Posted: Thursday September 7, 2006 11:36AM; Updated: Thursday September 7, 2006 1:00PM
For all the subtle changes Andy Roddick has made to his game, the most important might be the return of his swagger.
David E. Klutho/SI
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NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick stood at center court Wednesday night under the full moon, scratching his sweaty head in disbelief, a star seemingly on the rise again. It had taken him fewer than two hours and only three sets to do away with Lleyton Hewitt, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, in his first triumph over the Aussie in a Slam in three tries.
"I just appreciate playing good tennis again," said Roddick, through to the U.S. Open semis for the first time since he won it all in 2003.
And he has Jimmy Connors to thank for making this breakthrough possible. Since Connors signed on as Roddick's coach earlier this summer, the two have been on a tear. Wednesday night's hewing of Hewitt extended an 11-match win streak for Roddick and improved Connors' coaching record to 17-1. It has also raised their modest expectations for the Open.
With the bandwagon building, it would seem Roddick has to win. But winning a Slam, he says, wasn't really in the plans. He's the first to admit his success with Connors has caught both men by surprise.
"I actually just asked Jimmy that," Roddick said. "I said, 'Did you think it would happen this quickly?' He said, 'No, I was looking toward Australia.'"
Connors and Roddick remain tight-lipped about their work together ("A lot of the stuff that we work on will probably, for the most part, stay between us," Roddick said), but Roddick's troubles have long been open for debate. Before Jimmy, Roddick was perceived as a one-dimensional player whose lethal serve could be used against him. Since then, Connors has filled in the gaps in Roddick's game, first improving the backhand, then encouraging him to play more aggressively at the net.
Against Hewitt, Roddick didn't do both to a T. But he did flash a mean backhand a handful of times for winners. At net he won 74 percent of approaches, none of them more memorable than the running forehand he hit off Hewitt's backhand side-spin volley to take a 40-0 lead in a second set that he eventually won 7-5. Cried one person from the crowd, "Andy found his mojo!"
Neither weapon is yet at full strength, but on Wednesday they were potent enough to set up his seething serve. Roddick won 74 percent of his points on serve, his dominance reaching its apex in the last game of the third set: Serving for the match, he fired a 142-mph ace down the T, then a 138-mph service winner, then another at 136, then another at 135 for the game.
"He had great rhythm the whole match," Hewitt said. "Really, very few points that I got opportunities."
But for all the subtle changes to Roddick's game, it's the one in his vocabulary that has seemingly had the most impact. Confidence has become a popular Roddick buzzword of late. Even more telling is how often it's echoed among rivals like Hewitt and Benjamin Becker.
Becker on Monday: "I bet he's really confident after winning Cincinnati last week."
Hewitt last night: "He's obviously more confident at the moment."
And finally Roddick: "I think [my maturation] has to do with confidence."
So now that Roddick has finally broken through, the question becomes how much farther he (and Jimmy) can go. Roddick may have caught a break with unseeded Mikhail Youzhny of Russia knocking off world No. 2 Rafael Nadal. Roddick and Youzhny have split the four games they've played against each other, with Roddick winning their last matchup a year ago.
Likely lurking beyond that: the Federer Express. Does the new and improved Andy Roddick stand a chance against Federer? Alas, Hewitt lacks confidence, saying, "Probably not."