Thursday, December 18Relaxed Roddick finds focus
By Darren RovellESPN.com
Andy Roddick's team is looking a bit strange these days. He still has his spiked hair, but his trainer lost his mustache and his coach recently keeled over on the side of the road in a jumpsuit.
|Roddick says this year, he feels like he deserves the hype more than in the past.|
It's all part of the plan to keep the pressure off Roddick, while challenging him to win.
With five titles in 2003 and a 20-1 hard-court circuit record to boot, Roddick finally has turned hyped hopes into expectations for a U.S. Open victory. But it isn't that easy to see changes in Roddick because, unlike aces and winners, mental toughness can't be observed.
"I've always been able to play the game physically, but now I'm better mentally," Roddick said. "It's a learning process and now it's all coming together between the ears."
Since turning pro in 2000, Roddick has been burdened with extremely high expectations brought on in part by the timing of his entrance onto the American tennis scene. Jim Courier retired that year, and Pete Sampras -- who officially retires Monday -- and Andre Agassi were in the final stretch of their careers.
But Roddick, who has reached the quarterfinals in the past two U.S. Opens and the semifinals in this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon, wasn't ready to be placed among the sport's elite listed as a legitimate contender to win a Grand Slam.
Given that he's leading the ATP Champions Race and is seeded No. 4 at the Open, the pressure on Roddick is now impossible to avoid.
"I feel like I've deserved the hype this year a little bit more so than other years," Roddick said. "The other years, maybe people, especially in America, were kind of hoping that I would come through and do well and maybe hoping a little bit too much. But this year, I feel like I kind of deserve my place as one of the top players."
Roddick credits some of his recent success to his ability to better control his emotions on the court.
"I'm definitely a bit calmer out there," Roddick said.
"He's not talking to the crowd quite as much as he did before," said Roddick's 27-year-old brother John, who runs a tennis academy in San Antonio. "That might be a little disappointing to the fans, but the quality of tennis is going to go up, and he'll win more titles that way."
Keeping him very much in check is his new coach Brad Gilbert, who willingly took on the challenge to control the excitable Roddick after he lost in the first round of the French Open.
Gilbert, who was Andre Agassi's tutor for eight years, hasn't made many changes to Roddick's form, but he has made him understand that his greatest enemy is not a bad groundstroke but an unstable mind.
"He doesn't wear his emotions as much on his sleeve," said Gilbert, author of "Winning Ugly," the tennis strategy book. "When he would get a little crazy out there it would affect his game, and when he has a sense of calmness out there, the game has a chance to rise above everything else."
Roddick is 30-2 under Gilbert's watch and has only had one major breakdown. With his mental game off, Roddick lost earlier this month in the semifinals of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic to Tim Henman, who will be his first-round U.S. Open opponent.
Roddick won the first set 6-1 in 24 minutes, but Henman took a 3-1 second set lead on a forehand winner that Roddick believed landed out. A frustrated Roddick then smacked a ball into the upper deck of the stadium.
"He got upset and his anger got the better of him and he kind of stopped concentrating a little bit and then never broke the rest of the match," said Gilbert, who practices what he preaches, as evidenced by his stoic demeanor during his client's matches.
Unlike many teachers of highly paid professional athletes, the coach already has established complete authority over Roddick.
At a recent tennis clinic Roddick was running late for practice after giving a slew of interviews. Although his Reebok handlers wanted to keep him on schedule, Roddick drifted over to a reporter who never formally requested an interview. "Brad said I have to do this one," Roddick told his agent, Ken Meyerson. Roddick stopped again before getting into the limo because Gilbert wanted him to take a picture with a young fan.
||It's just been a complete whirlwind from being able to go out and grab a hot dog on the grounds of the U.S. Open to the kind of madness that's kind of been created so far. ”
||— Andy Roddick on the past three years
Trust and true friendship usually don't come fast in this business, but the bond between Roddick and his coach, who is twice his age, is genuine.
Aside from his encouraging words, Roddick says he's learned to trust Gilbert's word.
After Roddick won his first Tennis Masters Series title in Montreal two weeks ago, Gilbert -- who is scared of heights -- had to fulfill his promise of going skydiving with his student.
"You could tell he really wasn't too comfortable and too keen on the idea, but he made a bet and he'll stick to it," Roddick said.
In the past, Gilbert lost bets to Agassi and had to shave his head, chest and wear an earring.
"Whatever you can do to take pressure off them to make them feel better, you are doing a good job," Gilbert said.
Gilbert was not alone. Roddick's trainer Cicero Decastro told Roddick that if he made it to the finals of a Tennis Masters Series event in 2003, he would shave off his 17-year-old mustache.
"He shaved his head as a special bonus," said Roddick, who noted that he has yet to come up with challenges for Gilbert and Decastro if he wins the U.S. Open.
Off the court, Roddick is a grizzly veteran of the spotlight. Everyone knows who he is now.
"It's just been a complete whirlwind from being able to go out and grab a hot dog on the grounds of the U.S. Open to the kind of madness that's kind of been created so far," Roddick said of the past three years.
Last week, he didn't flinch at the scores of photographers taking his picture upon entering a party to unveil Venus Williams' latest dress collection. He's gotten to know the flashbulb even more now that he's dating singer and actress Mandy Moore.
But Roddick knows that pop culture points won't get him any byes in the draw and that the road to more credibility in the tennis world will come with winning his first Slam.
"I wasn't entering the last couple (U.S. Opens) to win them," Roddick said. "I was entering them to go far and maybe do well and advance as far as I could, but I don't know if deep down I believed I could win it. This time I definitely do."
And, who knows, if Roddick remains relaxed and calm maybe those in the stands will watch him win it all on home soil.
Darren Rovell is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.