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Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Roddick's real focus

It's not often that I feel sorry for a multimillion dollar athlete. No, really. But I must say that my heart goes out to Andy Roddick. Just a bit, anyway.

He's gone through so many emotional ups and down, and he's tried virtually everything this side of a ouija board to beat Roger Federer. In the quarterfinals at this year's U.S. Open, Roddick played a nearly flawless match against his nemesis. It was a brilliant display of attacking power tennis, brute force harnessed to full effect. And it was still not enough.

At this week's Masters Cup, Roddick has already qualified for the semifinals. He's also in the same half, the "Red Group," as Federer, so they'll have at least one showdown in Shanghai. Federer has been shaky over the last few weeks, but will that be enough for Roddick to start to turn around his 1-14 record against the world's No. 1 player?

On some level, it doesn't matter. While I'm sure Roddick would relish beating Federer and winning his first-ever Masters Cup, his entire season -- it's been a disappointing one by Roddick's standards, with just two singles titles -- points beyond Shanghai to Portland, Oregon.

That's where the Davis Cup final will be played in a couple of weeks. The tie against Russia means so much to Roddick that he even considered skipping the trip to Shanghai to make sure he was fully rested. (Andy, here's a tip: If someone offers you borscht, don't eat it.)

Although Davis Cup doesn't mean much, if anything, to the casual tennis fan, it means everything to Roddick. He speaks with conviction about the competition, and how much it'd mean to him and his teammates for the U.S. to win their first title since 1995 (the longest drought for the Americans).

What's so special about the Davis Cup for Roddick? Does he see an appeal that American champions Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors, among others, didn't?

To play the role of armchair psychologist -- or, OK, the cynic -- I'd say the reason is simple: The Davis Cup is the one major title that Roddick believes he has a realistic chance of winning.

In other words, Federer isn't in the house.

At 25, Roddick has reached middle age for a tennis player. Looking back on the first half of his career, he's had to swallow a bitter pill that at least two Wimbledon titles and a U.S. Open championship would have been his if not for Federer. Sure, many other players would have more hardware in their trophy cases, too, but no one has made you feel that sense of frustration and missed opportunities more than Roddick.

The guy's taken tons of heat, too. I can't recall a player so highly ranked who's been so roundly criticized. You've heard the arguments: the technique on his volleys is flawed, his backhand is rubbish. One alarming stat, I will say, is that Roddick's return of serve in 2007. He has won only 18 percent of his return games, which ranks him 54th on tour. It's all the more surprising when you consider that the return was his coach Connors' best shot.

But that's Roddick -- a flawed, but great, champion who doesn't always make it easy on himself. He'll be gunning for the Masters Cup title in Shanghai this weekend, even hoping he'll be crowned champion with a victory (or two) over Federer. But make no mistake: Roddick's season, and in large measure his career, has been building toward this one moment, the Davis Cup.