger Federer after 11 disheartening losses dating to 2003, which came in the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals.

Therein lies the rub -- Roger Federer.

As successful as Roddick has been since turning pro in 2000, on a day-in, day-out basis Federer has proved to be too daunting a nemesis. The good news, or bad news, is Roddick has plenty of company, as most of the other players have suffered the same fate. The fact that some pundits around the game take a look at Roddick at 27 and declare him disappointing is considered ludicrous by more compassionate souls.

Throughout his career, Roddick has been swarmed by incredible expectations. From the minute he broke out as a late-blooming junior star, taking the Australian and U.S. Open junior titles and being named the 2000 ITF Junior World Champion, he's been on the radar screen. With American tennis desperate to locate the future, Roddick quickly became anointed heir apparent to America's big four -- Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.

Roddick relished the role and was flattered to be linked with that company, but cautiously admitted those shoes might not fit.

To a certain extent, David Wheaton can relate to Roddick's situation. Wheaton's career coincided with America's so-called greatest generation -- he even roomed with Agassi at the Nick Bollettieri Academy. The Minnesota native, noted for his stars-and-stripes headband, reached a career-high ranking of No. 12, landing just a notch outside the celebrated circle of four.

"We're all sort of imprisoned by our time in history," noted Wheaton, who besides competing in some senior events is a contributing tennis columnist to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and hosts "The Christian Worldview," a nationally syndicated radio talk show. "I don't mean that in a negative sense. He's played his prime years, which I consider being between 19 and 26, when Roger Federer had his meteoric rise. There's no doubt in my mind if that was not the case, Roddick would've had another Slam title or two."

If Roddick didn't give his best effort every time he stepped on the court, he would deserve to be criticized. Yet he is always seeking to improve; it would not be inaccurate to say he's the classic overachiever.

"To come out and win a Grand Slam at the age he did, that is a credit to him and his work ethic and his attitude," said Dean Goldfine, who coached Roddick through five title wins during 2005, a final stop at Wimbledon and a semifinal showing at the Australian Open. "He's a great competitor. Every time he goes out on the court, he's out there to win. There's a lot of guys out there I can't say that about; they have bad days or maybe they're not into it. I'd say you can count on one hand the times Andy's been out on a court and you could say, 'Geez, what's wrong with him? He doesn't look into it today.' And you can't say that about many other guys."

Goldfine, who recently accepted a position as director of tennis at the JCC in North Miami, Fla., saw the outside expectations Roddick lives with the instant he signed on as coach. Although Roddick has had a couple of coaching changes since Goldfine, the two remain good friends -- one recent communication came last week when Goldfine reported Roddick tried to "pull off a blockbuster trade with me in our fantasy football league, but I just can't give in to him."

"Without a doubt, I got a taste of witnessing that [pressure] right away," Goldfine said. "The first tournament I went [to] with him was the Australian Open, and he lost in the semifinals to Lleyton [Hewitt] in four sets, in a match he probably should have won. We went to San Jose right after, and everybody was asking 'What's wrong? What's wrong?' He was No. 3 in the world and just got to the semifinals of a Grand Slam. I mean, how many people even get to the semifinals of a Grand Slam? I didn't think that was fair expectations to put on somebody."

Roddick's game is largely built around his serve, and a mega-forehand to back up his biggest weapon. And he has worked on his less-effective shots -- his backhand has greatly improved since its anemic beginnings, and he has become more efficient, if not a natural, at approaching the net.

Andy Roddick
It's been five years since Andy Roddick won his solitary Grand Slam title at the 2003 U.S. Open.
"It seems to me that what's the limiting factor for Roddick in comparison to the top four players [Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray] is really movement," Wheaton said. "The guys at the top just move exceptionally well. It was like that for me; no matter how hard I worked, I could never be as quick as Michael Chang. [Roddick] can get better at his movement, but he's never going to be fast like Federer because he's a little bit more lumbering.

"Another limiting factor is actually that his serve is not as good as it could be. He's got probably the hardest serve in the world, but I don't think it's the most accurate serve in the world, something that he could still work on. It's like pitching; you have to be able to hit the corners of the plate."

Another Roddick knock that frequently surfaces is the revolving coaching door. Goldfine believes he hasn't been hurt by the bevy of coaches: "Tarik [Benhabiles] did a great job helping him to develop; Brad [Gilbert] obviously did an excellent job in terms of looking at matches strategically. I think I helped him to be more professional on focusing on the process of things and not worrying about all the other things. Jimmy [Connors] helped him a lot in improving his backhand, and John was his brother -- I think that's a tough situation, but he is someone who wasn't going to take any B.S. and was going to tell it like it is."

The blessing and the curse for Roddick is that in the latest generation of American players, he's the best and the brightest. That distinction naturally comes with some off-the-mark external demands. But it also affords many amazing opportunities, which Roddick has admitted is a privilege. Maybe he's no Pete Sampras, but he's Andy Roddick, and that should be enough.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.