The former world number one has been usurped by Roger Federer, writes Mike Steinberger, but is still among the greats.
Andy Roddick arrived at last year's Australian Open ranked number one in the world and with every expectation that 2004 would cement his status as the brightest star in the tennis firmament.
Twelve months on, Roddick will take the court in Melbourne ranked a very distant second and faced with the sobering possibility that, right now, second best may be as much as he can realistically hope for.
When Roddick mapped out his goals for 2004, he surely never imagined that Roger Federer would win three of the year's four grand slam titles. He surely never imagined that he would reach the Wimbledon final, play an impeccable match yet still lose to Federer in four sets. And he surely never imagined that by the end of the season, John McEnroe and many other knowledgeable observers would be hailing the 23-year-old Swiss as possibly the most gifted player the game has seen.
While Federer sizzled in 2004, Roddick mostly fizzled, losing in the second round at the French and in the quarter-finals at the Australian and US Open, where he was the defending champion. To see Federer cart off so much silverware, and to see his own game more or less stagnate, undoubtedly left the 22-year-old Roddick feeling just a shade blue.
It was surely, then, out of frustration that he dumped coach Brad Gilbert last month and replaced him with Dean Goldfine, the now-retired Todd Martin's longtime cornerman. Given that Gilbert had guided him to nine titles in 18 months, including his one and only grand slam crown, Roddick's decision to part company with the voluble, slightly eccentric Californian took many by surprise, not least Gilbert himself. "I believe there is still a great deal of work to be done," Gilbert said on learning of his sacking. On that point, at least, he and Goldfine are in complete accord.
Goldfine said his new client had put 2004 and its disappointments behind him and was focused "simply on improving". Asked to identify the major shortcoming in Roddick's game, Goldfine said it was his lack of aggressiveness. To the layman's eye, of course, aggressiveness would seem to be the least of the hard-hitting Roddick's problems. But Goldfine explained that while Roddick's groundstrokes are punishing, their effectiveness is undermined by his tendency to hang behind the baseline. "He gives his opponents a little too much time to play, too much time to recover," said Goldfine. "You're not going to beat Roger Federer by giving him a lot of time." Goldfine's objective is to get Roddick to shrink the court on his opponents.
Mary Carillo, a former pro and one of the more insightful tennis commentators on US television, agrees that Roddick's positioning is a problem and believes it is a by-product of his big wind-up. "Andy's strokes are drawn on just such a generous scale; he creates these huge swings," says Carillo. "You look at Federer, he generates amazing racquet speed and he does it without using his whole arm. His swing is so compact. Andy needs to learn how to abbreviate his swing, get his butt to the net and put pressure on Federer."
Carillo believes that Roddick's game is too one-dimensional. "Andy wants to win with power, to hit 150mph serves and huge monster shots," she says. "But when Plan A isn't working, his only Plan B seems to be a modified Plan A - muscle the ball even harder."
Goldfine insists that Roddick is not consumed with trying to reel in Federer. It is not as if the world number one is the only competition he faces, and, besides, Roddick is hardly the brooding, obsessive type. He is not about to play Ahab to Federer's Moby Dick, nor is the good-natured Nebraska native likely to snarl, as Jimmy Connors once did of Bjorn Borg, "I'll chase the son of a bitch to the ends of the earth." Moreover, as Roddick himself acknowledged during an on-court interview after losing to Federer at Wimbledon, a rivalry is not much of a rivalry if one guy does all the winning and, simply put, Federer owns Roddick, having defeated him eight times in nine career meetings. They meet again today in the final of the Kooyong invitational in Melbourne.
For Carillo, the question now is not whether Roddick can catch Federer - that is probably not on the cards - but whether he can make himself the kind of indispensable adversary that Andre Agassi was to Pete Sampras. Agassi pushed Sampras to heights he might otherwise not have reached, and although Agassi will forever be in Sampras's shadow, his own place in tennis history is going to be a prominent one. For all Roddick has achieved, it is far from clear that he is blessed with the stuff of legends. As Carillo puts it: "How good is Roddick? I'm not saying he's an overachiever, but what are we putting on this guy?"
When Roddick blew into Melbourne for last year's Australian, these were surely not the kind of questions he expected to hear one year hence.