KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Winning the Sony Ericsson Open, generally regarded as the fifth most prestigious tournament in the world, with a solid 7-5, 6-4 victory over Tomas Berdych won't compensate for the despair of losing the Wimbledon final 16-14 in the fifth to Roger Federer. But it tells you a lot about Andy Roddick.
It tells you about the man's fortitude, work ethic and his passion for the sport he plays so well. It tells you that, no matter how much the Wimbledon defeat hurt, Roddick has used it to re-charge his self belief, assimilate the sage advice being administered by one of the world's great coaches, Larry Stefanki, and move on to greater things.
The way he started the 2010 season suggests that everything is moving in the right direction. He won a title in the opening weeks of the year in Brisbane, reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, made the final at San Jose as well as at the first ATP Masters 1000 event of the year at Indian Wells, and now a Masters title of his own for the first time since 2006.
Roddick has won more matches (26) than any other player on the tour this year and while the established top four struggle, the 27-year-old American rolls on, looking better and better each week.
While Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have been hogging the headlines and big titles over the past couple of years, Roddick has been under the radar but never far away. His record of consistency, given the physical stress and mental concentration required to stay at the top, is a thing of wonder. He has finished in the world's top 10 for eight consecutive years and has been in 48 tour finals, winning 29. And then there is the little matter of being the lynchpin, until this year, of the U.S. Davis Cup team.
To achieve all that you have to be strong and talented but, maybe most important of all, you have to love the game. And Andy loves tennis.
Stefanki has nurtured that love by constantly challenging Roddick to look at the game in different ways and put his strengths to different uses. Footwork was the first thing that came under the microscope and Roddick now moves much better to his backhand side with all the benefits better foot placement will bring. His serve is so big that there was a natural tendency to just bash it but, as we have seen here this week, Roddick -- who won 61 out of 63 service games -- is picking his spots and varying his pace. Some of his aces were jet-propelled 135 miles per hour howitzers but others beat Berdych -- and Nadal in the semifinal for that matter -- at 117. And one in the final completely fooled Berdych, kicking out to his backhand at a mere 98 miles per hour.
"I played smart," said Roddick, when asked for his appraisal of his performance. And he did.
Stefanki had been delighted at the way Roddick fought back from a set down to beat Nadal, saying that he had never seen him play so freely, especially on the forehand. So Roddick went back on court today determined to hit out on the forehand. The result was some big forehand winners but also a few shanked shots that flew off the frame. No matter, the statement was being made.
Berdych did his best to counter it and kept battling in impressive fashion, revealing the improvement in his own game since he won his only Masters title in Paris in 2005. But, after some initial fallibility on the backhand, it was the forehand which let him down -- 16 errors coming from that flank. He was having trouble serving into the sun and a double fault gave Roddick a break point at 5-5 in the first set and it was a forehand hit long that lost Berdych the game.
Another forehand which cleared the baseline cost the Czech his first service game in the second set and, after that, there was only the entertaining defiance in the ninth game that held up Roddick's march to victory. Twice Berdych saved match point on his own serve, one of them with a great forehand down the line that set up a smash after an amazing rally that lasted 31 strokes.
Afterwards Roddick seemed more relieved than anything: "I was under a little bit of pressure to win here because I had a pretty good opportunity at Indian Wells and didn't come through," he said.
He was generous in suggesting that the problem with the sun probably worked in his favor: "It's tough when you are having to adjust your toss and seeing spots on the ball," he said. "I think that's what helped me break in the first set. I think maybe it was a little bit of an advantage that I had played out there in that time slot a couple of times."
Questioned about whether he felt he had anything left after the disappointments of the last few years, he was revealing: "Even after '08 Wimbledon, I openly talked to Brook and considered if the best of it was gone. I honestly didn't know. But there was only one way to find out and that was kind of go back to the drawing board and give myself every opportunity to succeed."
He readily admitted how much the Stefanki connection had helped: "When we first talked, I realized he wanted to run things and I was more than OK with that. That's what I wanted. I wanted the guidance. I'm not going to pay a guy to be my coach and tell him what to do. You would be surprised how prevalent that is in tennis. It's a great mix. I love his tennis IQ. I like his energy. I don't know if I have ever seen him stressed unless we are late for a tee time. The tennis side of it works. The personality side of it works. We're in a good spot."
Now for the clay.