'Maturing process' has helped Roddick's game
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. -- The United States' success in Davis Cup hinges on Andy Roddick. So, it bodes well that in the past few weeks his confidence grew and his game improved.
Roddick dominated Jonas Bjorkman 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-0 to clinch the U.S. Davis Cup quarterfinal against Sweden 4-1 on Sunday.
Although Roddick set a new record with a serve of 152 mph on match point, he took care of business first and only went for the big finish after being up 5-0, 40-0.
"I felt I had it in me," Roddick said. "But, you know, for most of the day I didn't get a chance because my off-speed stuff was a lot more effective than my big serves."
All part of the more mature, mentally strong Andy Roddick, who is showing improvement in the weaker parts of his technical game as well.
This Davis Cup tie marks the end of the early hard-court season. Roddick reached the semifinals in Australia, helped the United States advance against Austria in Davis Cup and won his first title of the year in San Jose. Still, his first big result didn't come until a week ago, when he won the Tennis Masters Series title in Miami at the Nasdaq-100 Open.
And he did it, to borrow a phrase from his coach, by winning ugly -- especially in the quarterfinal against Carlos Moya. Roddick's game was off, but he still found a way to come back and win 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. It was an important step.
"It's all a maturing process," Roddick's coach Brad Gilbert said after watching Roddick win at Davis Cup. "Sometimes you don't play your best tennis and you've got to find a way to win. You know, that's what he did in that Moya match, and that gave him a shot in the rest of the tournament.
"That's how you've got to win matches. By not playing your best tennis, sometimes you'll find your best tennis."
In Sunday's first-set tiebreak against Bjorkman at 2-1, Roddick did something that at first does not seem significant. The ball bounced on the left side of the court, slowly enough to allow Roddick time to run around and hit an inside-out forehand. It's a shot he often uses to avoid a weak backhand return, but too often it leaves the other side of the court unprotected. Instead, this time he used his backhand. Not a flashy hit and not a winner, but it set up the next shot, a roaring forehand winner. That's progress.
"No question," Gilbert said. "It was big for him."
One of the most amazing shots Roddick made Sunday was a running backhand to scrape up one of the many dropshots Bjorkman sent his way.
"There's not a whole lot of questioning myself out there right now," Roddick said. "I definitely think that contributes to movement as well."
"We saw a lot of his [improvements] today," McEnroe said. "He came up with a couple of key volleys, hit a couple of beautiful little dink passing shots, and he's mixing up his serves still."
Overall, it was a dominating performance from Roddick against a veteran Swedish team ready to pounce on any letdown.
"My philosophy is when I go out and play, my opponents always have to feel that they have to win the last point," Bjorkman said. "It's always a chance to come back. You've seen upsets when guys are cruising, then all of a sudden you get one chance and something could happen."
"This is probably the first tie where I've stepped up and played to my ability consistently," Roddick said. "I had kind of a gaudy record, but you know, a lot of that was just getting through. So this was definitely a huge steppingstone for my Davis Cup career."
And for the whole U.S. team, which finds itself matched in the semifinals at home against Belarus, which completed a 5-0 upset of Argentina on Sunday. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe says his team probably will play on another slow surface, perhaps even clay, making the upcoming clay-court season crucial. McEnroe is eager to see what Roddick, in particular, will do.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does this clay-court season because I think he feels like he has something to prove, and I think we'll see some good results from him," McEnroe said.
Roddick plays his first clay matches this week as he defends his title in Houston. The rest of his schedule isn't set, but Gilbert says he wants Roddick to build up a lot of matches before he plays the French Open.
McEnroe said that Roddick's recent success should help him the rest of the season.
Swedish Davis Cup captain Mats Wilander agrees, but thinks Roddick still has room to grow.
"He's improved his backhand a lot. He's improved everything," Wilander said. "Not that he's gone backwards, by any means, but after the U.S. Open, I really thought he was going to get up there and, not dominate, but be the guy to beat."
Instead, Roger Federer dominated the Tennis Masters Cup final, beating all comers, and took over the No. 1 ranking from Roddick by winning the Australian Open in January.
"To me, what it looks like Andy is doing, which is what impresses me, is that he's decided he's not losing any more matches to anyone that's not good enough to beat him," said Wilander, a seven-time Grand Slam title winner. "That's the first big step in a tennis player's career to figure out a way where you don't lose to guys you shouldn't lose to.
Now, Wilander said, Roddick needs to build on the style he has established to develop his offensive game for those days he's facing players who should be able to defeat him.
"He has to make sure that he doesn't stay with that style the whole time," Wilander said. "'cause then he's never going to beat the best player in the world, which is Federer."
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com