Perhaps it is easier to sit at a crossroads and actually know it with tennis than with life in general. The ranking is rising or falling; a player is riding the wave of another major-tournament championship or facing the possibility of a debilitating chronic injury. In Andy Roddick's case, the diverging paths to the future seemed pretty clear in late 2008.
"You're either moving forward or you're moving backward," he said. "And the last six months of last year, I felt I was maybe moving the wrong way. I had dealt with some injuries, and then you start dealing with self-belief, then you come back and take it on the chin a couple of times . . . "
He was 26. (He turns 27 today.) He had won a major tournament, the 2003 U.S. Open, at 21, and months later would attain - briefly - the world's No. 1 ranking. But since then, despite remaining a constant presence among the sport's top 10, his bridge to greater glory and status essentially was washed away in the Rodger Federer-Rafael Nadal storm of brilliance.
In November, Roddick decided, "I'm going to be out here. I'm going to be playing tennis, so it was a matter of, 'What avenues haven't I explored?' One was fitness. Another was nutrition."
He hired as coach Larry Stefanki, whose previous clients included John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman and Fernando Gonzalez, four of whom had achieved career-high rankings - Rios and Kafelnikov at No. 1, Henman at No. 4, Gonzalez at No. 5 - under Stefanki.
Stefanki declared that Roddick was "too big to win best-of-fives," that "the guys ahead of him moved better, were fitter, more flexible."
Working with former tour trainer Doug Spreen, Roddick dropped from 210 pounds to 195 and watched the magic work: His virtuoso performances on Wimbledon's final weekend, a semifinal upset of the great British hope Andy Murray and a riveting 16-14 fifth-set loss to Federer in the final, widely were proclaimed to be the best tennis of his career. Suddenly, he not only was a contender again but was somehow beloved.
"It's different," Roddick said. "You know, I feel I've been a pretty good tennis player throughout my career, and I've been on the defensive about that. I've been portrayed as everything. From the eager young guy, they tried to turn me into Zac Efron, then a punk, then a has-been, then the guy in the middle who blends in. Then, after Wimbledon, I'm Andy Everyguy. The meat-and-potatoes of who I am hasn't changed much."
In fact, of the world's top seven players, Roddick - at No. 5 - is the only one to have fewer than two titles in 2009. (He won the Memphis tournament in February.) "I'm having trouble," he said, "separating Wimbledon from the rest of the year. I feel like I did a lot of things from January forward. But it's obviously a gradual transition. It's not immediate. It changes daily."
Stefanki said he told Roddick, in their first conversation, "I'm not a genie. It's not like I'm the Shell Answer Man and suddenly everything is perfect." But Stefanki felt he "understood the beast; I knew his personality" and was convinced that a more streamlined Roddick could thrive - without diminishing Roddick's frighteningly powerful serve.
"He's the best server in the game," Stefanki said. "We worked on being more aggressive, the backhand down the line, return of serve. He's not that technically minded, but balance, footwork, taking the ball early" were all achievable aspects with improved fitness.
"It all started with movement for me," Roddick said. "And once the confidence is there, it makes the decision-making process a lot easier." Repeatedly, Stefanki preached, "Next point, next point; you don't want that baggage of what just happened. Andy's not scared to lose, but 'relax' is not a word that's easy for Andy. But 'Let it go; it's only one point.' "
A year ago, Roddick said, "I didn't understand where I was in the scheme of things. I think it's a normal evolution, and I don't think it's a stretch that any 26-year-old is more mature than when they were 19. I've just had an audience."