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Monday, August 22, 2011
Andy Roddick, again, losing his cool

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick is making only one guarantee coming into Flushing Meadows this year. "Won't go mental from here through [U.S.] Open. Book it," he promised in a tweet after his stormy exit from the Cincinnati Masters.

Having smashed a racket after losing the second set, Roddick swiped a ball into the stands after double-faulting to go down break point in the second game of the third set. The umpire issued a point penalty, which Roddick vigorously protested. Still arguing, he won just one more game in the match.

Roddick kept his word about not blowing his cool at the Winston-Salem Open last week, leaving all the wind and fury to Hurricane Irene, which followed in his wake. "Enjoy the hurricane," he quipped before heading home to Texas after a semifinal loss.

Monday, he was hitting at the U.S. Open practice courts, positioned on the one nearest the chain-link fence where crowds gather -- an unusual spot for a big-time player. Then again, Roddick is a big-time player only in name and fame these days. The former champion's standing at the U.S. Open always will be assured, thanks to winning the tournament in 2003 and carrying the banner for American men's tennis for most of the past decade.

He first announced his arrival in 2001 as a 19-year-old by making the quarterfinals, where he -- yes -- memorably melted down against Lleyton Hewitt after an overrule dispute with the umpire. (See video below.)

Ten years on, Roddick finds himself having come full circle, once again a bit of a combustible, unpredictable quantity for whom there is hope, but no serious expectations. Thanks to injuries and lackluster results, his ranking is outside the top 20 for the first time since he entered it shortly before that 2001 U.S. Open. "I don't think I've played my best since probably April of last year," he said.

Heated words with umpires are nothing new for Roddick, winning or losing, but Cincinnati marked one of the rare occasions since his teens that his temper has caused his concentration and play to evaporate completely.

 Andy Roddick
How much of Andy Roddick's play is being affected by his on-court comportment?

"I was feeling it. I don't know that I quite had my legs back yet," said Roddick, who had been sidelined for five weeks with an abdominal injury. "I was just disappointed. Equal parts mad and also disappointed in myself."

It's a reminder that things are not quite the same as 2001. Back then, he represented a new level of power. Now, though, other parts of his game have improved; only the serve remains exceptional. He has stayed in the mix with sheer hard work and competitiveness, but the recent pileup of injuries is affecting that as well.

"I'm sure playing a thousand matches probably has something to do with it," said Roddick, who along with Roger Federer and Hewitt is among those with the most matches played on the circuit. "You know, I've always trained hard. I've gotten hurt a couple times in training this year, which is tough because if you come back, you're out of shape and you don't feel like you're where you need to be [but] if you push too hard in training, you get hurt.

"It's a tough thing for me because I've made a career off of, you know, out-training a lot of guys and outworking a lot of guys."

He said he plans to start taking more account of the wear and tear on his body, instead of pushing himself the way he did when in his mid-20s. "I need to re-evaluate how to go about my day-to-day business a little bit," he said. "I've talked to a couple people. I've talked to [Jim] Courier actually, and he said I just kept banging my head against the wall and I was out by 27."

But what about on court? There are questions about whether even a fully fit Roddick can make a major impact at a Grand Slam again playing the way he does now. He has honed himself into a disciplined, steady and intelligent competitor but lacks the firepower and flash of his early days on the circuit. In his junior days, before he developed his big serve, Roddick was said to be a baseline grinder.

"How much more can he push himself to do this? Serving huge and playing defensively?" Patrick McEnroe recently asked. "If he continues to play this style, which is a grinding style, having to grind it out, it will wear on him physically and mentally. You're seeing that happen now.

"That doesn't mean hitting the ball harder. It means hitting the ball earlier and better and cutting the angles off. Maybe he doesn't believe he can do that."

At least the draw has been kind. Roddick landed in a relatively safe section that gives him a good chance of getting through to a fourth-round meeting with David Ferrer, who has also been injured and not playing his best since defeating Roddick in Davis Cup last month. The top seed in the quarter is Rafael Nadal, who has some tricky opponents and is a bit low on confidence coming into the tournament.

Roddick hopes that getting on a bit of a run could turn his form around. "It's just playing the points at the right time and getting in a groove where you play and you're not thinking about it because you have five, six matches behind you and it becomes second nature," he said.

He may not be a teenager anymore, but there's still a little promise left -- not to mention the promise to keep it cool with the umpires.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.