There was a moment, seminal and symbolic rolled into one, in the semi-final between Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi at the Stella Artois tournament in London last weekend when a mis-hit ball flew high into the stands. Up went an arm and the catch was perfectly taken by Brad Gilbert; the Brad Gilbert who was Agassi's coach for eight years and who has just started working with Roddick.
Soon afterwards, Gilbert's old employer had been snared just as deftly by Brad's new paymaster, and the fairy tale floated to its conclusion next day as Roddick won the title, the seventh and most important of his career. He now marches into Wimbledon as fifth seed and one of the strongest favourites, still two full months shy of his 21st birthday and with the steady arm of Gilbert providing guidance.
All this could only happen to Brad Gilbert, the 41-year-old who helped Agassi to six Grand Slams and Olympic gold, and who was honest enough to observe: "The only reason I look like a good coach is that Andre is a phenomenal player." We shall see soon enough whether Gilbert has hitched up with another phenom-enon. The odds are that he has, though Roddick's attempts to get Brad on board did not enjoy the smoothest of starts.
After he had gone out in the first round of the French Open, Roddick and his advisers decided it was time to part company with his long-time coach, Tarik Benhabiles. Brad was designated as a possible replacement, and Andy phoned the Gilbert home in San Rafael, California, to be told by Gilbert's six-year-old daughter that daddy was out. She then hung up.
On his next try, Roddick was luckier. Brad's wife, Kim, took the message. When he returned the call, Gilbert was offered the job and asked when he would like to start. "How about right now?" he said, and caught a plane the next day to rendezvous with Roddick in London in time for the start of the Stella.
Gilbert, who had spent the 16 months since parting from Agassi in February last year renewing acquaintance with Kim and their three children, said: "My instant reaction was that this was a great opportunity. Andy is a great kid, he's American and he's young." That opinion was reinforced as Roddick won the Stella title, joining such as Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Stefan Edberg as holder of the pre-Wimbledon tournament trophy. Little wonder, then, that Gilbert was enthusing after a practice session at the All England Club a few days ago. "The Stella was a great start. He's got a bright future. The sky's the limit. He has an unbelievable opportunity to do some big things, really does. It's a lot of pressure to put on him, but big things are in store.
"He's got an exciting base: he has a humungous serve, great forehand, moves well and he is still only 20, so there is a lot of time for his game to grow. He can improve the serve, the forehand, backhand, movement, everything. He can get fitter.
"I don't think what you are looking at now is anything like what Andy is going to be five years from now."
Roddick has, of course, been touted for so long as America's replacement for Agassi and Pete Sampras that it is a prediction he has become heartily sick of. "I've said all along I'm not hoping to replace Sampras and Agassi," he says. "I'm going to try and do my own thing and hope that works out well. I don't remember a time when I haven't been the next big thing, the next Sampras, the next male Venus."
American tennis nerves have been settled by Roddick's burgeoning form. There will, after all, be a marketing life in the men's game after Agassi. All Andy needs to do now, of course, to soothe those corporate brows is win a Grand Slam.
Already he has twice been a quarter-finalist at the US Open, and in January he reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open after a monumental five-hour contest with Younes El Aynaoui which will not be bettered as the match of the year. Exhausted and carrying a wrist injury, Roddick then lost to Rainer Schuettler with a final against Agassi beckoning.
Despite Wimbledon's grass offering a bigger bounce these days, Roddick's serve will be a massive aid. At the Stella he consistently struck serves above 140 miles an hour, and against Agassi there was one delivery (on which Andre managed to lay a racket) which equalled Greg Rusedski's record of 149mph set six years ago.
"That serve is only going to get bigger," forecast Gilbert. "Can he break 160? Yeah. But those speed guns are sometimes a bit overrated. At Key Biscayne, I don't care how hard you hit it, that gun never registers more than 137. So guns can be misleading, but I can tell you, the guy serves big. You can see the way it blasts off his racket.
"What is amazing is that it doesn't look like he is putting in that much effort. You don't hear him five courts away, he does it pretty nicely. He has what I call a live arm, it comes off his racket pretty big."
You can, however, sometimes hear Roddick five courts away when he is emoting. "I'm pretty fiery out there," he admits. "It's just the way I am on court. I want it and I am emotional. Most of the time it works to my benefit." As the author of a best-selling tennis book, Winning Ugly, a passable description of the playing style which won him 20 tournaments, Gilbert always followed what he called the DRM approach ("Don't Rush Me"), and he won't be rushed into changing anything with Roddick.
"We will work on the head a little bit and when we have some time off then we really can do some work," said Gilbert. "It's not like I can make changes in Andy's game right now because you take away somebody's confidence."
The only thing Gilbert has insisted on is that Roddick gives up the visor he favours. "I'm not a visor fan. That's my one coaching change so far. No visor."Reuse content