Commentary

Once No. 1-ranked player on the planet trying to regain form

He has a suddenly fragile body and daunting U.S. Open draw. He has the unfortunate timing of playing in the same era as Roger Federer, while his biological tennis clock is ticking. But it's OK being Andy Roddick.

Updated: August 26, 2008, 5:37 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Andy RoddickJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSince a thrilling title in March at the Dubai Open, Andy Roddick has struggled with his game and health.
NEW YORK -- Two camera crews and several dozen fans were waiting for Andy Roddick when he arrived at the practice courts on Tuesday afternoon.

"Andy! Andy! Andy!" shrieked several small autograph seekers.

Roddick, moving with a casual ease, smiled and flashed one of those cute, quick, finger-to-palm waves.

"I'll be back," he said, without a trace of irony.

But will he, in the rhetorical sense, ever regain the place he once held in tennis?

Roddick, who turns 26 on Saturday, has carved out a nice little life for himself.

He is the best male tennis player from America, a land of more than 300 million souls, and was once the No. 1-ranked player on the planet. He has made tens of millions of dollars. He is engaged to Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker, with whom he is regularly photographed walking the streets of New York City, where he has a new apartment.

People who have been around him for the past week say he has been bounding around the grounds here at the National Tennis Center, happy as a clam. And why not? This is where he achieved his greatest individual accomplishment, winning the U.S. Open in 2003.

"It is a special place for me," Roddick said last week. "I mean, it was a little while ago when I won, so you'd like to think it's still relevant, but who knows?"

Watching Roddick intently from behind the baseline on Tuesday, standing with his arms folded, chin in hand, was Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. In theory, Roddick's older brother John has been his coach since Jimmy Connors stepped aside in March. John Roddick was conspicuously absent on the practice court and will no longer travel with Andy. The Roddick brain trust hopes to have a new coach in place before season's end.

McEnroe, who already oversees elite player development for the USTA and works often as a television analyst, describes himself as a special assistant and explained he's coaching Roddick "just for now."

Active One-Slam Wonders

Player Event
Ana Ivanovic '08 French Open
Novak Djokovic '08 Australian Open
Svetlana Kuznetsova '04 U.S. Open
Gaston Gaudio '04 French Open
Andy Roddick '03 U.S. Open
Juan Carlos Ferrero '03 French Open
Thomas Johansson '02 Australian Open
Carlos Moya '98 French Open
Roddick, according to McEnroe, is injury-free for the first time in months.

"He feels great," McEnroe said after the workout, watching Roddick pose for a photo with two young girls. "He was pretty nicked up there for a while.

"Right now he's just trying to get some momentum going."

There is a fair chance that Roddick is doomed to end his career in tennis purgatory, along with Gaston Gaudio, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Thomas Johansson, as a one-Slam wonder. Would this really be such a horrible thing?

Roddick had the bad luck to run into Roger Federer in back-to-back Wimbledon finals and now the presence of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- not to mention emerging talents like Andy Murray and Juan Del Potro -- may shut him out of the major tournaments.

Naturally, Roddick is working hard to escape this. He began the season as well as nearly anyone, winning 19 of his 22 matches. His peculiar strain of March Madness included wins over the three top-rated players: Federer (Miami) and Nadal and Djokovic (Dubai). The win against Nadal was significant because it was his first over a player ranked among the top two since 2003, the year he was No. 1.

But over the past four months his body, which had been extraordinarily resilient, betrayed him. Roddick was visited by back spasms, a sore right shoulder and a cranky neck. A second-round loss to Janko Tipsarevic might have been the low point.

"I've kind of been going from not playing, and then jumping straight into tournaments, which isn't ideal," Roddick said. "But you've got to kind of play the hand you're dealt. [I'm] getting better. I've actually enjoyed having a practice week that's been healthy."

Keenly aware that his biological tennis clock was ticking down, Roddick made the decision to skip the Olympics in Beijing. While the world's best players were playing for gold halfway across the world, he would work on his game in the States. He won three matches in Los Angeles before falling in the final to the 19-year-old Argentine Del Potro, but Washington was less than an artistic success.

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
AP Photo/Amy SancettaSince his solitary Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 2003, Andy Roddick has been clamoring for another.
In the tournament scheduled opposite Beijing, Roddick won his first match over Ramon Delgado but needed to save two match points in his subsequent match with Eduardo Schwank. He lost in the quarterfinals to Viktor Troicki, a 22-year-old Serb.

Roddick was asked if he expects to win his second Grand Slam here.

"For me, this year?" he responded. "Well, I'm going to have to start working if that's the case. I certainly hope so."

He didn't sound overly optimistic -- with good reason. Roddick, seeded No. 8 here, meets Fabrice Santoro of France in the first round in the late match on Wednesday. Santoro, 35, gives power players fits with a steady variety of wizardly junk. The second round, presumably, would present Latvian Ernests Gulbis, a dangerous player capable of beating Roddick. This would be like facing a fat, floating knuckleball followed by a series of smoking fastballs.

Winning a first Grand Slam late in a career is a nice epitaph, a reward for time served, as it were. But when you win a few weeks after your 21st birthday, it suggests greatness -- and the suffocating pressure that comes with it.

Roddick has a big forehand and a bigger serve, but his movement, backhand and volleying ability are, relatively speaking, so-so.

If he doesn't win here, there's the Davis Cup semifinal versus Spain in the middle of September. There will always be another tournament, another gaggle of fans looking for autographs.

Grand Slams aside, being Andy isn't all that bad.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.