Tuesday, September 30
A beautiful (tennis) mind

ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Brad Gilbert, black Metallica hat tilted back, sunglasses pushed up on his forehead, is getting agitated.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick made a coaching change after losing in the first round of the French Open.

Luke Jensen, the ESPN tennis analyst, is hacking him for not pushing Andy Roddick to net more often. Only three times in his first three matches, Jensen notes, has Roddick followed a serve to net and volleyed.

"He's lost his serve once in nine sets!" Gilbert says, voice rising. "That's the only stat that matters. I have so much trouble getting his (expletive deleted) serve back in practice. He's not nearly as good from the net as he is on the ground.

"Eventually, he's going to need it (a serve-and-volley game). But right now he's hitting 72 percent of his first serves in. If he keeps doing that, God's not going to break him. I mean, he's got a buck-15 on his second serve. His second serve, it's not a Betty Crocker. It's no easy bake oven."

This is classic Gilbert who -- don't kid yourself -- is absolutely amped to be back in the vortex again.

For eight years he coached Andre Agassi and then, in January 2002, they parted ways. For 16 months, Gilbert sat at home in northern Calfornia, got reacquainted with his family and waited for the call he had been hoping for ... expecting, actually.

It came, finally, after Roddick was humbled in the first round of the French Open by Sargis Sargsian. Roddick then sacked Tarik Behabiles, his coach of nearly four years.

"I just need something fresh," Roddick said. "I had a list of people I thought were pretty cool. The prospect of working with Brad is the one that sparked the most curiosity in me. I thought it had the best chance for being something really special."

Gilbert downloaded his fertile brain into the then 24-year-old Agassi and the breathtaking result was six Grand Slam singles titles. Now, he has a similar challenge with Roddick, who is seen as the obvious successor to Pete Sampras and Agassi. Roddick is two months shy of his 21st birthday, so Gilbert is taking the ball a little earlier, as it were.

"It's pretty different from what I'm used to, but it's good, he's full of information. When it comes down to tennis, he is very serious and very precise. He's not afraid to tell you what he thinks, he's honest at all times."

Gilbert never stops talking -- he is, it seems, terminally caffeinated. He has a flair for self-promotion, as you will see.

"Phil Jackson waited for the Lakers," he said last week. "I waited for the right guy. I was looking for the right young person with talent and you could take them over the edge."

Phil Jackson? The Lakers? As arrogant as it sounds, the analogy is dead-on.

"Brad came in and taught me how to play the game," Agassi said. "Taught me to start thinking for myself out there.

"He just always had a lot of information to give. I quickly realized my ability to process it was going to be more important than anything for the teamwork to work because his insights were going to come whether you're ready to hear or not.

"He elevated my life in many ways outside of the tennis court even. He's introduced me to a lot of things that I still hold onto.

"I think Andy has shown that he's committed to learning and to pushing himself forward. I think he made a great decision in Brad. And I think Brad will really help his game come around in many ways."

He's off to a pretty fair start. Roddick is 9-0 since Gilbert jumped on a plane and joined him in London three weeks ago. Based on his experience with Agassi, Gilbert can already see how this one's going to go.

"I went gray with Andre," he said. "A year from now, I'll probably be white.

"If we can ever start talking about Andre and Andy in the same breath it will mean Andy will be doing some pretty amazing things. Andre has the most God-given talent ever. God willing, we may be saying the same thing about Andy in a year's time."

Winning pretty
"Look! Look! He's doing it!" Gilbert says, pointing at a television monitor.

Brad Gilbert
Andre Agassi, with Brad Gilbert as coach, won six of his nine major titles.

He's sitting in the ESPN production office and, yes, there is Agassi serving and, oddly enough, volleying his way to a point against Younes El Aynaoui. It was Gilbert who taught the baseliner how to work the net.

They first crossed paths in 1987, when Agassi -- then only 17 -- beat Gilbert in the quarterfinals on way to his first Grand Prix Tour title in Itaparica, Brazil. Agassi won exactly one Grand Slam singles title (here at Wimbledon in 1992) before he hooked up with Gilbert in March, 1994.

The first 12 months of their collaboration brought two Grand Slams (the 1994 U.S. Open and the 1995 Australian Open), seven total titles and, in April 1995, the No. 1 world ranking.

Their energy fed each other, Gilbert and Agassi, but after eight years it got old. It has never been fully explained what happened. There was a difficult quarterfinal loss to Sampras at the 2001 U.S. Open, which didn't sit well. Agassi, who had soaked up everything he could from Gilbert, probably wanted to exert his independence, show the world he could do it without him. Do not underplay the conservative hand of Steffi Graf.

It was, in short, time for a change and Agassi sent him home to California before the 2002 season.

Gilbert was not blessed with the physical gifts bestowed upon Agassi and Roddick. Still, he was clever enough, determined enough to win 20 titles, more than $5 million in prizes and see his ranking soar as high as No. 4. When he found ways to beat John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors they sometimes mocked him, right on the court.

He wrote a best-selling book, "Winning Ugly," that captured the whole Gilbert mindset thing. Recreational players, he wrote, make two basic mistakes. One, they don't think about what they are doing and, two, they do it too fast.

Does this sound like anyone you know, say, a certain 20-year-old with a rocket serve?

Because of the delicate timing -- in between Grand Slams is never the best time to change coaches -- Gilbert, ever the patient player, is treading lightly. In baseball, sometimes the best managers are minor-leaguers who mastered the minutia of their craft, the ones who didn't have tons of natural talent. Gilbert is the same way.

When Luke Jensen was lobbying for more serve-and-volley points, along the lines of Gilbert's flexible fluid game, Gilbert waved his hand.

"Forget my service game," he said, "it's not about that. When you're coaching, you don't look through anyone's eyes but his. He doesn't have my garbage game."

Roddick's serve could be the single most dangerous weapon in the game of tennis; at a relatively lean 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Roddick renders an offering that is much more than sum of his parts. For now, Gilbert is sticking with what got Roddick to the semifinals of the Australian Open and, now, the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

"Last year, (Roddick) was a mess on grass, getting aggravated, playing goofy, trying to hit through all his problems," said Mary Carillo, the ESPN analyst. "Brad will uncomplicate his head, give him some winning patterns to play and get him to net more."

At Queen's, Gilbert urged Roddick to go to net in a titanic match against Greg Rusedski. Roddick, who is not a great volleyer, went to net 20 times and lost 10 of the points.

"He misses a couple," Gilbert said, "and it hurts his game."

That was why Roddick was tethered to the baseline for his first three matches at the All England Club. But then, in his round of 16 match with Paradorn Srichaphan, he came forward. Roddick won 24 of 29 net points.

"He kind of got into a groove there for a little while," Roddick explained, "so I thought I wanted to try to do something to mix it up."

Mind game
Gilbert's greatest early contributions, he said, is mental.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick defeated Andre Agassi 6-1, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6) at Queen's Club in June.

"I'm trying to get him focused and confident and I'm trying to give him the X and Os of opponents with scouting," Gilbert said. "My big thing is, 'Don't act surprised. You belong.'

"When he beat Rusedski, everyone was talking about it -- but it was only (Wimbledon's) second round. You're trying to tell him he's the favorite here, but ... the last time you played Paradorn Srichiphan, you lost. He doesn't care if you're the favorite."

So far, so very good.

"I'm starting to have a little bit more confidence in my own abilities on a day-to-day basis," Roddick said. "I am definitely here to win this tournament."

There was a nice moment when Roddick met Agassi in the semifinals at Queen's. At one point, the ball caromed off a frame and into the hands of, naturally, Brad Gilbert. Once again, he is holding a winning hand.

"I've said all along I'm not hoping to replace Sampras and Agassi," Roddick said. "I'm going to try and do my own thing and hope that works out well. I don't remember a time when I haven't been the next big thing, the next Sampras, the next male Venus."

Gilbert sees it happening. In his mind, he will make it happen.

"He's got an exciting base," Gilbert said, voice quickening. "He has a humungous serve, great forehand, moves well and he is still only 20, so there is a lot of time for his game to grow. He can improve the serve, the forehand, the backhand, movement, everything. He can get fitter.

"The serve is only going to get bigger. Can he break 160? Yeah.

"I don't think what you are looking at now is anything like what Andy is going to be five years from now."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.