Andy Roddick entered last year’s Roland Garros having played only one clay court event, and that was on the fast courts of Madrid. Having gotten married during the clay season to Brooklyn Decker, Roddick arrived in Paris relaxed, fresh, and without terribly high expectations to disappoint.
He proceeded to have his most successful RG ever, winning three matches without dropping a set before falling to Gael Monfils in the round of 16. He then parlayed that momentum into a career-reviving Wimbledon run, beating Britain’s own Andy Murray to reach the finals.
There, he faced Roger Federer, the main impediment to his Wimbledon dreams, but came as close as anyone not named Rafa to stopping the Great Swiss on Centre Court.
With that precedent, it was no wonder that Roddick chose to play an abbreviated clay court season again, celebrating his wedding anniversary and resting from his successful spring hard court season, where he won his fifth Masters Shield in Miami.
This year, though, his clay court preparation would be even less extensive, as he skipped the no longer essential Monte Carlo, exercised his right to opt out of Rome, then was greeted with illness upon his arrival in Madrid, leaving him with zero matches played on the dirt before Paris.
After his third round exit today, we may consider it a strong effort that he got that far at all. He certainly had opportunities to leave earlier.
His first-round opponent, the Fin Jarkko Nieminen, is a very tough baseliner who has been ranked in the top 20 before having his results taper off in recent years.
In round one, though, Nieminen fought Roddick as if it were the middle of the decade all over again, outclassing him once the American’s big serve was in play and building a two-sets-to-one lead.
Roddick had every opportunity to crumble, but did not, eventually sneaking away with two breaks in the final set through some daring moves to the net and a couple of well-timed forehand winners.
In the second he again had to battle, as little-known Blaz Kavcic played him evenly for two sets, but again the top-ranked American snuck away, this time in four.
His will to win was as reinforced as ever; too bad it never was a factor into his third round match against Teimuraz Gabashvili.
Roddick’s serve has long been the game’s hardest, but there once was a time when he backed it up with one of the game’s most devastating forehands.
Though Federer has gotten the better of the American in the vast majority of their encounters thanks to his superior all-court game, in 2003 Roddick’s forehand could rival the Swiss’ as a weapon.
One of the great mysteries of tennis in this age is how, seven years later, Federer still has a dominant forehand, and Roddick has had to rely more on his serve and work, with limited success, to mold his backhand and volleys into weapons.
They, too, were limited on Saturday. Both Roddick and Gabashvili are 6’2” and committed 20 unforced errors, but the Russian appeared in a different weight class in their third round encounter, ripping 58 winners to Roddick’s 14.
The heavy, wet conditions took much of the bite out of the American’s serve, and Gabashvili simply devoured Roddick’s groundstrokes.
It’s a disappointing conclusion, but keep in mind that this third-round encounter is better than all but two of Roddick’s previous French campaigns.
He ran into a very hot player who will have a very good chance in his next match and, besides, barring a contagion that wiped out the draw’s native Europeans and South Americans, this American was never going to win the title in Paris.
No, much like Murray, who has fought his way to another second week appearance, Roddick meant to use Paris as a springboard to later results. They may well spar for the title in Queens, where Murray is defending champion and Roddick has lifted the title four times.
Both men will be hoping to build on their Wimbledon result last year, where Murray fell just short of reaching the final and Roddick could practically taste the trophy.
Roddick in particular will enjoy moving to surfaces where his serve will count for more and opponents won’t have so much time for passing shots.
But while he searching through the dirt, at least he found his heart again.