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Roddick failing to move forward

5/31/2006 - Tennis

PARIS -- With Alberto Martin about to serve for the first set, Andy Roddick walked gingerly toward the baseline. He caught the eye of his personal trainer, Doug Spreen, sitting in the south stands at Court Suzanne Lenglen, grimaced and closed his eyes.

In his heavy heart, he already knew he was so much French toast.

A week ago, Roddick sprained two ligaments in his left ankle in Dusseldorf and his health coming into a first-round match at Roland Garros was questionable. But in the seventh game of his match with Martin, Roddick tweaked it and felt immediate pain.

To his great credit, Roddick gamely soldiered on. But after Martin won the first two sets and the first game of the third, Roddick took off his left shoe and retired. Martin, who came into the match having lost each of the 10 sets between the two, was credited with a 6-4, 7-5, 1-0 victory.

"I didn't think it was going to be 100 percent -- maybe I was stupidly optimistic," a somber Roddick said later. "Alberto is the kind of guy who's going to make you work every point, which is unfortunate right now."

Right now, this question looms: Wither Andy Roddick?

He came hurtling onto the tennis landscape in 2001 and two years later, at the age of 21, he was on top of the professional game.

Roddick, with a searing serve and fabulous forehand, won the 2003 U.S. Open and finished as the world's No. 1-ranked player. It looked almost too easy. And so, history tells us, it was.

His year-end ATP ranking has gradually fallen from No. 1 to No. 2 in 2004, to No. 3 in 2005 as first Roger Federer and then Rafael Nadal elevated their games and moved past him. Roddick, currently ranked No. 5, has not seen his game digress.

Rather, it has failed to move forward.

"It looks like he has a few holes in his game -- everybody wants to dig in," said Brad Gilbert, who was Roddick's coach for 18 months. "The fact is, Federer is better. Fact is, Rafa came through the gate like he was the horse that won the Kentucky Derby.

"Those guys are special. It's like having Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, you know, sort of born at the wrong time. So, for Andy, there's not really a lot available. Obviously, he's got to get better. Federer and Nadal did it, now he's got to do it."

Roddick always has lived and died with his serve, his greatest weapon. Even on Tuesday, he managed seven awkward aces against Martin.

In a 2004 Davis Cup semifinal against Belarus, Roddick ripped a 155-mile-per-hour offering, which broke his existing all-time record of 153 set earlier that year at Queens. Roddick finished the year with 1,017 aces, becoming the first to hit four figures since Goran Ivanicevic in 1998. In fact, since ace statistics were first employed in 1991, only three men -- Ivanicevic, Roddick and Pete Sampras -- have cleared the millennium mark.

While Roddick has led the ATP in aces for each of the last three years, his 2005 total fell to 912. Truth be told, Roddick's serve is just as fast as it was three years ago; today, though, the eyes of the better ATP players have grown accustomed to it. With Ivan Ljubicic, Gael Monfils and Ivo Karlovic also hitting bombs at 140 miles per hour, it's no longer a singular service.

"It's like basketball -- if you can only dribble to your left, you come back the next year and they force you to the right," Gilbert said. "Out here, they learn to take things away. In 2003, Andy's serve was freaking people out. Now, they've seen it and it's not so scary."

Roddick always has relied on his serve and monster forehand. His backhand always has suffered by comparison. Recently, Roddick's backhand has developed into a modest passing shot.

The suspicion that something wasn't right with Roddick ripened into hysteria when he lost in the first round of last year's U.S. Open. He fell, inexplicably, to Gilles Muller in three harrowing tie-breakers. Roddick, by his standards, has struggled this year. His best result is a semifinal appearance in San Jose, where he lost to British teenager Andy Murray. In the first Grand Slam, he lost to eventual finalist Macos Baghdatis in the round of 16.

His first-round exit at Roland Garros was his third in six appearances here.

"It's like 'Groundhog Day'," Roddick said. "I've been out here six years and I've been able to avoid major injury to this point. That being said, this is not fun at all."

What, specifically, does he need to work on?

"Two years ago, they said Federer's backhand was his weak spot," Gilbert said. "Now, it's one of the best one-hand backhands in the game. Andy's got to improve his backhand, improve his volleys and movement. And, believe it or not, his forehand. He misses a lot of forehands.

"He talks about being in better shape, but conditioning is only part of it. He's got to put in the hard work on the practice courts in November and December -- that's how you improve your shot. Just go to work."

Gilbert still sounds like he's experiencing a little separation anxiety. Of course, he's not alone.

Marat Safin goes through coaches like Perrier on the changeovers. Murray is only 19 years old, but he's had three different coaches. Roddick, for the record, has now had four coaches in three years.

He came up through the ranks with Tarik Benhailes, who lasted for four years. After losing in the first round at Roland Garros in 2003, Roddick made the switch to Gilbert -- and it paid off almost immediately. He reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero in the U.S. Open final.

But after 18 months, Gilbert was gone, replaced by Dean Goldfine. He coached Roddick through the 2005 season but was let loose after this year's Australian Open. For now, he's being coached by his older brother John, a former All-American at Georgia.

"With a lot of guys, it's 'What have you done for me lately?' " Gilbert said. "There's not a lot of job security out there, it's not like they're handing out five-year deals. Maybe it will be the right move with his brother -- or maybe he'll change again.

"We had a good run. I'm not saying if I was on board he'd be ahead of the other guys, but I feel there was a lot of unfinished business."

Roddick said he was leaning toward staying in Europe, resting his ankle for a significant period (perhaps more than five days) and beginning preparations for England. The season really begins for Roddick in June when the fast courts conducive to his game come into play.

In Roddick's mind, his career glass is still half full.

"When I started playing this little game, when I decided I was going to turn pro, my goals were to win the U.S. Open, be No. 1 in the world, win Wimbledon and be part of a winning Davis Cup team. I've gotten a couple. I've come close to a couple.

"It's been a little frustrating this year because you feel like there's one step forward, two steps back type of thing. It's a little frustrating. Obviously, I'm going to be pumped up to get on grass."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.