- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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For Andy Roddick, the brief clay-court season is a necessary evil, the steaming spinach (or lima beans, if you will) that your mother insisted was good for you.
For three weeks earlier this spring, the 24-year-old American faced a steady diet of dirt in Rome, Poertschach (Austria) and, finally, in Paris. Roddick won three of his six matches and exited in the first round of the French Open, losing in four sets to Igor Andreev, who was ranked No. 125 in the world.
And now comes the sizzling steak entrée worth waiting for, the equally fleeting grass-court season. After five days of practice on fast indoor courts in Paris, Roddick arrived at The Queen's Club in London, where the lawn is as lush as the sprawling parks of the great city.
"This is where I've been lucky enough to kind of salvage my season a couple of times after some dodgy clay-court play," Roddick said to the media, sounding authentically British, after beating Dmitry Tursunov in the semis of the Stella Artois Championships in London. "It's always nice to come here."
Roddick won the Stella Artois Championships for the fourth time this past Sunday. He won all five of his matches and, after facing a match point, defeated Nicolas Mahut 4-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (2). Roddick is 23-2 in matches at Queen's -- now that's sizzling.
After a week on grass, everything seems to have returned to its rightful place.
Roddick moved past Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko, back into the No. 3 ranking among ATP players, behind the ubiquitous Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who have occupied those spots for nearly two years. Federer and Nadal, the two French Open finalists, also played in the Wimbledon final a year ago. They will be favorites to advance in The Championships at the All England Club.
Based on his track record, Roddick is next in line.
"He has a lot of experience in getting over what happens in Paris," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, in a telephone interview last week. "He's aware his best time of the year is coming up. I think you have to put him in as a solid No. 3, behind Nadal, who's just slightly ahead, based on confidence level. I believe this is Andy's best chance to win a Slam.
"I talked to him the day after he lost in Paris, called him at noon, and he had already practiced two hours. He was very disappointed last year at Wimbledon, which will motivate him more this year."
After reaching the 2003 semifinal and the final in 2004 and 2005 -- losing to Federer each time -- Roddick departed early last year, falling to Great Britain's Andy Murray, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4. It was especially painful because Murray is coached by Brad Gilbert, Roddick's former mentor.
Just as clay diminishes his strengths, the slippery slope that is grass magnifies them. Roddick's searing serve always keeps him viable. Consider his five matches at Queen's: Of the 12 sets he played, eight were determined by a single break of serve and the other four went to tiebreakers -- all won by Roddick.
Mahut had a match point in the second-set tiebreaker, but Roddick stayed alive with back-to-back volleys and then Mahut dumped an easy forehand into the top of the net. Roddick earned his first match point in the third set tiebreaker with a drop volley, then served his 24th ace to win the match.
"If I were him I would be very confident," Todd Martin said Monday from London, where he's coaching Mardy Fish. "This surface suits him extremely well. He has a great weapon in his serve. And, he continually gets better and more willing to be at the net.
"A point or two here or there decides who wins or loses on grass courts. It's a combination of the unpredictability of the surface, and the predictability of how matches go. One break of serve makes a difference in a set, while on clay it could be several breaks."
There is mounting evidence that, in his eighth season as a professional, Roddick is maturing. His serve always has been his calling card; Roddick holds the ATP's all-time record with a 155-mile-an-hour offering in 2004 Davis Cup play. But in recent years, he has been willing to trade a little speed for accuracy. Roddick is currently ranked third in aces, well behind Ivan Ljubicic and Ivo Karlovic.
"To be honest, I think me breaking the record is in the past," Roddick told reporters at Queen's. "It goes down a mile or two every year. I haven't gotten 150 [mph] this year for the first time in a couple of years.
"It's nice to be able to hit it big. But I think more importantly, I'm hitting my spots this week. My first serve percentage is where I wanted it to be. It's been close to 70 [percent] almost the whole week. That's a lot more telling than a radar gun to me."
You do not need a complete game to win Wimbledon, we've seen that over and over again. If you can hold serve and have one big shot, you can win Wimbledon.
Still, analyst Mary Carillo insisted, that weapon can carry him at the All England Club.
"You do not need a complete game to win Wimbledon, we've seen that over and over again," Carillo said. "If you can hold serve and have one big shot, you can win Wimbledon. Like Goran Ivanisevic [in 2001]. If Andy's return game gets more disciplined, why shouldn't he have as good a shot as anybody not named Roger?"
Federer, the four-time defending champion, is playing for history. He's hoping to equal Bjorn Borg's standard of five consecutive titles [1976-80]. Nadal, whose all-court game continues to improve, is the leading candidate to reach the final from the bottom half of the draw. And then there's Djokovic, who won three matches here last year, coming off his semifinals appearance at Roland Garros. Murray has been out with a wrist injury, and is questionable for Wimbledon.
Ultimately, it will come down to where Roddick falls in the draw -- and where his head is.
After his win in the Stella Artois final, Roddick talked about decompressing. Roddick said he was thinking of attending a concert, perhaps Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins.
"Come [this] Friday, Saturday," he said, "you start zeroing back in, focusing on what you need to do."
Jimmy Connors, the eight-time Grand Slam champion, will be coaching Roddick at Wimbledon. Connors, who won two titles and reached six finals all told at Wimbledon, is less of an X's and O's guy and more of a master of mind-set.
"His emphasis is, 'You're tough to beat on grass,'" Roddick said. "'Put your best foot forward. You don't have to overplay.'
"He was just saying all week, 'If you just stick around long enough, you'll get through matches.'"
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.