Roddick in control of on-court fate

3/31/2009 - Tennis
With Andy Roddick's newfound discipline, the game is slowing down for him. AP Photo/J Pat Carter

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Technically speaking, Andy Roddick is on the downside of his career.

He is 26 years old and has been playing professional tennis for a decade now. His finest moments in professional tennis came nearly six years ago, when he won the U.S. Open and ascended, for a total of 13 weeks, to the world's No. 1 ranking. Roddick was supplanted by Roger Federer, who stayed on top for 237 weeks, and now Rafael Nadal is beginning to look as though he might be there for a while.

In the 20 majors since he broke through in 2003, Roddick has reached the finals three other times, at Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005 and the U.S. Open in 2006 -- losing to Federer all three times.

This has not sent Roddick curling into the fetal position and cursing his fate at the hands of the cruel gods. Rather, it has moved him, like Sisyphus, to try yet again, rolling a great stone painstakingly up toward the top of the mountain.

"I feel good, and I feel confident," Roddick said Tuesday at the Sony Ericsson Open. "The big difference is you get to those 30-all points and I just feel calm and like I'm going to play my point the way I want to."

There's a reason, of course.

Children, we are told, crave discipline, and perhaps Roddick sensed that he wasn't getting that kind of supreme authority from his brother John and Jimmy Connors, his most recent coach. As a result, Roddick turned to Larry Stefanki -- who guided former No. 1 players John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios and Yevgeny Kafelnikov and, more recently, Tim Henman and Fernando Gonzalez.

"I hired Larry and told him that I would, you know, 'I'm not here to run it. This is your show. I'm here to follow,'" Roddick said last week. "He promptly said, 'OK, lose 15 pounds,' and I regretted saying what I said.

"He recognized that there is a change in the game, seems like everything is slowing down a little bit as far as surface and balls and whatnot. Therefore, you see a lot more guys dependent upon their running ability and legs. We're just trying to keep up.

"Obviously, it's helped."

Roddick's game is leaner -- yes, he shed those 15 pounds after a series of hellish offseason workouts -- and it is cleaner, too. Even in winning the U.S. Open, he was something of a mechanical player who relied almost entirely on his enormous serve and forehand.

He is moving appreciably better, and his footwork looks tidier. Roddick might never have an aesthetically pleasing game, but he's playing more artistic points and seems to have more confidence in his volleying. He has even discovered a nasty little backhand slice. Oh, and the serve still kills.

It is all on display here amid the swaying palm trees. Roddick, who is ranked No. 6 these days, just happens to be enjoying the best start of his career. After dispatching No. 10-ranked Gael Monfils 7-6 (2), 6-4 on Tuesday, he has crafted a record of 26-4 and leads the ATP World Tour in wins.

Everything feeds off his newfound on-court liquidity.

"I go into matches knowing I can play the long points and not really have to worry about it and maybe force it too much," Roddick said. "It just helps that I'm there on every ball. I feel like I'm in control.

"I think the biggest difference is after I hit the return, that first ball, if they become aggressive on it, I can get it back to neutral quicker because I'm able to scramble after that first one."

Perhaps the most important point in his victory over the sometimes-incandescent Frenchman was the second point of the first-set tiebreaker. Roddick drew Monfils forward and to his left with a wicked backhand slice, which opened the court nicely for a forehand cross-court winner.

Roddick, who used to be allergic to the net, won 22 of 37 points up front (59 percent), and his serve -- he won 38 of 42 points on first serves -- was typically solid.

In short, he is winning the matches he is supposed to win, and losing some expected ones, as well. Monfils was his sixth top-10 opponent this year, and he's 3-3. Roddick beat No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, but lost to No. 1 Nadal in the Indian Wells final, No. 2 Federer in the Australian Open semifinals and No. 4 Andy Murray in the final at Doha.

On Wednesday night, Roddick will meet Federer in an intriguing quarterfinal match. He has lost 16 of 18 matches to the stylish Swiss player, but will try to channel last year's quarterfinal with Federer, when he erased an 0-for-11 streak and prevailed in three sets here in South Florida.

"I'd love to be able to sit here and center my chi and focus all those good vibes and do all that," Roddick said. "At the end of the day, it's about executing. You know what's done is done. If I can channel that one match, then he'll be able to channel 15 or 17, whatever the hell it is.

"He's got more channeling."

In 41 years of the Open era, there have been 20 men who won a lone Grand Slam title, including Pat Cash, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic and Thomas Muster. Roddick, like five other active players, is a one-hit Grand Slam wonder. Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya and Djokovic all managed to sneak under the radar once in their lifetime. Although Djokovic, at 21, seems destined to leave this peloton behind, Roddick has accomplished more than his other peers, in terms of major finals and Davis Cup excellence.

Roddick seems genuinely happy and relaxed, not terribly worried about his legacy at the moment; he's too busy living The Life.

Headlines were made when he was forced to cancel a game of H-O-R-S-E he and Mardy Fish had lined up with Dwyane Wade after a Sunday Miami Heat practice. Roddick had to pass in order to send Dmitry Tursunov out of the tournament. He got plaudits for essentially boycotting the Dubai tournament after Israel's Shahar Peer was denied a visa by the United Arab Emirates. In May, he will marry Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker.

On the court and in his news conferences, Roddick is a portrait of perseverance and affects a genuinely likable self-deprecating manner. After beating Monfils, he talked about the exciting state of men's tennis. With one match left before the quarterfinals (Nadal played late against Stanislas Wawrinka), seven of the top-nine-ranked men remain alive.

"You've probably had Roger and Rafa there, then Djokovic kind of had his go where he was playing really well at the beginning of last year," Roddick said. "Now, you have Murray who's playing well, and kind of a couple of us who are trying to get into that mix a little bit."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.