- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Andy Roddick's last appearance on the Grand Slam stage was far from heroic. He limped toward the exit on a sprained ankle.
"It's like Groundhog Day," Roddick said after he retired from his first-round match at Roland Garros. "This is not fun at all."
The 23-year-old American was talking about the disappointment of the cruel red clay at the French Open, where he has lost six of 10 career matches. The next question, which concerned Wimbledon, caused Roddick to brighten.
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "I mean, that's my surface. That's the one I really look forward to each year."
As well he should.
A few days later Bob Bryan, a U.S. Davis Cup teammate, said, "Man, he was talking about grass two months ago. This is his surface and his time of the year."
After winning three of four matches at Queen's Club in London last week, Roddick's outlook improved dramatically.
"I just feel like I've been right around the corner from playing well for a little bit," he said last Friday after defeating Fernando Gonzalez to reach the semifinals. "Coming to your favorite surface and coming to one of your favorite tournaments, the recipe was there for something good to happen. I definitely want to keep it going."
Roddick didn't. He lost in the semifinals at Queen's to an inspired James Blake, but proved that, once again, he will be among the handful of players expected to challenge for the title at Wimbledon, which opens play on Monday.
Roger Federer, the world's No. 1-ranked player, has won 41 consecutive matches on grass, matching the record set by Bjorn Borg during 1976-81. While Federer -- particularly after his loss to Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open -- is the favorite at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, you can make the case for Roddick as the second choice, along with Lleyton Hewitt, the eventual Queen's winner, Blake and Mario Ancic of Croatia.
Federer is bidding to win his fourth consecutive Wimbledon championship, but it is worth noting that he's beaten Roddick in the last two finals and the 2003 semifinals. Roddick's still-big serve and forehand make him a viable threat in grass and hard-court events, which explains why he finishes most seasons better than he starts them.
The numbers don't lie.
Since 2003, the lights-out year when he soared to the top of the rankings and won his only Grand Slam, Roddick has compiled a 111-24 record after the French Open, good (very, very good) for a winning percentage of .820. Ten of his 15 titles in the last three-plus years have come in the second half of the season. And, with zero tournament wins so far in 2006, Roddick can only improve on that number.
In the context of Grand Slams, it isn't even close. Seven of the 10 Grand Slam quarterfinals Roddick has reached have come in the second half. His most consistent results have been at Wimbledon, where he has reached at least the semifinals three straight years; by comparison, he was bounced from last year's U.S. Open in the first round by Gilles Muller.
Even with bigger balls and a slower grass court, Roddick's strengths play well to grass. Despite Roddick's loss to Blake, you can argue that Roddick is next in line after Federer.
"I think I've proven over the last three years that I probably am the second-best grass court player," Roddick said to the media. "That being said, I haven't had the best of years so far this year -- up to my standard, at least."
Indeed, Roddick has struggled by those lofty standards. His ranking has slowly fallen from No. 1 in 2003 to No. 2 in 2004 to No. 3 in 2005 to the present No. 5. Roddick lost in the round of 16 at the Australian Open to eventual finalist Marcos Baghdatis and his best results are his two appearances in the semifinals in San Jose and at Queen's.
There have been positives, however. Roddick was 3-1 in the two Davis Cup ties with Romania and Chile. He'll lead the United States into September's semifinals in Russia. And then there is the prospect of a coaching collaboration with eight-time Grand Slam champion Jimmy Connors for the summer hard court season in North America.
Roddick had the option of returning home to Austin, Texas after his early departure at the French Open, but instead chose to travel ahead to London -- a sign that he is eager to create some momentum. After resting his tender ankle for four days, Roddick began hitting on the practice courts at Queen's. During the tournament, he seemed to get back to the basics of tennis.
"I think more than anything, I haven't been focused so much on how to play, but just competing," he said. "I have kind of been showing a little bit more and I feel hungry this week."
Three years ago, Roddick disappeared on the run of his life, starting with a victory at Queen's, followed by summer triumphs in Indianapolis, Montreal, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open.
"I feel like this is the place where my career really turned around in 2003 and the last couple of years," Roddick said. "It's always been the place where I've gotten back on track.
"At the end of the day, this tournament has to be considered a success, just because I feel prepared for Wimbledon, which obviously is the big goal."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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