Monday, January 26, 2009

Aussie Open a true fitness challenge for world's top players


In the not-so-distant past, there have been no paucity of questions concerning Andy Roddick's fitness and — thus — dedication to his sport of tennis.

His weight was an issue, there was no way you'd see anything close to a six- or two-pack when he lifted up his shirt to wipe the perspiration off his face, and he became weaker during the final sets of long matches.

But on a blistering-hot Tuesday in Melbourne, Roddick put all that talk to rest and showed off his new — and very improved — fitness level. Unfortunately for viewers like myself anticipating a hotly contested four- or five-set quarterfinal match, the tournament's defending champion Novak Djokovic must have eaten a few too many palacinkes and not spent enough time training.

Because after winning an extremely entertaining first set under the piercing afternoon sun — as a former visitor to Australia, I'd recommend sun screen as essential item No. 1 — in a tiebreak, Djokovic was never the same.

He took an allowed respite from the action during the second set, which has to be one of tennis' dumbest rules since Roddick was clearly ready to continue playing. But it didn't matter. The young Serb simply didn't have it the rest of the match.

After Roddick won the second set 6-4, he coasted through a 6-2 third set and was up 2-1 in the fourth when Djokovic called it quits. It must have been difficult for last year's champ to throw in the towel, but I don't blame him. Only a Roddick collapse — literally or figuratively — would have allowed Djokovic back in the match.

So because of his superb play, but even more so his superior endurance, Roddick is one win away from his fourth grand-slam final. And even if he meets Roger Federer, like expected, don't rule him out.

When a player gets better as a match progresses, even under brutal conditions, he's dangerous. It means losing an early set — or two — won't get him down, won't lower his level of play. That's where Roddick is right now, and he knows it.

"I worked pretty hard during the offseason, and that was for days like today," Roddick said. "I was pretty disciplined. I was at the track every morning at 8 (a.m.)."

Roddick went on to say that he practiced three hours each day and watched his diet. Add up those routines, and you've got a 26-year-old man in arguably the best tennis-playing shape of his career.

"I felt all right," Roddick said after the match. "To be honest, when I listened to the forecast they were forecasting death for a lot of people because of the heat."

Djokovic, luckily, didn't suffer any symptoms other than having to give up. Not that it will make the supremely talented 21-year-old feel better, but that isn't so uncommon Down Under. It's not exactly fair, but the year's first grand-slam tournament is by far the most grueling.

Just as players are getting themselves into tennis shape, just as they're getting focused on the year ahead, they must play in the midst of the Australian summer — often times under the brightest, baddest sun in the world.

While the real temperature inside Rod Laver Arena was in the low- to mid-90s during the match, the feel-like temperature, according to ESPN2's coverage, was 140 degrees. I can't even imagine playing two sets, let alone five, under those conditions.

Because of the heat, players having to withdrawal isn't so uncommon. And there are also more injuries — possibly due to the sweltering conditions. Just Monday, three competitors had to cut short their Round of 16 matches — two sustained wrist injuries and another had what was determined food poisoning.

Maybe they were completely isolated from the heat. After all, it wasn't quite as steamy Monday. But there's something in the water Down Under that makes surviving several rounds of the Aussie Open, not to mention the great players one faces, the most difficult task in tennis.

Sure, the French Open isn't kind to poor clay-court players. And, yep, if you're no good on grass, you won't be in the running at Wimbledon. But the year's first major isn't just about the surface. It's about the heat pounding Melbourne's hard courts, turning a seemingly indomitable first-set Djokovic into an "it's time to quit" fourth-set Djokovic.

Sadly, Tuesday wasn't the first time he's cut a grand-slam match short. He went out early against Rafael Nadal during the 2006 French Open — with the way Nadal plays on clay, can you blame him? — and he also retired early against the Spaniard during the '07 Wimbledon tournament.

But the quarterfinal result was as much about Roddick's stamina as Djokovic's lack thereof. So give credit to Roddick. The man is in great shape.

And — on a light note — even if that doesn't mean his second career major title, it should at lest impress his soon-to-be wife, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue model Brooklyn Decker.


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