Wimbledon ’09 Roddick’s Valuable Lesson – Joel Drucker TennisOne.com

One saying goes that history is written by the winners – for they are the ones who attain the precious outcomes that commandheadlines.Certainly over the last month, Roger Federer has authored his share. Securing the career Grand Slam with his French Open win and earning a record 15th Slam with his incredible Wimbledon victory are but two major marks the silky-smooth Swiss has accomplished.


Over the last month, Roger Federer has authored his share of headlines.

But for now, though, I want to ponder the notion that history can also be written by the losers. A coach I highly respect, Steve Stefanki, once told me that while outcome is passive, process is active. Amid all the record-shattering Federer has done of late, it’s valuable to ponder how embracing process can shape a tennis player’s self-definition.

Last month I addressed the ways a man as complete as Federer added more dimensions to his game, most notably with the drop shot, on his way to victory at Roland Garros. No, I’m not saying a drop shot earned him the French Open title. But I will say that by pondering one small shot that Federer was able to view his game as a much larger and more dynamic organism than it had become prior to this year’s French Open. Perhaps what Federer suffered in the early part of this year was less a crisis of execution and more one of imagination.

So what about Wimbledon? More pointedly, what about Andy Roddick?

By the time a tennis player emerges on the tour as a public phenomena he or she is usually so skilled that it’s tempting to view his or her gifts as god-given, innate, eternal. Never mind the thousands of hours put in over the course of at least a decade of hard work in the juniors; never mind the fact that most male pros were 5.0 players by the time they were 12 years old.

 

Andy Roddick

Early on in his career, Roddick’s serve and forehand earned him tons of wins, taking him to a US Open title and the world number one ranking by the end of his third full year on the tour. Since then, Roddick has been a top ten mainstay. Only he and Federer have finished in the top ten each of the last seven years. But of course he’s also been unable to earn another Slam or return to the number one ranking. And when a player loses – whether in a Wimbledon final or a 3.5 league match – it’s easy to find plenty of shortcomings.

Full disclosure: I have always liked Roddick, in part, yes, because my interactions with him have always been pleasant, professional, thoughtful and even humorous. Early in his career I wrote that his game was powerful but hardly likely to find a place in an art museum. The next day he approached me in a lounge and said, “Big and ugly, huh?” I concurred, attempting to point out that aesthetics were of little concern in sports. Roddick nodded, said “I’ve been called worse,” and gave me a friendly rap on the knuckles.

Since then, I have also always found Roddick quite candid about efforts to make himself a better tennis player. Given the outcome-directed focus of my world of tennis journalism, this isn’t always so easy to detect, particularly since Roddick has so often had to discuss a late stage loss at a Grand Slam (oddly enough, in some ways it’s easier to listen to the comments of the occasional late stage loser than the frequent attendee). But as this Wimbledon most of all has shown, Roddick has helped me further fine-tune my concept of how tennis players might define themselves.

Larry Stefanki

So here’s the takeaway: Even for pros, very few gifts are god-given, innate or eternal. As you might have guessed, Steve Stefanki is related to Roddick’s coach, Larry Stefanki. The two are brothers. What Larry Stefanki has brought to Roddick is a hardcore approach to process – to the pursuit of improvement, with the hope of course that good results can happen too.


Larry Stefanki has brought to Roddick a hardcore approach to process.

When Roddick and Stefanki began working together at the end of 2008, Stefanki suggested – knowing Stefanki, I’d be more inclined to say he did a little more than suggest – that Roddick lose 15 pounds. Roddick’s improved court coverage was instantly clear on his January run to the Australian Open semis.

But what became even more vivid over the recent two weeks of his run to the Wimbledon finals was how much more time Roddick has put in to rounding out his entire game; losing weight was but the tip of the iceberg that embraced a broader, textured approach to everything from striking his backhand, mixing up spins (a bit, let’s not confuse Roddick with Fabrice Santoro) and most of all, understanding how to apply pressure in ways at once forceful and occasionally imaginative. In his wins over Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray, and even for much of his loss to Federer, Roddick was the one dictating the tempo of a great many points, not just with his serve but also with his increased understanding of how to put himself into position to use his strengths.

It’s been a pleasure to watch Roddick work to transform himself and continually attempt to redefine his game. This is the inspiration any of us can take from his epic loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final: a willingness to conceive one’s tennis game in different shadings, to devote infinite time not just to strokes but to broader tactics, strategies and ways to build points. Having had the chance to work alongside Martina Navratilova at every Grand Slam this year, I’m constantly dazzled by the way she describes her joy at going out to practice day in and day out, constantly learning, refining, thinking, discussing – and, yes, working.

Roddick too has taken the same approach. If a man who’s been number one in the world can make this kind of effort from such a high peak, surely the rest of us can give it a go too. Roger Federer’s brilliance may show that tennis can be an art, but I’d daresay it’s better to hone it more like a craft. In defeat, Roddick too has authored a valuable chapter.

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