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Bring back the mojo

Roddick, not Nadal, is Federer's Wimbledon shadow

Posted: Thursday June 21, 2007 10:14AM; Updated: Thursday June 21, 2007 12:33PM
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He was knocked out in the third round last year, but Andy Roddick reached the final in 2004 and '05, losing to Federer both times.
He was knocked out in the third round last year, but Andy Roddick reached the final in 2004 and '05, losing to Federer both times.
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LONDON -- Wimbledon means Roger Federer time. The world's No. 1 player has won the last four and is undeniably the favorite for a fifth. Beyond him is a small, elite group of players who are capable of hoisting the trophy at the end of the fortnight.

Americans' struggles during clay-court season have been well documented. But with grass under our feet, Wimbledon will be a different story. And few can take advantage of the faster surface better than Andy Roddick.

Grass isn't as favorable to attacking players as it once was, but it's still a surface that promotes instant gratification. Compare that to clay, which demands patience and methodical execution. Roddick's game is a much better fit for grass courts, where his cannon serve and aggressive style will be rewarded and offensive tennis is at a premium.

I had a chance to catch up with Andy and his coach, Jimmy Connors, while waiting out a customary rain delay during the premier grass-court tune-up event at the Queen's Club in London last week. They both were realistic and forthcoming about the clay-court season and what effects it had on Roddick's Wimbledon preparation.

"The thing I was most proud of was that Andy took the clay-court season like a man," said Connors. "He took his lumps, learned a few things and brought them over to the grass."

I witnessed the intensity of Roddick's grass-court preparation. We practiced together on the fast, indoor hard courts at the French Open immediately after both of our losses in Paris. After his first-round loss to Igor Andreev, there was plenty of time for Andy to jet back to America and bask in the comforts of his Austin, Texas, mansion.

But he didn't -- he sucked it up and went right to work with his team, and we both spilled a lot of sweat on that indoor court getting used to lower bounces and a faster pace of play.

So what exactly did he learn from his disappointing clay campaign? "The most important thing to realize is that the time on clay, no matter how difficult and frustrating, makes you a better player on the grass," Roddick said. "Your strengths start working again, and the two-and-a-half months of getting beat up give you an added chip on your shoulder and added motivation. The clay courts also get you in better shape and help your movement."

There are a handful of legitimate contenders at Wimbledon this year, and when I say "contender," I mean everyone else besides Federer. I know everyone is convinced Rafael Nadal is closing the gap on the world No. 1 and that the three-time French Open champ deserves to be the favorite to dethrone Federer, especially after last year's run to the Wimbledon final.

I'm not one of those people. Unlike Nadal, who is unproven at the All England Club, Roddick's resume speaks for itself. He has twice been a runner-up and once a semifinalist at Wimbledon, all of those losses at the hands of Federer. Roddick has also dominated the unofficial Wimbledon warm-up event down the road at the Queen's Club, winning it for the fourth time last Sunday.

Granted, Roddick's short run at Wimbledon last year was a disappointment -- he went down in straight sets in the third round to Andy Murray -- but I think that was an aberration. I still consider him the second-best grass-court player in the world. I asked Roddick what he thought he needed to do to win Wimbledon this year and he was pretty adamant that had everything he needed inside of him.

"I just need to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "Keep taking it to them, serve and return well. I don't need to overcomplicate things, I just need to focus on putting my game forward and let my opponent figure out how to deal with it. I have contended three out of the last four years. I probably should have won in '04, and I believe I can do it this year."

I believe he can do it, too. Obviously, Federer is the biggest obstacle there is. But when Andy plays, his serve is one of the biggest advantages any player has. If he can dictate play off the baseline and bridge the gap between the baseline and the net, I think he has a great shot at his first Wimbledon title.

Twelve-year ATP veteran Justin Gimelstob is competing in his 11th Wimbledon. He'll write periodically for SI.com during the tournament.

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