Don't stop believing
Roddick finally slays his white whale, beats Federer
Posted: Friday April 4, 2008 3:13PM; Updated: Friday April 4, 2008 3:41PM
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It's a grueling mental challenge for an athlete when he's been beaten by the same player 11 times in a row and isn't exactly favored in the 12th meeting.
Somehow, someway, he has to keep believing things will eventually turn around. He doesn't give up, make excuses or find another line of work. He goes for the extra run late at night, fueled by all the people who have doubted him. He continues to hone his strengths and works to shore up his weaknesses. In short, he continues to show up.
"I always believed I would beat him again, I just didn't know when or where," Andy Roddick told SI.com on Thursday night, still a bit in disbelief over finally toppling Roger Federer here in the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals. "OK, it's taken me a little longer than I'd hoped. But it happened tonight, and it was a great night."
There were hints over the past few weeks that Roddick's game was improving in ways it hadn't the past few years. Most encouraging were his wins over Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic during his run to victory in Dubai last month. Those were Roddick's first wins over any top-three player in three years, much less two of them. There was also his other tournament victory this year, in San Jose.
At the same time, there were cracks showing in the otherwise perfect armor of Federer. The No. 1 player in the world had set the bar so unrealistically high over the past four years that any misstep drew encouragement from his peers. Federer's losses to Djokovic in Australia, Andy Murray in Dubai and, two weeks ago, to Mardy Fish in Indian Wells, Calif., certainly must have established that there was some vulnerability.
To Roddick's credit, he seized the opportunity. He served as well as he ever has against Federer, blowing 18 aces by the Swiss master. "My arm was alive tonight and I was getting pretty good action on it, both my first and second serve," Roddick said. But beyond anything he did physically or tactically on the court -- and there was plenty to laud -- his mental toughness was what won him this match.
"I didn't get discouraged when he started playing so well in the second set," Roddick said. "I stayed in there mentally. In a funny way, I thought I was due. He hadn't missed a ball in a crucial moment against me in about six years. I figured the law of averages had to come my way eventually. When I was up 4-3 in the third set, he made three straight errors and all of a sudden I was one game from winning. I literally tried to pretend that I wasn't so close to winning."
Roddick also said he found confidence and motivation in last week's win by his good friend, Fish.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't encouraged by Mardy's result," he said. "I had just gotten home from a long day of practice and Mardy's fiancée called me and was going nuts talking about Mardy's win. I parked my car and went out for another run because I was so excited and optimistic. I had a sudden burst of energy and ran until the sun went down because I was starting to feel hopeful. I was happy for Mardy, but also felt a weird sense of hope as well."
When I asked Roddick how he handled the longstanding losing streak against Federer, he never admitted to any sleepless nights. Disappointment? Yes. Frustration? Yes. Sleepless nights? No.
"Luckily, I think I've always been able to separate tennis and life and, in the grand scheme of things, I've never once felt sorry for myself," he said. "I know I live a blessed existence. I get to wake up and play tennis in the morning, and my biggest problem is losing to the best player possibly ever, that's still better than many alternatives."
Roddick is aware of his record against Federer and knows he still has a long way to go before he can claim any magic anecdote to his dominance. He summed it up by saying: "Let's not get carried away -- I'm not going to say that I've figured out how to beat Roger. I'm still batting 2-for-16 against him; that's still pretty crappy. But after today, it's just a little less crappy!"
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob writes on alternate Fridays for SI.com.