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Thursday, July 9, 2009
Five reasons Roddick is for real


The epic Wimbledon men's final was a career-changing event for the two guys who played in it. We know what it did for the winner, Roger Federer: He became the sport's greatest Grand Slam champion. It clearly will affect the future of the loser, Andy Roddick, as well; it already has caused him to withdraw from his beloved Davis Cup for the first time. But what it does for -- or to -- the American in the long term is still to be determined.

This season, we've already seen one titanic clash, between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in Madrid, have adverse consequences for both players. (Neither has been the same since.) Despite that example, there are reasons to believe that Roddick will take more positives than negatives from having just lost the best match he has played, and that he'll use it as a springboard to win another major. Here are five of those reasons:

1. This wasn't a one-shot deal. Roddick's Wimbledon may have come out of the blue for many fans, but in reality, it was the culmination of six months of methodical work with his new coach, Larry Stefanki. For most of that time, Roddick had been content to rely on his improved fitness -- he dropped 15 pounds at Stefanki's suggestion to start the year -- to grind opponents down with a safe and unflashy baseline game. It won him a lot of matches, and at Wimbledon, he built upward from that new foundation of confidence and competence.

2. We've seen this Roddick before. Who was this guy ripping cross-court forehands and down-the-line backhands past Federer? When did he start running around serves and pummeling inside-in forehands for winners? The answer to both questions can found on tapes of Roddick from 2003. That year, when he finished No. 1 and recorded a win over Federer, he threw more caution to the wind and hit his forehand more explosively than he has since. In some ways, this is a return to the past for Roddick.

3. His focus on fitness will negate some effects of aging. Stefanki said early in the season that he had Roddick switch from a diet consisting largely of pizza and french fries to skinless grilled chicken. That a professional athlete could subsist on so much grease for so long is miraculous in itself, but the better news for Roddick is that at age 26, he really is in the best shape of his career. At least for the immediate future, the step he loses with age will be balanced by the one he gains by cutting back on the midnight runs to Little Caesars.

4. Even his serve is getting better. After 10 years on tour, Roddick just achieved his career high in aces in a single match during this year's Wimbledon. He went on to use it as effectively as he ever has in beating Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray. He and Stefanki haven't settled for shoring up his weaknesses; they've made his greatest strength more of a weapon than it has ever been. His serve alone will give him a puncher's chance to win every major other than the French Open.

5. His nemesis has slipped just a bit. Although Federer has been riding high for the past six weeks, it's clear that he's no longer invincible, even against guys not named Nadal. He won the French Open but lost more sets on the road to the final than he had in the past. And he prevailed against Roddick but had to serve 50 aces and survive four set points in a second-set tiebreaker to do it. In 2005, Federer whipped Roddick in a totally uncompetitive straight-setter in the Wimbledon final. Although the Swiss remains his nemesis, their matches have been moving in Roddick's direction. After this year's Wimbledon, would you be surprised to see him knock the king off his throne later this summer at the U.S. Open?