Sunday, January 9, 2011

Söderling 1; Roddick 0

It wasn’t the best tennis I’ve ever seen, not by a stretch. Heck, even as far as outbursts go, The Boor has been far snarkier and insulting in the past so I won’t even make his sarcastic comments to the Chair an issue. But this finals match in Brisbane signaled everything that is currently right with Robin Söderling and wrong with Andy Roddick.

There were as expected a whole lot of big booming serves. But surprisingly the person delivering this was not Roddick, as expected, but Söderling. Even Roddick commented on this about-face during the post-match ceremony. After all, it’s not every day that he finds himself out-served and out-aced by any opponent. But it happened today. And Söderling did not face a single break point.

If I were in the business of betting or prognostication, going into the Australian Open I would invest far more on the Swede than on the American. And I promise that this has nothing to do with the fact that I have long felt that Andy Roddick is completely overrated, a figment of the US’ awareness that its tennis glory days are well in the past and desperately clinging onto the hope that maybe, just maybe, Roddick will pull another Slam out of his ass. He won’t. He can’t. His first and only was a fluke that had everything to do with Brad Gilbert’s excellent scouting plus some seriously unfair (in my opinion) manipulation of weather conditions. And this is probably never going to be allowed to ever happen again.

But the real goal of this entry was not to rag on Roddick. I truly believe that he has the best tennis coach in the world and have said so repeatedly. I also believe that Andy is doing his best and giving it his all. Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that his problem may be more psychological than technical. I don’t think that his loss today to Söderling reflected any problems with his physical ability. I suspect that the problem may be a mental deficit that Roddick may be loath to either acknowledge or repair.

Because the problem with mental deficits is that they come with stigma. I personally find this to be deeply unfair. Of course my position may have everything to do with the fact that I happen to be in the business of correcting mental setbacks. Which may explain why I’ve never understood why it is easier for folks to accept that a player has a technical flaw but more difficult to acknowledge mental impairment. I don’t get why the one is easier for people to swallow while the other gets treated in the same manner with which we confront fatal diseases.

The truth is that mental deficits can be just as easily corrected as physical ones. Both require an honest definition and acceptance of the problem and the launching of a vigorous and dedicated treatment plan. If a player is willing to accept physical therapy to treat her back for example, I see no reason why it cannot be just as easy to accept the fact that she needs repair her head. Why value (or denigrate) one over the other? Stupid, if you ask me. (And your reading this blog is an implicit asking, no?)

I guess my point is that I do think that Roddick is capable of greatness. Yes I honestly do. But in order to achieve his potential, he has to become humble enough to accept that he may be a bit f**ked in the head. The good news is that he does not seem to be majorly so. There is nothing wrong with Roddick that a good sports psychologist can’t fix. Sure it’s going to take some work to get past the emotional immaturity and narcissism. But any well-trained shrink is going to know how to apply techniques of affective mirroring to get to the scared little boy underneath – and then help that boy grow into genuine manhood.

Because in essence that is the difference I saw today between Söderling and Roddick. Robin Söderling has grown into manhood before our very eyes. Now 26, he seems aware that he is danger of peaking if he does not make a significant change. And his change has come in the form of the decision to replace Magnus Norman with the Italian Claudio Pistolesi as his coach.

The Norman-Söderling partnership has been excellent for both. Under Magnus’ guidance, Söderling has gone from being a player with an embarrassing losing record against Federer to being someone whom Federer has been forced to recognize as a genuine threat. But that only took him to # 5 in the rankings. It is clear that by his bold decision to replace Norman with Pistolesi that Norman has every intention of becoming world # 1 in 2011. And he has the mental game as well as the physical fitness to do it too.

Does this mean that I am advocating a change of coach for Roddick? Absolutely not. If you were to grind up the best elements of any existing ATP or WTA coach and place them into a single human being, you would still not approximate the excellence of Larry Stepanki. Which is actually what led me to the inevitable conclusion that Roddick’s problem is mental.

For example, Roddick continues to waste too much mental energy getting into pointless and prolonged arguments with umpires when he becomes aware that he is about to lose. He continues to distract himself with anger instead of channeling his anger into a positive outcome. He becomes at times much too aware of the crowd and the camera and trying to please both instead of remaining focused within. All of these can be repaired by a dedicated program of PST. Perhaps this is what has been lacking in his repertoire.

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