At Andy Roddick’s first-round match at the U.S. Open Tuesday night, the fans around me entertained themselves by watching the radar gun. When Roddick finished off his first two services games with 139- and 146-miles-per-hour offerings, several fans repeated the readings out loud, as if involuntarily. Then everyone relaxed and settled in to watch Roddick do what he does best: overpower a low-ranked opponent.
No one suspected that he would be gone within two hours. As Gilles Muller crafted his startling straight-sets upset, the fans in my section developed a new preoccupation: riffing on the new, Dadaist American Express ads featuring Roddick—the ones revolving around the line, “Have you seen Andy’s Mojo?” As Muller was about to win the first-set tiebreak, one fan drew stadium-wide laughs after yelling: “Hey, Andy: Bring out the mojo!” The guy directly behind me spent all of sets 2 and 3 informing his friends, “It’s safe to say Andy hasn’t found his mojo yet.”
Tennis has had its share of odd advertising campaigns, but this is perhaps the first to highlight a star player’s slump. At least someone at American Express knows tennis. Two years ago, Roddick rode his serve to the U.S. Open crown and the No. 1 ranking. His fans figured it would be the first of many major titles and the start of a long run atop the rankings. But Roddick has failed to win a major since then; he entered the U.S. Open as only the fourth seed.
Sure, Roddick has made the last two Wimbledon finals, and it would be unfair to expect him to win 14 grand slams like Pete Sampras. But why has he been coming up short so often? What happened to his supposedly sure-fire reign at the top of the sport?
The answer is that his serve is too good. Precisely because he can use it to overpower lesser foes, Roddick has always depended far too heavily on his service and failed to flesh out the rest of his game. The Muller match was a perfect compilation of Roddick’s shortcomings. His trips to the net were infrequent and tentative—during the second-set tiebreak, a timid Roddick volley set up Muller for the backhand pass that put him up two sets to love. Muller often initiated his own trips to the net by approaching to Roddick’s two-handed backhand, which lacked power and consistency. Even Roddick’s forehand, his best groundstroke, is not uniformly strong; his inside-out forehand is one of the best on tour, but his running crosscourt shots often fly long. That Roddick could have his serve broken just once in three sets and still lose to the world’s 68th-ranked player shows how lacking the other parts of his game are.
Roddick is at least aware that he needs to improve. Earlier this month, he announced he was working on “my fitness a bunch. I’m working on my transition game. Obviously I’d love to keep improving on my return game.” He also insisted, “I’m a better player than I was two years ago.”
But as the Muller match showed, mere practice is not enough. Roddick has not spent enough time putting those supposed improvements to use during matches, where players make changes stick until they are habitual. It’s not as if Roddick never has the opportunities to experiment: This U.S. Open aside, he routinely blitzes through his early round matches on hard courts and grass.
The more often Roddick shoots those 140-mph serves past overmatched foes, the less time he spends hitting his full range of shots. Over the two weeks of a major, Roddick’s efforts to overpower everyone may even wear himself down. At Wimbledon this year, Roddick’s fastest serves in his first two matches registered 141 and 145 miles per hour, while in the semifinal and final his fastest hit 135 every time.
It’s against top-flight players—and, apparently, against Gilles Muller—that Roddick’s flaws are most visible. He sports a 59-19 career match record in major tournaments but is just 1-6 lifetime against top 10 seeds in the majors. Roddick is 1-10 lifetime against Roger Federer, who has beaten him six straight times and won 14 of 15 sets in the process. Yes, Federer is a magical player, but Roddick is also just 2-6 in his career against Lleyton Hewitt; a win against Hewitt this month in Cincinnati marks the only time in 2005 that Roddick beat a player ranked in the top 10.
In contrast to Roddick, Federer seems to make a point of measuring his energy, testing all his shots against easier opponents, and ratcheting up his efforts as needed in hopes of peaking against the best players. At this year’s French Open, Federer explained that as a grand slam moves along, “you’re meeting people that are more difficult to play, and therefore, the level of your game has to go up.” It takes tons of confidence to approach a tournament this way. In his easier matches this year, Federer has been experimenting with his drop shot, knowing he will need a better version of this daring play to win the French Open, the one major to elude him so far. This midmatch experimenting has made his game far more complete. Federer’s topspin backhand, for instance, has improved noticeably in the last year, even after he put a chokehold on the No. 1 ranking.
Several hours before Roddick’s loss on Tuesday, I watched Federer polish off an easy win. Late in the third set, Federer closed out a game with consecutive first serves of 94, 110, 95, and 118 miles hour. He then spent the next changeover watching the animated tennis-ball race on the stadium video screen. Roddick’s fans probably would have been screaming for Federer’s serving mojo. But Federer doesn’t need service fireworks to win. And he’s still playing at this year’s U.S. Open.