Don’t look now, but Andy Roddick is having his best Roland Garros ever.
To find the last time he won matches (note the use of the plural) at the RG, you’d have to go all the way back to his rookie year of 2001, when he played there for the first time. That year he went into Paris having won his first two titles in Atlanta and Houston, both of which were on clay.
He easily dispatched Australian Scott Draper in round one, then outlasted American veteran Michael Chang in a five-set thriller, during which he hit a then-record of 37 aces. After splitting sets with Lleyton Hewitt, the man who’d finish 2001 as the No. 1-ranked player, Roddick succumbed to injury in the third and withdrew.
At the time his clay court skills could not be confused with, say, Gustavo Kuerten’s, but his heavy topspin forehand suggested that he could push opponents around the dirt a la Jim Courier, and that his trips to the RG would not turn into the annual ritual of self-abasement that they eventually became for Pete Sampras.
In 2002 he again had decent clay results, winning in Houston and getting to the semis in Rome before falling to Tommy Haas. The fact that his opponent in round one of the RG would be Wayne Arthurs boded well for his chances; Arthurs had one of the all-time great lefty serves – somewhere between Tanner and Ivanisevic is terms of nastiness, but the rest of his game did little to suggest clay court proficiency.
Roddick lost that match in five, the first major Grand Slam disappointment of his career. In Paris there would be many more to come.
In 2003 he won the minor St. Pölten, Austria warm-up event just before the RG, his first (and to date only) clay victory outside the United States. In the first round at Paris, though, he drew a tough assignment against the Armenian counterpuncher Sargis Sargisian, falling in four sets.
That loss, though, prompted a change in his thinking, which led to Brad Gilbert, which lead to a U.S. Open victory and the world’s No. 1 ranking. In 2004, he arrived in Paris more confidant than ever, and easily won his first round match against Todd Martin. In the next, though, he fell in five against an inspired French native son, Olivier Mutis, in five.
In 2005 he again won in Houston, easily overpowering the Frenchman Sebastian Grosjean in the finals. Grosjean reported than Roddick was moving better than ever and would be tough to beat that year.
In Paris, he easily won his first round match with a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, beating the burly Frenchman in straights. His next opponent was then unknown Argentinean Jose Acasuso, whom even Gilbert (Roddick’s by-then estranged former coach) predicted would fall in straights to the American.
He did his part early in the match, racing out to a two sets to none lead. Suddenly, the 6’3 Acasuso began matching Roddick ace for ace, pounding forehands and ripping gorgeous one-handed backhands. From down two sets, Acasuso won 8-6 in the fifth.
The first half of 2006 was perhaps the low point of Roddick’s career, and his RG results reflected it, as he withdrew with a foot injury after losing two sets to Alberto Martin of Spain. By this point Roddick’s perpetual lack of success in Paris was making Sampras look positively Argentinean by comparison; The Pistol, after all, was a regular in the second week of Paris before 1997, and once won in Rome.
Tired of being asked why he struggled on the dirt, Roddick told the press after his withdrawal to just copy and paste whatever he’d said the previous year, and use that as reasons for losing.
2007 was a somewhat better year for Roddick, but he had the misfortune of drawing the mini-Nadal, Russian Igor Andreev, in round one. The match, in which Andreev hit 34 forehand winners to Roddick’s one – that’s not a typo – heralded a quarterfinal run for the Russian, but continued the American’s frustrations.
Roddick started 2008 playing better than he had in years, scoring wins over Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the same spring, and reached the Rome semifinals. Unfortunately for him, he seriously injured his shoulder in the process, ending his clay season and seriously dampening his grass court preparations as well.
In 2009, Roddick has now reached his first-ever round of 16 in Paris, having not dropped a set in three matches. What makes this year different?
A big part of it is fitness: The first step in his much-heralded new partnership with Larry Stefanki was, as widely reported, to lose 15 pounds, which apparently gave him the ability to last a few more strokes in each point.
The second maybe the decreased expectations: Roddick, who skipped all but one clay court tune-up event this spring following his April wedding to model Brooklyn Decker, faced little pressure here, at an event where he had not won a match in four years.
The third is probably his draw. That may sound like excuse-making, but Acasuso and Andreev proved themselves to be serious clay court players following their wins over Roddick, and even non-dirtballers like Arthurs and Sargisian are very tough first-round assignments.
Even players as great as Nadal and Federer usually need a couple of rounds before they hit their stride on clay; an opportunity thus far denied Roddick.
In the fourth round he will meet another native Frenchmen in Gael Monfils. Like Roddick, Monfils succeeded in lowering expectations for himself before this event despite being a semifinalist last year. Following a recent knee injury, the flashy, streaky Frenchman was not expected to even play, but has thus far been impressive, dropping only one set.
Monfils has a service motion nearly identical to Roddick’s and hits it with almost as much power. He also is capable is cranking the forehand as hard as anyone, and unlike Roddick is known for great speed and ability to defend.
Roddick, though, is what Monfils is not: A tremendous competitor and who has shown a continual effort to make improvements. Though the clay and the home crowd should provide Monfils an edge, those characteristics of Roddick’s indicate that he will make a serious match of it.