Roddick Sheds Connors - A Good Thing?
On Tuesday night at the Dubai championships, I encountered an Andy Roddick I hadn’t seen in a while. Fresh off a dominating performance against Juan Carlos Ferrero (his victim in the 2003 U.S. Open final), Roddick plopped down in the small interview room, looked up and cast his gaze upon me in the first row.
"Oh, you made the trip,” said the surprised 25-year-old American, who didn’t expect any reporters from his home country to be in the Middle East. “You just come to the fun places,” he jabbed with a smile.
During the interview, we discussed his busy schedule the last four weeks (Davis Cup, San Jose, Memphis, Dubai), his impressions of Dubai and his big serving night, in which he hit 18 aces and 78% of his first serves to blow former No. 1 Ferrero off the court. Following the press conference, Roddick insisted I see some pictures he had snapped of the grossly extravagant Burj Al Arab hotel, where he is staying (on the tournament’s dime, no doubt). He took his digital camera out of his racket bag and proceeded to show me a few shots of the seven-star lobby, which he described as “like Star Wars.”
Roddick has had a sometimes-testy relationship with the press, aptly related in a recent Jon Wertheim mailbag post. Personally, we’ve had our share of run-ins and icy stalemates, particularly in the months after a piece I wrote for Tennis Week following his sole major win in New York. But the other night, Roddick was uncommonly friendly. He almost seemed happy to have an American scribe in the press room. There was a lightness to him I hadn’t sensed in a while.
In retrospect, his cheerful mood might have stemmed from severing his coaching relationship with Jimmy Connors last week, a fact he revealed the next day (when I was on my way back to the USA). Certainly, the parting has perhaps pumped some air into his game. Wednesday, the sixth-ranked Roddick took out No. 2 Rafael Nadal in straight sets and today he knocked off No. 3 Novak Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-3. This is the first time in his career he has beaten two top-3 players in the same event - and before yesterday, the last time he defeated a No. 2 was Andre Agassi at Queen's in June 2003. Next up for Roddick is a very winnable final contest against red-hot Feliciano Lopez of Spain, who took out Nikolay Davydenko in three sets.
I had asked the Nebraska-born Texan about his relationship with Connors less than two weeks prior at San Jose, but he didn’t reveal any major rift or imminent end. He answered that Jimmy would travel with him less in ’08 and that they would continue to work together during off-tournament periods and by phone. Of course, the breakup is no surprise and something many of us in the press corps were expecting for a while. Roddick’s game had stalled under Connors’ direction (he was more of a mentor to Andy, with Roddick’s older brother, John, doing most of the day-to-day work).
Eight-time major champ Connors’ biggest success was shoring up Roddick’s backhand and helping him resurrect his confidence in the summer of ’06, when he lost early at Wimbledon but then reached his second final at the U.S. Open, falling to Federer in four tough sets. "When we got together I was as close to down and out as I've been,” he said in Dubai. “I spent the week after Wimbledon just as close to depressed as I've been as far as my career goes. I really credit him for that spark and getting me back to the top five and in a slam final pretty close there afterwards."
But the tangible results in the Roddick-Connors chemistry were thin. Roddick won just four titles and one Masters Series (Cincy ’06) under Connors, never beat Federer and remained stuck in the middle of the top 10. Would he have done much worse without him? I’m not surprised that Roddick characterized the breakup as something Connors initiated. I can’t imagine Connors allowing the separation to be labeled a firing, or even that it was Roddick who had more of a hand in it.
"He ended it officially but it was something we both might have been feeling,” he said. “It's tough to ask him to come on the road for two, three, four weeks at a time. He's got a great family and he likes walking his dogs every morning, and I'm keeping him away from the golf course a little too much." He added: "I understand that. I'm just happy I was able to spend a little bit of time with such a legend. I don't see him hanging up the phone if I ask him a question. I don't see that being a problem."
Wherever the truth behind the breakup lies (Money? Personality? Connors’ realization he could do no more with his charge's game?), Roddick has certainly gone through his share of coaches since 2003. The list includes Tarik Benhabiles, Brad Gilbert, Dean Goldfine, and now, the gritty American legend. My guess is that he will continue to work with John Roddick and play out the rest of the year without another coach, especially if he has more results like this week in Dubai.
Connors will probably recede into the background a bit, but apparently he won’t be the hermit from the tennis universe he has been in the past. His PR person issued a statement confirming that Connors had “terminated” his relationship with Roddick. It also read: “Andy and I developed a great personal relationship and my admiration for Andy is unwavering; I have instilled in him some of my love and passion for the game and given him all the necessary ingredients to challenge the best; now it is up to him to trust it and incorporate it into his game; it has always been my view that maximum success as a tennis professional requires a 365 day a year commitment and I know he can do it."
The statement noted that Connors plans to step back and take a break with the understanding that he will continue to be part of tennis and that he would like to help develop a new cadre of top level American players to challenge on the world tennis stage. “Trying to develop the next champion is a challenge I would gladly accept,” the statement concluded. The conclusions we make on his work with Roddick will come in the next few months as we assess how he performs without the fiery, East St. Louis bully by his side.