Connors on Roddick

I’m back from Beijing, which was amazing -- and amazingly busy. Blogging, unfortunately, wasn't an option. I'm at the Big Apple covering the U.S. Open, so I intend to get back on track and post more frequently.

Since Andy Roddick takes the court tonight against Fabrice Santoro, I thought I’d start first by linking to my story on him that ran Monday in USA Today and then posting the nearly unabridged version of my phone interview with Jimmy Connors a few weeks ago.



It took 18 months of prodding to arrange an interview with the eight-time major winner, and he had some insightful things to say about his former mentee that didn't make it into the story. And speaking of Roddick, it has been reported that he will no longer be working with his brother, John, and is being coached temporarily by U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe while he looks for a longer-term solution.

Herewith is the interview. Connors spoke from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Connors I’m in Santa Barbara, just getting up and getting going here. I got a pack of dogs that are standing by the door waiting to go for their morning walk, so it’s a good morning here.
Interviewer What kind of dogs?
Connors I got two goldens, I’ve got a Schnauser, I’ve got a husky, and I’ve got a half German Shepherd, half wolf.
Interviewer Wow, okay. My Labrador’s already been out.
Connors You’re up early, you’re up and going. What’s up?
Interviewer Let me ask you first, how much contact are you in with Andy now? Do you speak, text, or have you more sort of gone your own ways at this point?
Connors I think at this point we’ve kind of gone our own ways.
Interviewer It’s five years now since Andy captured the US Open, and there’s going to be a lot of chatter about it heading into New York. I’m wondering if you think the perception is unfair that he should’ve won more majors by now.
Connors Well, it certainly hasn’t been without chance. So, the end result is that’s really all you can do, is put yourself in the position to have the opportunity to win. He certainly has done that. He’s been in the finals of Wimbledon twice, and the finals of the US Open, and his opportunities have certainly been there. The end result is that’s all you can really do, is put yourself in that opportunity. And then once you get in there, if you look at him, he’s lost to Federer in every final. I guess you can look at it one way. I actually look at it two ways. If it wasn’t for Andy, Federer wouldn’t have so many Grand Slams, but if it wasn’t for Federer, Andy’d have three or four more Grand Slams.

So it’s a catch-22, but it certainly hasn’t been without opportunity. He was up, what was it in Wimbledon? A set and a break at one time, and then in the US Open a couple years ago, it was one set all, he had love-40 at 3-all, so the opportunities have been there, which should certainly give him the confidence to know that he can do it.
Interviewer Let’s face it, Jimmy. On the flipside, Andy’s had a hall of fame career. If you compare him to someone like Michael Chang, who was just inducted, who won one major, played in multiple Slam finals, reached a ranking of #2 and one Davis Cup, I mean Andy’s career is nothing to sneeze at. If you look at other people that have been in the hall of fame, he’s had a hall of fame career already.
Connors Yeah, but I guess the final question is, which has to be asked by him, is he satisfied with it? Because he’s the one that has to live with it, just like Chang does and just like McEnroe does and Borg does and Federer, just like all the guys who play, because eventually it all comes to an end. So you’ve got to look back and say, “Look, I had opportunities. Did I take full advantage of them?” And what goes through your mind.

Because once it comes to an end, you’re sitting around, talking, and the first question that comes out, “Well, you should’ve won this,” and when you’re sitting around at 55 years old you can’t say, “Well, let me go suit up again and go try it again.” So with his results and the way he’s played and the amount of tournaments that he’s won and his performance certainly is a hall of fame career.

But as all athletes are, and from being around Andy, I know he’d feel the same way, you know, it ain’t good enough yet. And if it was, then I don’t think that would be right.
Interviewer Was it a burden in any way to have won the Open and reached #1 at 21 for Andy? I think you were also 21 when you won your first major and reached #1, if I’m not mistaken.
Connors Isn’t that what you play for?
Interviewer Right.
Connors That’s the way I always looked at it. You’re in it, if you’re in it for the right reason, and of course times have changed now. You have to look back at playing 35 years ago, and then playing today. Back playing 35 years ago, you only played or one reason, and that was to be number one. If you’re in it for the right reason, which is to win and to be number one, that’s what you play for.

And then, of course, after that comes the acceptance of being number one and living up to that and playing like that time after time, but also that is a driving force in your work ethic, it should be, because then you become the guy that everybody’s shooting for.
Interviewer Let’s talk about work ethic, Jimmy. We know how hard you worked, and you were renowned for practicing a very few hours, but incredibly intensely. What about Andy? Was he as hard a worker as we perceived behind the scenes?
Connors Yes. That’s one thing that really drew me to him, was the way he went about his work ethic. And once he went out there on the court, what he did, how he went about it, the effort he put into it. Even I, from a tennis perspective, I mean you can only give as much as you can give on a daily basis.

And what he gave day in and day out was the maximum of what he had to give that day. As a player, you can’t ask yourself to do any more than that, and as somebody who was trying to help him become a better player, that was a pleasure to see.
Interviewer Did you see his match against Tipsaravic at Wimbledon?
Connors I didn’t see it all, I saw some of it.
Interviewer Okay. After that match, he talked quite openly of really his burning, I would almost say aching desire to win another major, and almost sort of wanting it so much, he said it made him squeeze too tight at times. Did you ever doubt his burning desire to succeed?
Connors No. No, no. That was evident every day, that winning was… Let me explain it this way: A lot of guys, Doug, I think, in today’s times, look at their success by their bank balance. Andy never did that. He wanted his success on the court. Winning was what he wanted to do more than anything. And I can see, you know, what he says sometimes, he’s wound too tight, I think he hit the nail right on the head there sometimes.
Interviewer Do you think it’s been painful for him not to have come through one of those big majors?
Connors I don’t know, it’d be tough for me to answer that question because he’s the one that has to give you that answer, how painful it is. Everybody takes their wins and their losses and treats them differently. I think it’s the way you sometimes treat your wins that makes you want to work harder, not that that was ever in question with him.

But losses, you know something has to be done. When you win, you think you’ve got it, and once you think you’ve got this game, then you’re done.
Interviewer Jimmy, in the time you worked with Andy, what do you think improved most in his game?
Connors As I always said, you’re not looking for major surgery with that. He was a US Open champion, and the number one player in the world. So there wasn’t major surgery on his game or anything, it was just a tweak here and a tweak there. Mostly, an aggressiveness was something we were working on, trying to make him move, not make him, but get him to move forward a little bit more, because he has two of the biggest weapons ever in the game of tennis.

He’s got a huge forehand, and probably the biggest server that’s ever been in the game. So, to have those two weapons, and to use them to his advantage to move forward and to take advantage of that was something that we were working on.
Interviewer What was most frustrating or difficult for you in Andy’s game? Maybe the same thing you were just talking about, the aggressiveness or stepping in. But was there anything that stuck out?
Connors No, it wasn’t difficult for me or hard for me. It was just -- it’s all a mindset. To change a mindset, I guess sometimes is, that you’ve had for such a long time, is a hard thing to do, not from my standpoint, but also from the player’s standpoint.
Interviewer His tendency to linger back a bit and play counterpunching tennis?
Connors Maybe sometimes a little bit too much. But you go back to anybody who’s ever played. When you think you have to change something to maybe help your game go to a different level, it’s a difficult thing to do. It’s easy to do in practice, it’s difficult to do when you get into match competition. But when you get into the matches, that’s when you have to trust it, and you have to say, “I know this is for the best, I know it’s going to make me a better player. I’m willing to take the pain for a short period of time for a long-term gain.” If you can do that, then it just makes your game even that much better.
Interviewer Many people will cite his backhand as a weakness, and it clearly improved under your watch, but it could still be a liability. There were a couple of backhand returns on break point in the Tipsaravic match that were quite glaring. Is there anything else he can do, wholesale changes? Do you leave the circuit for four months and completely retool your backhand, anything like that, anything that radical?
Connors No, I don’t think so. I think he has all the tools, he has them all, there’s no doubt about that. He’s proven that time and time again. If he hasn’t proven it with the amount of tournaments he’s won and his success in Grand Slams, getting to the finals and his performance in Grand Slams, then I don’t know what else he can do. But I think for him to trust the tools that he has, and to go out and be willing to put that into the actual match play time after time after time, I think that’s really the only thing he has to do.
Interviewer Along the same lines, Jimmy, at almost 26, what do you think Andy should do as he faces the second half of his career?
Connors That’s a hell of a question. I don’t know. Since I’m not around, and not as close to it as I was… Everybody’s career and the way they treat it is different, Doug, and I’m not using this as a scapegoat, but the amount he plays, the way he treats his off-weeks, everybody’s different. And if you have success in a couple tournaments, understand that you’ve had success, and then maybe give yourself a break so that you can heal, and be ready to play, to go out, to really push it and to have that success day in and day out.

But everybody’s different. I can only look back and say for myself what I did, and I hate talking about myself, because I’m done, you know? [laughs] I’ve done my thing, and I’m one of those guys that, if you sit down and you say, “Well, what am I supposed to do, suit up again and go out?” I can’t do that.

Everybody has to find their own little niche and what makes them perform at that highest level day in and day out every time you walk out there, because really, in reality, that’s what’s expected of you. What does he need to do? I was never involved in his schedule, and making a schedule as far as his tournaments and things like that. That was all done from, I guess his standpoint.
Interviewer Do you think it’s a good decision to skip Beijing and prepare for New York? Is that a good strategy? Because he’s not playing the Olympics.
Connors Well, that’s a personal decision. I think he did play the Olympics four years ago, didn’t he?
Interviewer He did, yes, but he’s talked about, he thinks it’s going to give him a better shot in New York if he doesn’t fly to China and come back, because it’s only a week in between the Olympic tournament and the US Open. So he’s chosen to do that this summer, which is… It’s not the norm. Most of the top players are going to Beijing.
Connors I guess you’ve got to look… Obviously, he’s putting his personal thoughts on trying to win the Grand Slam, which goes to show how important winning another Grand Slam is to him.
Interviewer Do you think the Open is his best chance to win another major?
Connors I think grass is certainly, with the serve and the kind of game that he has, I think grass is a tremendous opportunity. But also, the US Open, just like you said, everything that’s around the Open, the atmosphere and the people and the crowd and him being an American, and just the way they should get and push and be behind him, should certainly help raise his game to another level.

Also, no matter what you do in a situation like this, there’s going to be criticism. He’s not playing in the Olympics, “He should play the Olympics,” but then if something happens and he doesn’t do well in the Open, “Well, he played the Olympics and there was too much travel and there was too much tennis, and it was too long away.”

There’s a catch-22 that you’re stuck in between here. I guess the final thought is, that comes from you and what’s best from the standpoint of the player to do what really he wants to do. And when you get talking about things like that, I’m the wrong guy to talk about that, because I didn’t do any of that. I did what was good for me trying to do what was important to me. That’s selfish. You want to call me selfish? I am selfish, I was, I am, I will always be selfish when it comes to tennis.
Interviewer Right.
Connors You know, but to be the best, you have to be.
Interviewer In terms of Andy’s season, he’s had a pretty decent season until the shoulder injury. He beat the top three players. Do you think he can get near the top again, or do you think he’s going to be in that middle of the top ten for the foreseeable future?
Connors Well, he certainly had a very good run for a couple weeks in, what was it, March and April?
Interviewer Yeah, Dubai, and in Miami or Indian Wells, where he beat Federer,
Connors Right. So, certainly his game is there, but injuring his shoulder and having to take that kind of time off, you have to remember that if you take three months off, you’re really losing six months because it’s the three months you took, and the three months everybody else went ahead. That’s a difficult spot, especially in the middle of a year, to have that happen.

But by not playing the French and having a difficult time at Wimbledon, the preparation during the summer for the US Open might just be what he needs.
Interviewer Jimmy, did you enjoy your time as a coach, and would you ever consider coaching anyone else?
Connors Yeah. I’m not retired. You know, I think something that needs to… I’ve got some corporate things coming up in the next couple weeks leading up to and during the US Open and things. So I was never really in retirement when I went with Andy, and I’m not back in retirement now that I’m not with him. Is it something that I might do? Yeah. I’ve had some interest from some other players to do a few things, and it’s something I’m thinking about. I’ve gotten back into another business now, which takes up a bit of my time. But yeah, tennis has always been my whole life, and it’s something I’ve done since two or three years old. You can look at it and say, “Is what I have to offer and my knowledge of the game…?”

Because it is more than just hitting tennis balls. I guess you can go out to any public park and find guys that can hit tennis balls. But if you think that what I have to offer can be of any assistance, great. If not, then great.

 

What did you think of this article?




Trackbacks
  • No trackbacks exist for this post.
Comments

  • 9/3/2008 9:37 PM Contessa ChiChi wrote:
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview and gained more insight about Andy's mind set. Thanks for a good read.
    Reply to this
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.

 Name

 Email (will not be published)

Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.