Roddick Seeking Answers After Another Early Exit
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
New York Times
January 23, 2006
MELBOURNE, Australia, Monday Jan. 23 - Marcos Baghdatis played well in his upset of Andy Roddick in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
The trouble for Roddick is that Baghdatis, a 20-year-old Cypriot, is only the latest young and unseeded opponent to play well enough to beat him in the tournaments that matter most.
Roddick was upset by Joachim Johansson of Sweden in the quarterfinals of the United States Open in 2004 and by Gilles Muller of Luxembourg in the first round last year. At the French Open, which does not offer Roddick's favorite surface, he was beaten on clay in the second round last year by Jose Acasuso of Argentina.
On Sunday, under the closed roof at Rod Laver Arena, it was the 54th-ranked Baghdatis's turn to use Roddick for a career boost, winning, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Though Roddick had not dropped a set in his first three matches here, playing with renewed belief, he could never find a foolproof method of breaking down the defenses of Baghdatis, his much less experienced opponent.
Like Muller, Roger Federer and Roddick, Baghdatis is a former world junior champion. And with the exception of the second set, he hit backhands down the line for winners off Roddick's normally more imposing forehands. He passed Roddick on critical points when Roddick pushed forward to the net, and he strung together effective returns off one of the game's most fearsome servers.
When it came time to serve for his biggest victory, Baghdatis won the game at love.
"I'm absolutely not surprised Marcos won," said Ivan Ljubicic, the seventh-seeded Croat who is in the quarterfinals here and has beaten Roddick twice in the past year.
But in the aftermath of his latest disappointment, Roddick looked as perplexed as he did preoccupied. He arrived in fine shape, having cut short his 2005 season in November to give himself time to recover before this year.
"I don't know if it's as easy just to shrug off; it's disappointing when you feel like you've put in the work," he said. "You know, there are no unanswered questions in my eyes as far as preparation and stuff like that. So you're kind of left searching a little bit."
In the halls and courtside seats of Melbourne Park, the debate over the state of his game continued. There were essentially two schools of thought. The first, represented by the former star Jim Courier, is that there is no reason for Roddick to panic and that Roddick is still in the hit-or-miss process of trying to fashion himself into a more complete, attack-minded player.
"The alarm bells shouldn't start ringing, but I think this loss is a wake-up call for Andy to begin thinking about making some midmatch transition," Courier said. "I don't think he coached himself very well in this match. I think he's playing pretty well. He's serving pretty well, but he's not making the adjustments he needs to make. He kept going to the Baghdatis forehand and was burned on it just way too many times, and in the fourth set he tried to come forward too much."
The second school of thought, represented by the former Swedish champion Mats Wilander, is that Roddick is an increasingly lost soul with plummeting confidence and prospects who is gradually giving ground and computer points to the up-and-coming set while the smooth-moving Federer turns into a speck on the horizon.
"He's now gone from being a really great talent or whatever to, in my mind, not a great player anymore," Wilander said of Roddick. "Now it's becoming ordinary, totally ordinary."
Wilander expressed frustration with Roddick's tactics against Baghdatis, particularly his tendency to hit huge forehand returns from way behind the baseline that left too much of the court open for Baghdatis to hit backhand winners. He said he was also mystified by Roddick's decision to hit sliced backhands from positions of strength.
"When he's not in control of the point, he tries to hit a two-hander," Wilander said. "He's got the whole strategy turned around."
Wilander also said Roddick's increasingly frequent forays to the net were too predictable. "He's neutralized his own game and power; he's neutralized himself," Wilander said.
Roddick and his coach of one year, Dean Goldfine, came into the Open talking about being more consistently aggressive. But they also conceded that it took time to learn how to make the right choices under pressure, and also for Roddick to improve his volleying, which is competent but far from excellent in an era when racket technology has made precise passing shots easier.
"A lot of the times, a lot of winners he hit were from passing shots behind the baseline," Roddick said of Baghdatis. "A lot of times I was in control of the point, and he came up with the goods. A couple of times, I was sloppy at the wrong moments. You know, that's the way it is."
The way it will be for Roddick, 23, remains unclear. It is hard to come up with an encore after winning the 2003 United States Open at 21 and finishing No. 1 in the ranking that same year. For some players, reaching successive Wimbledon finals - as Roddick did in 2004 and 2005 - would suffice.
But he is not projecting fulfillment, and his strong presence in advertising campaigns magnifies his failures.
"The thing that happened to Andy, and I think that in some ways has hurt him and has been a bit of a curse, was winning the U.S. Open as young as he did when really I don't think he was a complete tennis player at that point," Goldfine said last week. "I think he's becoming more and more of a complete tennis player."
For the moment, however, his recent results in Grand Slam tournaments do not reflect that.