Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Did too much early praise ruin Andy Roddick?

I believe that it has become way too late to undo the damage that has been done to Andy Roddick. Understand that my point is that his current demise was not entirely of his own making. I believe that he may have been victim of a distinctly American tendency to believe that raising an individual’s self-esteem by telling them that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread can only have good results. Of course we now know that this is not only inaccurate but that the result can be narcissism of the highest order.

And to be fair, psychology has to accept a portion of the blame for this self-esteem experiment gone drastically wrong. Back in the late 1960’s – possibly due to acid trips and other experimentally altered states of consciousness – the field of psychology got kind of caught up in advocating the notion of building children’s self-esteem as the lingua franca for success. There’s no describing how wrong we were.

We now know that the result of all this praise is a level of narcissism that probably rivals China’s young emperors. Certainly back in the day when Roddick was signed to Reebok’s junior program, not only did he reportedly advertise himself as a “great tennis player”, but for a while there, it looked as if this might be true. When in 2000, he became the first American in over 40 years (since Butch Buchholz in 1959) to win the Australian Open Junior Championship, the victory possibly influenced his decision to go pro. The SFX Sports Group then promptly offered him his first major endorsement deal.

All of this was predicated on the perception of promise. The problem for Roddick I believe is that this may not have been what was communicated to him. He was hailed not as a promising player but as the next great American talent, the player sure to fill the shoes about to be vacated by Sampras and Agassi. I believe that he experienced a level of pressure to succeed that his peers like Robby Ginepri and Mardy Fish never did. They were the also-rans. Roddick was the star, the focus of everyone’s attention.

But it would be unfair to suggest that this attention has been entirely positive. Along with being told how great he was – remember when Chase built an entire campaign around him looking for his mojo? – Roddick also started regularly hearing how much he actually sucked. And perhaps the result of this combination of endless praise and endless criticism has been a personality that has become so snarling, so petulant, that I wonder if there may be some deep shame there, some uncomfortable awareness of deficit.

Certainly Roddick’s game has always had many flaws. Sure he had a big serve and it was a serious weapon. But in today’s tennis you cannot win matches by relying only on a serve. You need to have a complete game, with several weapons in your arsenal. Roddick never developed a complete game. Sure his fitness has improved some over the years, but his footwork remains horrendous. His decision-making during critical times can be pitiful. He still does not know how to follow the angle of the ball when coming into net, and still ends up getting passed easily, time after time. But most of all, his backhand has simply never improved. In fact looking at him now, I see the same dinky backhand that you often notice among junior tennis players.

On the double-handed backhand, hips and shoulders are supposed to rotate forward in a smooth motion towards the ball. If you look closely at Roddick you will notice that while his shoulders may be moving forward towards the ball, his left hip is often moving backward away from the ball. The result is an awkward reaching for the ball. He holds his arms stiffly as he makes what is supposed to be a backswing but which is really more like a belated mini arc, and then he slaps forward and arms the ball.

Some folks defend the Roddick backhand by pointing out that it is not intended to be a weapon and is only used to set up the forehand. To which my response is: Why can’t setting up the point be done correctly? And when did that silly slapping forehand start being hailed as a weapon anyway? Because weapon it is not.

If I were Roddick’s coach, I would dare to ask him to study videos of the Davide Nalbandian backhand, one of the best in tennis. Notice how Nalby’s hips and shoulders rotate smoothly together in one flowing motion. And notice also how he finishes the swing so that he can practically kiss his left bicep. This backhand is perfection. (Part 2 of 2)

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