Unquestionably 2006 has been the most volatile year of Andy Roddick’s career. He did not win a tournament until August, the longest title drought he’d ever endured. He scrapped his third coach, the likeable Dean Goldfine. He saw a two sets to love lead evaporate in a Davis Cup match. He lost earlier than expected in all of the year’s first three Grand Slam
events. His game at times appeared curiously passive, caught in between his youthful enthusiasm and necessary maturity.
Seeing Roddick tumble out of Wimbledon – losing to 2006 SAP Open champ Andy Murray, the same man who’d beaten him in the semis at San Jose – left one wondering if he could indeed rediscover his game. This in turn triggered the eternal journalistic quandary: It is one thing to analyze a player’s woes, but, at least for me, altogether uncomfortable to issue predictions. If there’s one thing Andre Agassi taught me as a tennis writer it’s that forecasting a player’s future is a potentially toxic proposition.
So instead, watching Roddick leave Wimbledon, I could only wonder. Most curious of all was the talk of him joining forces with Jimmy Connors. As Roddick said at a press conference he held with Connors at the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles this past July, “I threw up a half-courter.” Riding the train from Paris to London following his loss at Roland Garros, he called Connors – and, much to his surprise, found Jimbo receptive.
Connors has always been more effective at demonstrating tennis’ principles than articulating them. Since ceasing to play in 2000, he’s also been largely in exile - tennis’ Howard Hughes. But in Roddick, he found a connection and a unique way to get back into the spotlight. Roddick earlier this summer was a man feeling viewed as a diminishing star. Connors had thrived on being underestimated.
At another end, Connors’ approach to tennis was a workable opposite for Roddick. Roddick’s game had been built from the top down – big serve, massive forehand. Connors’ game came from the ground up, his mother instilling in him notions of sharp footwork and allcourt play.
And so the two began their collaboration. Roddick’s brother John remained his day-to-day coach, but it was Connors who became the enthused Andy’s muse, Connors who urged him to move forward, get his feet to the ball and approach each point with newfound passion. Was this different than the input Roddick might have gotten from 50 teaching pros? No. But consider each of us in our own jobs. Were some random person to offer input about my writing I might tell them to jump in the lake. But if a writer I venerated gave me that same input, and told me he believed in me – well, then, we’re off to see the wizard.
Roddick’s U.S. Open effort supremely demonstrated the power of surrender. Many others, ranging from U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe to Goldfine to brother John, had all told Andy he needed to alter his game. But as I watched Roddick practice under Connors’ eye, I realized what Andy had obtained: an audience – a man he in no way wanted to disappoint. Roddick played some of the finest tennis of his career in New York. One of Roddick’s most notable efforts came in the quarters when he straight-setted Lleyton Hewitt. The tenacious Australian had beaten him in all three of their prior Grand Slam matches. But that evening Roddick had all the answers, pressing Hewitt and repeatedly delivering on big points. Though he lost the final to Roger Federer, for two sets Roddick competed well. “I’m proud of the way he played,” said Connors afterwards. “He lost like a man.”
Coaching in tennis is different than team sports. In baseball, basketball and football, the coach subordinates others to his will. But in tennis, coach and player engage in a one-on-one relationship. It’s an odd alchemy, a strange form of connection based on a wide range of factors. In Connors, Roddick has found a muse, an inspiration that spurred him to one of his finer efforts.
I’ll be intrigued to see how long or well it continues. Will Connors seek to travel more to Europe, Australia and other remote spots? Will Roddick’s game continue to improve? Is what we saw this summer – Roddick went 18-2 once he started with Connors – a honeymoon or the commencement of business as usual? Will Connors, very much his own individual, a man who shunned team activities such as Davis Cup, integrate into Roddick’s highly collegial world of tennis mates? Will that even matter? I’m fascinated to see how these questions play their way out.
Two-time champiom Roddick and defending champion Andy Murray will join Bay Area favorite James Blake and Russian superstar Marat Safin at the 2007 SAP Open, Northern California's premier men’s professional tennis tournament. The SAP Open will be played February 12 - 18, 2007 at HP Pavilion at San Jose. Additional information about the SAP Open can be found on the official tournament web site at www.sapopentennis.com.
Information about ticket packages and group tickets for the 2007 SAP Open is available by calling (408) ACE-2121. Ticket packages are available in November 2006 and individual tickets to the 2007 SAP Open will go on sale in January 2007.