Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tennis' one-trick pony

There is no doubt that when Andy Roddick hangs up his racquet at the end of his career, he will be remembered as one of the greatest American tennis players to play the game. Back in 2003, we saw a young, dynamic, 21-year old trounce the rest of the field in the US Open, securing his one, and only, Grand Slam and claiming the world number 1 spot. His status as America’s new tennis hope in the post-Pete Sampras era was born. His triumph, along with Roger Federer’s maiden Wimbledon title earlier in the year, undoubtedly sparked a renewed global interest in the sport. He has carried the American flag in men’s tennis almost single-handedly since, while his sharp and witty character has won many fans around the world. And with that serve, so emphatically exhibited in 2003, we fully expected Roddick to go on and dominate men’s tennis for another decade.

Looking back from 2012, we realise our forecast was wrong. No more Grand Slams have followed Roddick’s 2003 success, although he has come mightily close at Wimbledon on three occasions, only to be denied on each occasion by Roger Federer. Now ranked 27 in the world, third in the US behind Mardy Fish and John Isner and on the verge of turning 30, it appears as though Roddick’s ability to compete at the highest level is over.
Roddick beats Juan Carlos Ferrero to win the 2003 US Open

Roddick’s serve has been described by some commentators as the greatest in history, but it has not been enough for him to achieve consistent Grand Slam glory. Let’s look at some statistics. Clearly, Roddick’s serve performance has been remarkably consistent over the years as the table shows. His first serve percentage in 2003 was distinctly average, yet he was able to crush his opponents. As we can see, however, although Roddick’s first serve percentage has steadily improved over the years, the percentage of points won on his first serve and service games won have not followed this trend; they have if anything regressed.

First serve %
First serve points won %
Service games won %


However, if we dig deeper the reasons behind this serving paradox become much clearer. The tennis players which Roddick is facing today are vastly different to what they were back in 2003. Taking the top ten players from June 16th 2003, the average height measured up at exactly six feet and the average weight 175 pounds. Today’s top ten have an average height three inches taller at 6’3 and a weight of 194 pounds. Roddick, who is 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, was bigger and stronger than most players in 2003, but is now probably just below the norm today. Perhaps if Roddick was playing instead of fellow American Pete Sampras in the 1990s he would have won just as many Grand Slams, but today’s incredibly competitive field has limited his chances.

The statistics essentially prove today’s top players are fitter than ever before, which has meant many can match Roddick’s serving ferocity. The need to deal with these serves has in turn led to an emphasis on the returning game; just look at how good the likes of Murray, Nadal and Djokovic are at returning the huge serves of Karlovic, Isner and Roddick himself. The diagram below shows Roddick’s serve placement against Federer in the 2005 Wimbledon final. What is most fascinating is that although many of Roddick’s serves are placed close to the corners, he hit only seven aces to Federer’s 11. In most cases, Federer was able to execute most returns with a simple backhand block.

Roddick's serve in the 2005 Wimbledon final did not hurt Federer
Then, once the serve is returned, today’s fitter, stronger players excel in the longer rallies. This is where Roddick has historically struggled; his touch at the net and his ability to hit backhand winners, for example, often lets him down. His inability to mix up his game contrasts with the array of shots the best players possess in their armoury to keep their opponents guessing. For example, Federer can deploy a range of drop shots, slices, squash shots, you name it, which is why he is still going strong into his 30s. In addition, although Federer’s serve averages at 115-120mph (around 20mph slower than Roddick’s) his ability to hit different spots with equal success makes him highly unpredictable to face. You could also argue Rafael Nadal has adapted his game hugely from his comfort zone on clay in order to win Wimbledon twice.

By contrast, Roddick’s style has barely evolved in his career; he is still hoping his powerful, and increasingly predictable, serve can blow away increasingly more formidable opponents. It is true that Coach Larry Stefanki has improved Roddick’s tactics, fitness and overall performance, but even this hasn’t been enough to win another Grand Slam and stay in the top ten. Roddick’s only remaining chance of Grand Slam success is going to be at Wimbledon, because the surface does not tend to favour tall players with the ball staying low. He surprised everyone back in 2009 by reaching the final and pushing Federer all the way, but I can’t see any Ivanisevic-style heroics happening; far more players are adapting to grass in the top ten nowadays, particularly Nadal and, as we saw last year, Djokovic.
Was this year's Wimbledon Roddick's last?

This last point links to another evolution in modern tennis – the slowing pace of many surfaces. This is particularly the case with grass, the fastest surface in tennis, as Roddick’s serve used to be able to stay very low and fast after hitting the ground. Today, though, the ball reacts differently to courts such as Wimbledon as it bounces up higher. This is crucial when we analyse Roddick’s serve as players have approximately a tenth of a second longer to react and play a decent return than they did 20 years ago. Even the hard courts have become noticeably slower recently, especially at the US Open, which was probably among the fastest courts in the world a few years ago. In short, players such as Roddick are getting fewer free points on their serve, which is why we are seeing more gruelling rallies which today’s bigger, stronger players excel in.

It seems to me that Roddick and his coaches have been so transfixed by his powerful serve that other aspects of his game are being ignored, with significant consequences. The courts have slowed, and the players Roddick faces today are physically superior to a decade ago, but Roddick has proved too often he has no Plan B. Of course, Andy has suffered from a number of injuries over the last few years which have limited his ability to play over 20 tournaments a year. However, I would argue blaming Roddick’s decline on injury is very short-sighted; the inherent problems stem from his consistently narrow game plan in every tournament and on every surface he plays. The Andy Roddick case has demonstrated to the tennis world that you cannot afford to be a one-trick pony any more. Variety, adaptability and all round physical strength are now highly valued attributes which are top of the priority list for a place in the top ten and, ultimately, Grand Slam success.
From the first issue of Into The Sunset magazine.

No comments:

Post a Comment