Last Saturday evening in Key Biscayne, Fla., Andy Roddick should have been relaxing and hydrating, slated as he was to play in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open the next afternoon. Instead he played in an exhibition to benefit earthquake relief in Chile. The event had been organized by Fernando Gonàlez, the Chilean who is ranked No. 11 on the ATP Tour. Roddick had given his friend a commitment weeks earlier, before he knew he'd be playing to win the so-called fifth major. A promise is a promise.
That blend of professionalism and resolve—stubbornness, some might call it—is a pretty good summation of Roddick's career. Roddick, you may recall, won the U.S. Open in 2003 at age 21. But within months he was surpassed by two of the finest players of the Open Era. Suddenly the tennis salon dismissed Roddick as a one-Slam wonder with a game that looked primitive next to the rococo shotmaking of Roger Federer and the funkadelic spins of Rafael Nadal. Roddick could have cursed his bad luck and resigned himself to merely enjoying his millions, marrying a supermodel and living the charmed life of a tennis near great.
Except for marrying the supermodel (Brooklyn Decker), Roddick did no such thing. Instead he battled what he called "the two-headed beast" of Federer and Nadal. He was repeatedly thrashed—his record against the two men heading into this year was 4--24—and he suffered some crushing disappointments, not least an epic five-set loss to Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final. But on Roddick went. He tinkered with his equipment, improved his fitness and changed coaches. He upgraded his backhand, a shot he once did everything to hide. Through it all he kept his sense of humor. "We are experts in the art of delusion," he says of his fellow foils to Federer and Nadal. "I probably [should] have figured out a way to Jedi mind trick myself into thinking I had a shot."
Now, in his ninth straight year in the top 10, Roddick might be playing his best tennis. After reaching the final in Indian Wells, Calif., last month (and losing to Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic), he took the Sony Ericsson with a 7--5, 6--4 win over Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and raised his ranking to No. 7. Roddick's run in Key Biscayne included a 4--6, 6--3, 6--3 semifinal takedown of Nadal with a mix of power tactics.
Yes, tactics. At 27, Roddick has become a thinking player. After losing the first set to Nadal, he changed strategy, displacing his opponent from the center of the court and taking calculated risks. As he put it, "I rolled the dice a lot and came up Yahtzee a couple of times."
Still, Roddick knows that players are judged by their haul of major titles. Whether or not he gets "back on the big board" (his phrase), he's determined to wring every last drop from his game. As legacies go, he could do a lot worse.
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Given the demographics of South Florida, it was fitting that two recent retirees played the best tennis in the Key Biscayne women's draw. Kim Clijsters(below), who rejoined the tour last summer after a two-year absence and promptly won the U.S. Open, is back in the top 10 after pasting Venus Williams in the Sony Ericsson final. In the semifinals Clijsters won the Battle of the Unretired Belgians, beating Justine Henin—who also called it quits, in May 2008, only to return in January—in a hard-fought three sets. In the WTA lexicon retirement has come to mean mid-career sabbatical. Perhaps the resurgence of Clijsters and Henin will prompt more players to think about taking a breather from the punishing year-round tennis caravan.
MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES (RODDICK)
FORCE DE TOUR Roddick is a tour-best 26--4 in 2010, having reached the finals of the first two Masters events and won one.
JESSICA KLUETMEIER (CLIJSTERS)