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Friday, March 7, 2008
Connors: Therapist and coach

Now that Andy Roddick and Jimmy Connors have split, many fans and pundits will assess the relationship and decide it was a huge success in one sense: Jimmy Connors managed to turn Andy Roddick into nearly as big a jerk as Connors himself was in his heyday. Roddick has never been accused of being arrogant and bullying as stridently as in the past few months.

First, there was that tirade against some poor schmoe of an umpire at the Australian Open. It was reminiscent of the time Jimbo famously shook an umpire's chair over a disputed line call, looking like a hungry islander trying to shake a coconut out of a palm tree.

Then there was recent Roddick's monologue/tirade in San Jose during his match with Japanese pheenom, Kei Nishikori, during which Roddick -- somewhat bizzarely -- appeared to chide Nishikori for choosing not to puncture his gut with a stinging shot during a close exchange at the net.

"I told [Kei] to stick me with it the next time," Roddick explained later. "I just let him know that he needs to finish it."

Of course, this kind of direct engagement with an opponent, especially a rookie or underdog, is a tactic and form of intimidation. Hey -- remember the time at the U.S. Open when Connors marched around the net post to Corrado Barazzutti's side of the court and, with his stunned rival watching, intentionally scuffed out a mark so that the umpire couldn't examine the mark and reverse a bad call?

There's no question, then, that Connors managed to transplant some of that cock-of-the-walk swagger into Roddick's persona. In fact, the harshest of critics probably will suggest that Connors did nothing more for Roddick, ignoring or forgetting that doing so was a significant accomplishment. There were some unsavory bits that came along with Roddick's reinvention, but Connors helped turn him into a confident contender again. As Roddick said the other day:

"When we got together, I was as close to down and out as I've been. I spent the week after Wimbledon almost as close to depressed as I've been as far as my career goes. And I really credit him for that spark and getting me back into the top five and in a Slam final pretty close there afterwards.''

It may sound hilarious (and it ignores the extent to which Connors helped Roddick retool his backhand), but Jimbo turned out to be most valuable as his protégé's … therapist. Roddick was in a truly precarious position when Connors came on board; he was guy perched near the top, but poised for a fall. His game has clear limitations, meaning that without great confidence, he was truly vulnerable.

Connors came along just in time -- before Roddick fell too far and lost too much of his spirit to claw his way back. He helped restore that assassin's glint in Roddick's clouded eyes. In 2006, just months after forming their relationship, Connors guided Roddick to the U.S. Open final, where his protégé played a bold, intelligent and tight match, although he still lost to Roger Federer.

In fact, there was only one thing Connors failed to do for Roddick: He wasn't able to transform him into a player capable of beating Roger Federer. But if that's where the bar is set, I can think of a lot of other coaches who ought to be walking, too.