Commentary

Roddick's latest mentor the answer?

Andy Roddick has been the portrait of hard work and determination. But the question remains as to whether new coach Larry Stefanki can help the former No. 1 back into the game's elite.

Originally Published: January 7, 2009
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

Andy RoddickAP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainWill 2008 be a success for Andy Roddick or another futile attempt at a Grand Slam title?
There was a surprisingly large group of art aficionados and sports fans crowding into the Wentworth Gallery at the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton, Fla., last month when Andy Roddick and his fiancée, model Brooklyn Decker, snuck in the back door. Roddick was in his former hometown -- he remains an occasional Boca resident -- to host his annual charity event and had hooked up with renowned artist Charles Fazzino to help his charitable efforts. Fazzino, a New York resident and frequent tennis spectator at the U.S. Open, created one of his famed three-dimensional works of art, titled "Match Point Andy Roddick," to be auctioned off during the charity weekend, and Roddick was at the gallery to unveil the painting.

"I've been watching Andy play at the U.S. Open for many years, and I thought it would be a good centerpiece between my artwork and his foundation, and so we got together and I created this to help them raise a lot of money," said Fazzino, explaining why he donated the artwork, which raised $17,000 at auction. "It took a few months to work on. The foundation sent me pictures and I got some off the Internet. I just wanted to make it complimentary, and I think his fans are going to love the piece."

The artwork is a collage of Roddick's career to date, and Roddick enthusiastically examined how Fazzino presented his subject's best career achievements.

"It's pretty weird," Roddick said. "It's kind of like a microcosm of my career. Honestly, I'm looking at it and I've forgotten about half of [my career], so looking back on it is kind of fun to see it all encompassed in a piece of art."

Before Roddick and Decker headed out for the evening, the 2003 U.S. Open champ visited with fans, then spent some time talking with ESPN.com.

The buzz around Roddick is the pairing with his new coach, Larry Stefanki. For Roddick, this is his latest coach in a series of recent mentors. But the overarching question is whether this combination can take Roddick to the next level.

Stefanki, who was still mentoring Chilean Fernando Gonzalez when Roddick showed interest, is confident he can assist the former No. 1 in becoming a more effective opponent against the elite guys -- Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And Stefanki strongly believes their partnership can deliver Roddick to at least one more Grand Slam victory.

The accomplished Stefanki's sterling reputation comes from his previous work with other top-10 players: John McEnroe, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marcelo Rios and Tim Henman, in addition to Gonzalez.

"It was a big decision for me to leave Fernando, but I hadn't coached an American guy since John [McEnroe]," Stefanki said. "I'm almost 52, and I wanted to coach another American. And when I stop working with Andy -- which I hope will be in three, four years -- I plan on his being my last traveling coaching job. I want to move on to help with U.S. junior development. I'm not sure our young juniors have been getting the right advice, although I think -- with Jose Higueras now working with the USTA -- things will change."

For his part, Roddick seemed to give careful thought to picking Stefanki for the job. Roddick pointed out that his personal respect for Gonzalez was a factor, but Roddick also knew that Stefanki's contractual agreement with the Chilean was, at least technically speaking, only through March.

In the end, Roddick was convinced that Stefanki is the right person at the right time.

"There were a couple of things that were very appealing about him, one being the caliber of players he's worked with," Roddick said. "More importantly, the different styles he's worked with. He hasn't gotten pigeonholed into coaching one specific type of player. He's gone from working with Rios to Mac to Henman to Gonzalez to whomever, and I thought that was good.

"And also, he's dealt with a number of different personalities, and I think that's a good thing as well. He's passionate about the game, and I believe we both believe in hard work, so I'm excited."

Roddick's last tutor, the iconic Jimmy Connors, was the most prominent name among Roddick's impressive list of previous coaches -- Tarik Benhabiles, Brad Gilbert, Dean Goldfine and Roddick's brother John. But what Connors brought to the table -- an infectious enthusiasm for the game -- wasn't really what committed 26-year-old Roddick required.

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
AP Photo/Hassan AmmarAndy Roddick reached only one Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2008.
"Andy is very self-motivated," Stefanki said after their first week of practice at Roddick's home base in Austin, Texas. "I was very impressed with his work ethic and determination. I've never seen a guy who's been on tour as long as he has with that much motivation."

Stefanki's approach to coaching should align well with Roddick's goal of finding the correct tactics for success. Stefanki will focus on making sure Roddick is prepared to challenge the best players effectively on the court.

Here's the lowdown: A guy who held serve 91 percent of the time in 2008 shouldn't have a puny winning break-point average of 35 percent for the year. Roddick must become comfortable in taking more risks with his return game as well as in approaching the net more often because he's unlikely to outpummel guys who are better equipped for long battles from the baseline.

"The top five players know how to exploit weaknesses in other players, and none of them have glaring weaknesses," Stefanki said. "Andy needs to learn how to create his opportunities. You have to decide the way you want to play, and for Andy I believe that has to be an attitude that, on his first shot on the ball, 'I'm going to attack.' Although I will say he has surprisingly good groundstrokes."

Despite winning three titles in 2008, Roddick admits he had a tough year, reaching only one Grand Slam quarterfinal, at the U.S. Open. And the end of his season came abruptly when an ankle injury forced him to withdraw midway through the year-end Tennis Masters Cup, a decision he based on looking ahead to 2009 and the first major, which starts Jan. 19 in Australia.

"I've really gotten a jump start on next year, and I'm excited to be prepared," Roddick said. "From May on, I just felt like I was playing catch-up and just going from the training table straight onto the court. Last year we had Davis Cup late, so it was hard to prepare. I'm looking forward to being ready and playing to my best level."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.