The Unsung Rival

The Unsung Rival

Andy Roddick stepped up to the ad court and prepared to serve.  He was facing a break point in the eight game of the third set, Wimbledon Final 2004.  Advantage, Federer.  Roddick tossed the ball up, the fingers of his left hand splayed out, while his knees bent down so low, it appeared he was tucked into a vertical fetal position.  Pop! Snap!  Roddick uncurled and exploded upwards, slapping the ball down the T, towards Federer’s forehand.  It was the classic Roddick service motion, in all its glory.  Today, that serve and the rest of Roddick’s game, had been as good as it ever was.  He was moving well, anticipating well, serving phenomenally well and his forehand had been devastating.  Crushingly so.

Roddick_Federer
Roddick congratulates Federer after the 2004 Wimbledon final.  Picture by gettyimages.

So far, it had appeared the match was on Roddick’s racket and his alone.  He’d overpowered Federer 6- 4 in a first set that was much more one sided than the scoreline indicated, and had narrowly missed completing a brilliant comeback in the second set from 0 – 4 down.  He eventually lost the set 5 – 7, due to a poor lapse in the thirteenth game.  Federer’s yell after smacking a forehand pass down the line only served to underscore how lucky he was.  It could easily have been two sets to none.  However things had taken on a different turn in this eight game.  Roddick was facing a familiar pressure he had not faced all day.  His serves – bullets moving in excess of 130MPH – had suddenly started coming back.  This one, down the T to Federer’s forehand, did as well.  The ball was perfectly placed in the forecourt in that dreaded territory called no man’s land.  Roddick had no choice but to venture forward.  He did what every smart tennis player would do.  He took the short ball and sent it deep to Federer’s backhand – his weaker side.  Federer, who had been scurrying back to the middle with those cat like footsteps, took one graceful lunge step to his left and sent a pristine drive down the line.  Roddick, the gritty fighter that he was – that he would become – lunged to his right and stabbed the volley cross court.  Federer was already there to cover the angle.  There was no need.  Roddick had missed.  Game Federer.  The swiss would go on to win the match 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(3), 6 – 4.  Roddick would not win another match against Federer for a period of four years, stretching eight matches.

Federer had his graceful game, predicated on finesse, strategy and subtlety.  Roddick had his power game, built around one of the deadliest serve – forehand combinations the tennis world had ever seen.  They were the number one and two players in the world.

You might wonder why with all this one sided dominance, this should be considered a rivalry.  It is for a number of historically significant ripple effects the match ups between these two and really this Wimbledon final, produced.  Coming into this match, both Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were entering the kick off phase of their respective championship careers.  They had just traded ranking places with Roddick finishing 2003 as World no 1, and Federer replacing him atop tennis’s apex with his second grand slam title at the 2004 Australian Open.  They also had contrasting styles that made for interesting match ups.  Federer had his graceful game, predicated on finesse, strategy and subtlety.  Roddick had his power game, built around one of the deadliest serve – forehand combinations the tennis world had ever seen.  They were the number one and two players in the world.

Coming into this Wimbledon final, Roddick trailed in the head to head, 1 – 4.  However, he had recently bested Federer in three sets, in the ATP masters tournament in Canada.  While Federer had gotten the better of him in their next contest in Houston, the tennis world knew Roddick was beginning to come into his own as a potential Federer arch nemesis.  Roddick knew it too and so did Federer.  At 4 – 3 in that third set, with Roddick serving to go up 5 – 3, he faltered and Federer broke.  Why?  At this time, Roger Federer was the only player on the planet who could get into a rhythm, returning Roddick’s serve.  There was so much heat on the Roddick delivery, that players struggled to get a racket on it, talk less of returning it.  Federer was not just any player.  With his natural hand-eye coordination and good reflexes, the Swiss was able to get returns back in play that Roddick just wasn’t use to seeing come back.  This was familiar pressure because Roddick had faced it in the Wimbledon Semifinals a year earlier, against the same opponent.  Once that return came back in play, the point was essentially reset.

For all of Roddick’s power and forehand abilities from the baseline, Federer has always been a nullifying factor.  It was the classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better.”  Roddick had a terrific serve fueled by power and made even more deadly by direction.  Federer had a serve that threw you off balance with spins, placement, disguise and accuracy.  He was almost always ahead of Roddick in the ace count, during their match ups.  Roddick’s forehand was big, daring, powerful and an overwhelming force to be reckoned with.  Federer’s was a well timed trigger that he could vary.  It was his slicing rapier to Roddick’s bludgeoning hammer.  As for their court movements and coverage, there aren’t many players who could cover the court like Roger Federer could and still can at 35.  Once the serve came back, Roddick was always up against it.  Yet this match is significant because for about two sets and a half, Roddick’s power game held the upper hand.  That Roddick lost this final, had to be crushing.  However, it was what he did after this final that would define the remainder of their rivalry.

For all of Roddick’s power and forehand abilities from the baseline, Federer has always been a nullifying factor.  It was the classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better.”

Roddick, began to tinker.  Who could blame him?  He could beat the rest of the field except for one player.  Federer would soon face a similar problem when a certain Spaniard emerged on the scene.  The fundamental difference is while Federer stubbornly stuck to his slam winning game, trusting his ability to beat Rafael Nadal without major changes to his play, Roddick felt he needed to improve by adding more dimension to his game, particularly his rallying.  The serve fundamentally remained the same, but the ground strokes slowly lost their pace and destructive power.  Roddick retrofitted his forehand to allow for more spin and re-engineered his slice backhand to accommodate frequent – if not ill advised – forays to the net.  The idea was to give Federer different looks.  To essentially outFederer, Federer.  It had mixed results with the rest of the tour and it certainly proved counterproductive against Andy Roddick’s rival.  Their 2005 Wimbledon final was a grass court masterclass.  The 2006 US Open final, a lesson in weathering an opening storm and outlasting your opponent.  The 2007 Australian Open semifinal, a hard court decimation.  Roddick had discarded the very game that could trouble Federer and occasionally beat him.  Now he was hardly winning sets.  When he did rediscover that power game a la the 2007 US Open quarterfinal, he could not mentally hunker down on the big points.  Yes Federer played phenomenal, but Roddick was too mentally weathered down by previous defeats to psychologically back up his terrific play on the day.

Roger+Federer+Andy+Roddick+Championship+Wimbledon+2009
The Wimbledon 2009 final is regarded as Andy Roddick’s most heartbreaking loss

Again, what makes this a rivalry then?  Federer best put it when he hinted after his 2007 Australian Open semifinal deconstruction of Roddick that he did get up a little extra for that match, as he felt Roddick coming for him.  The Nebraska born baseline whacker had almost upset Federer in Shanghai, the year before.  That’s exactly how their careers and rivalry played out.  This wasn’t a sea-saw battle a la Nadal vs Djokovic or Sampras vs Agassi.  This wasn’t a surface/style rivalry and a late career surge a la Federer vs Nadal.  This was a chasing rivalry with Federer being the chased and Roddick being the perpetual chaser.  Many others did try to become Federer’s nemesis but most of them fell by the way side or simply gave up.  A lot of them were defeated before they stepped foot on the court.  Federer had to be weary of Roddick because the American never gave up, no matter how many times Federer knocked him down.  The Swiss knew that within Roddick lay a dormant game that could be unleashed at anytime.  With a serve like that, anything was possible on any given day.  As such, Federer had to be on his A game even if Roddick wasn’t.  Anything less and it was a coin toss.  That weariness was proven right in the 2008 Miami quarterfinal when Roddick stunned Federer in three sets.  It almost happened again in one of the most unsung Wimbledon 5 set final thrillers – the 2009 classic.  On that day, with history on the line, Roddick rediscovered his 2004 form and pushed Federer to five sets, (16 – 14) in the fifth.  It was a close call but again Federer was reminded that if he took his foot off the gas, Roddick was still waiting.

Federer had to be weary of Roddick because the American never gave up, no matter how many times Federer knocked him down.  The Swiss knew that within Roddick lay a dormant game that could be unleashed at anytime.  With a serve like that, anything was possible on any given day.

In a sense, it is befitting that the American won their last ever professional match, in the fourth round of the Miami 2012 clash.  I remember being shocked at how flat the American hit his forehand that day.  It was circa 2004 all over again.  One could only wonder what the results could have been if Roddick had left his game the way it was.  There are no regrets in this.  Roddick was a gritty competitor who was never afraid to try something different.

At the end of it all, he gave this rivalry his very best and pushed a man regarded as the greatest to step on a tennis court, to lofty heights.  He was the stern test when Federer had to defend his Wimbledon title for the first time and prove his newly minted number one ranking.  He was the juggernaut in the way of Grand Slam #15, when Federer stared at tennis immortality, just within reach.  Through the Nadals, Djokovics and Murrays of this world, there was Andy Roddick.  The unsung rival.

Andy Roddick_Miami Victory
Roddick celebrates his victory over Federer in Miami 2012.  It would be their last professional match.
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