Zina Garrison
Won 14 singles titles, 20 doubles titles, and 3 Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles during her twelve-year career; founded the Zina Garrison All Court Tennis Academy, in Houston, in 1993
John Newcombe
Won 73 career titles and was the number one player in the world in 1970 and 1971; runs the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, in New Braunfels

Hollister: Back in 2003 Roddick was the number one player in the world. He’d won his first Slam, with the U.S. Open. And by all accounts, it looked as if this was the beginning of a brilliant career. But then he stumbled, falling to twelfth in the world at one point and leaving us to ask, What’s happened to our Next Big Thing? Can his career be saved?

Garrison: Well, I don’t really see it in terms of being saved, because athletes always go through readjustments in their careers. But he’s hungry again. I think he can revitalize and revamp.

Newcombe: It’s not like he doesn’t have a career. He has some excellent ingredients—his forehand and his serve. But to me, Andy’s game hasn’t progressed as much in the past four to five years. He hasn’t improved the weak parts of his game, which are mainly his backhand and his volleys. And because they haven’t improved, the players on the circuit have found ways to get to his, weaknesses, and that’s what’s been killing him. That’s why he’s been having problems staying in the top one, two, or three in the world.

Hollister: What’s to blame for the lack of improvement? Dedication on Roddick’s part? Ill-advised coaching changes? He’s gone through a few coaches now, most notably Brad Gilbert.

Newcombe: I can’t answer that question because I haven’t been privy to what goes on in Andy’s camp, but there are two things that have to happen to improve weaknesses: One, you have to have the correct coaching. And two, the person who’s got the weaknesses has to dedicate himself to improving them.

Hollister: Is the great Jimmy Connors the coach who’ll finally help right this course?

Garrison: I think he already has. He definitely understands about being on top and being able to put everything together, from sponsors to practices.

Newcombe: It’s an interesting question. This is the first coaching job that Jimmy has taken on, so we don’t know whether, one, Jimmy is a good coach, and two, whether Andy will remain receptive to what Jimmy’s saying.

Hollister: Even if Roddick improves—which, in all fairness, he seems to be doing, given his appearance in the finals of last year’s U.S. Open and the fact that he finished the season ranked sixth in the world—is there really any getting by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal these days?

Newcombe: He’s going to have a bit of a problem becoming number one, because Federer, the person who is number one at the moment, may be the best player of all time. So that’s a pretty high bar. And Nadal, who’s number two, is an excellent player too. Look, I think if Andy made a 20 percent improvement on his backhand, his volleys, and his overall physical conditioning, there’s no reason why he couldn’t be right up there, because he has tremendous strengths.

Garrison: Yes, and he’s already been reprioritizing. I think the thing is not believing the hype and hanging in there.

Hollister: Which has to be hard when you’re under the gun not only to win but also to be the next torchbearer for American tennis.

Garrison: That is a lot of pressure. Americans were used to having so many people in the top ten for some time, and now the Europeans have taken over—and they’re in volume, so naturally you’re going to have more people with the chance to be number one.

Newcombe: There was an era in the nineties when the U.S. had some fantastic players. Pete Sampras was number one for six years, and then you had Andre Agassi. And Jim Courier and Michael Chang weren’t too bad, so there was a pretty good group of players there for about thirteen years. You get used to that, and then someone comes up from another country and takes over. To me, most Americans are just really fascinated by Federer’s game. It’s a joy to behold.

Hollister: I read somewhere that in 1974 there were something like 34 million Americans playing tennis. By 2005 that number had dropped to 11 million. It seems that if this trend continues, we’re not going to produce the best talent in the world.

Garrison: It’s a tough period, because kids have more opportunities to do a lot of different things. And you have mothers and fathers working two jobs, when you used to have one that could actually take the kids to tennis practice. I know when I was growing up, I was able to ride the bus to practice. Now you’re kind of afraid to put your kid on the bus. So it’s little stuff like that. But I think that we just have to keep pushing for our communities to offer tennis lessons and give kids the opportunity to at least try.

Newcombe: You’ve got to get out there and sell the sport. And you have to have the facilities—facilities have to be available for the average person to go out and participate without it costing a heck of a lot of money. The other thing I’ve noticed is that in the eighties and nineties a lot of young women seemed to not be playing tennis, but now they are taking it up again. And if the mothers—young mothers—are playing, you can bet that their children will play too. That has a real impact on the sport.

Garrison: A small country like Belgium can have a great program and focus on a couple of kids. Here, there could be a whole group of kids in the middle of the country and we wouldn’t ever know about them if they don’t come out.

Hollister: It can’t hurt, though, to have a superstar, someone—like Roddick—who does as well on the court as he does, say, in the tabloids. Someone who brings a certain sexiness to the game.

Garrison: Well, sure, but tennis is one of those sports that’s always been sexy. It’s not like you have had to make it that way. Someone explained it to me a long time ago: The women wear the little short skirts and play and jump, and the guys wear the little short shorts. You don’t really have to sell it—it’s there.

Hollister: So a new season begins this month. Short shorts aside, Roddick now gets a chance to make good on all that potential he showed back in 2003. What kind of performance does he need to pull off a win in the year’s first Slam?

Newcombe: The Australian is a tough one, because it’s the first major tournament of the year and you’re never sure what the players have been doing in their off period over Christmas. I like to watch the first week to see who’s in the best shape. It can get pretty hot down there, so if you’re not in shape, there’s no chance you’ll win the tournament. I’d be a fool to say Federer wasn’t going to win, but if something happens to him, Nadal is very tough to beat. Roddick showed that he can play well there. He hasn’t managed to get to the final, but we’ll see how he does. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t have a good year. The time is now for him to do his talent justice.