Commentary

Reality check: A-Rod can bring it

Updated: March 27, 2012, 2:27 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Earlier this month, after he beat Roger Federer in a hit-and-giggles exhibition at Madison Square Garden, Andy Roddick's sardonic wit -- it is rarely contained -- emerged in the postmatch news conference.

"Obviously I'm in Roger's head," he said. "He has no idea how to play me."

Roddick, for the record, had lost 21 of 23 official matches to Federer, including one of the best Wimbledon finals in history; the score in the fifth set in 2009 was 16-14. It was a wrenching loss for Roddick, perhaps as impressive as his lone major victory at the 2003 U.S. Open. Maybe more.

So how do you convince yourself to battle and persevere when the final result already seems to be written? When does optimism give way to reality. When does it congeal into denial?

In professional sports, a selective memory is an invaluable tool. Like the streaky power hitter, Roddick prefers to dwell on the occasional home run -- not the handfuls of swinging strikeouts. No, he has clung to those two victories like a life vest a mile offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The funny thing? One of those wins came here at the Sony Ericsson Open in 2008. On Monday night, when Roddick won a first-set tiebreaker against Federer, the buzz began to build on the stadium court and Roddick looked like a believer. When he broke Federer early in the third set, it seemed possible. But -- and Roddick always seems to be the butt of Federer's jokes -- you were waiting for that "but."

It never came. When Roddick won, after an ace and two thunderous and unreturnable serves, he looked more stunned than Federer. He glanced skyward and shook his head, contemplating the depth of his 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-4 victory.

Admit it, you probably never thought you'd see it. Roddick, as the result proves, was one of the very few who imagined it could be done. Afterward, he was eerily calm, almost subdued.

"You still have to come back tomorrow," Roddick said. "As much as you want to take it in -- because, obviously, these wins are few and far between -- you have to do what you can to get ready.

"In 2008, I beat Roger [in Miami] and lost to [Nikolay] Davydenko in the next round. There's no script in sports, which is why it's the best entertainment. You don't know what's going to happen. Nights like tonight are why you play."

Tuesday, Roddick meets Juan Monaco in a fourth-round match.

After winning 77 consecutive matches against players ranked outside the top 20, Federer fell to the No. 34-ranked Roddick.

And this wasn't just Federer, 16-time Grand Slam single champion. This was the best player in the world going back the past six months. Federer had won 40 of 42 matches since last year's U.S. Open, but in front of a lively full house there were times when he looked tentative. The usually fabulous forehand was a tad loose and, ultimately, let him down.

"It was more mental than physical thing," Federer said. "I tried to push myself and gave myself a fighting chance, and then when things were under control, sort of, he fought off those break-point chances -- and had the perfect game after that."

After he won his second-round match here, Roddick was asked if he knew who was next.

"I do, yeah," he said. "Thanks. Nice to ask, though. He's pretty good, yeah.

"We've played a ton; there's no secrets. I know I have to execute really, really well. There's a small window of percentages where you have to be right. What he does is he shrinks that window with his strengths."

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRoger Federer lost for only the third time since the U.S. Open last year.

Roddick played the percentages almost perfectly in the first set, staying out of trouble on his serve and forcing a tiebreaker. It was Federer who failed in the tiebreaker, most notably when he fluffed an overhead and Roddick banged it past him into the open court for a pivotal 5-3 lead.

Federer, thoroughly unimpressed, won six of the second set's seven games, setting up the single all-or-nothing frame.

Roddick was down love-40 in the second game and -- as Federer wasted two replay challenges -- somehow managed to escape. But when he threw Federer into a love-40 hole, Roddick didn't let him out. He hooked a running forehand past Federer for his first service break and strode to his changeover chair pumping his racket with the same hyperactive pulse that has been driving him for the dozen years he's been a professional.

Nearly a decade ago, Roddick's serve was once the most lethal weapon in the sport. Over time, his game has become more complete but, at the same time, his serve has been overtaken by those of more than a dozen peers. On this night, though, he crushed the last three offerings and Federer was unable to answer.

Roddick, who has been struggling with injuries this year, said he finally feels healthy.

"It would be a little presumptuous to go from people talking about me retiring to winning a Masters event," Roddick said. "I probably wasn't as bad as I looked two weeks ago."

Earlier, Roddick had joked, "I played pretty good in that Wimbledon match. I would have won that one, too, if it was two out of three sets."

Federer was, as always, gracious. He told Roddick that, on this night, he deserved to win.

"He's still very good," Federer said afterward. "I hope you guys give him more credit than he's getting at the moment. Enjoy him while you have him."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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