Roddick, Gilbert make it work

Brad Gilbert, against the laws of his terminally caffeinated nature, pauses.

It's Wednesday afternoon in his rented house in Wimbledon Village -- five days before the annual bash at the All England Club kicks off. For a moment, anyway, Gilbert seems to be stumped.

The question: What can Andy Roddick, at 21, do better?

After reaching No. 1 in the world and winning the U.S. Open last year, after breaking his own record for fastest serve and winning last week's tournament at Queen's Club, the answer is, apparently, not much. Right?

Uh, no.

"Obviously, where he's at, he needs to improve his volleys a lot," Gilbert says. "You know, he's got to get better at getting in [to net] more. I'd say he has to improve his movement a lot. I'd like to seem him get a lot stronger, too. There's more he can do with his serve, of course and ground strokes. One area he really needs to improve is to get mentally stronger."

Gilbert pauses again.

"Yeah," he says, laughing. "It's a lot."

This is the laugh of a man comfortable in his own skin, comfortable with where his star pupil is headed. They are both happy to be here -- together.

The idea -- in retrospect, painfully obvious -- was suggested by Mary Carillo after Roddick lost to Sargis Sargsian in the first round of last year's French Open.

"I looked directly into the camera during the highlight show and said, 'Brad Gilbert should work with this guy,'" remembered Carillo, an ESPN tennis analyst. "It was 'If you are within the sound of my voice...' kind of stuff.

"Brad says he never heard me do that, but within a few days the family contacted him. At the ITF dinner the next week, Andy's agent told me I'd be happy to know it was happening."

Gone was coach Tarik Benhabiles and, just in time for the grass season, there was Gilbert in his place. It was a fascinating pairing. Gilbert, a cerebral former player who had coached Andre Agassi to six Grand Slam singles titles, was a strong personality. Roddick, a 20-year-old with the biggest serve in the world, wasn't exactly weak. Could they co-exist?

A year later, after Roddick finished 2003 as the No. 1-ranked player in the world and won the U.S. Open, we know that the collaboration has worked quite nicely.

"When you have two really strong personalities, there's either the potential for something great, or for disaster," Roddick said last week at Queen's Club. "Luckily, it's been the first one.

"It's been a lot of fun."

More well-rounded
Heading into this year's Wimbledon tournament, which opens Monday, Roddick is right where he wants to be. Along with No. 1-ranked Roger Federer and Great Britain's favorite son Tim Henman, Roddick is among the those with a realistic chance to win. Last year, Roddick lost to Federer, the eventual champion, in the semifinals.

Even though he needed 24 more minutes and five more games to defeat Sebastian Grosjean in this year's Stella Artois Championship final, Roddick's game is more thoughtful and well-rounded.

"My game is far better than it was this time last year," Roddick said.

His serve -- he blistered three offerings at 153 miles an hour to break his own record last week -- has never been better. His forehand, as always, is a devastating weapon. But it is his two-handed backhand that seems steadier, even on the low bounces that grass produces. At Gilbert's urging, he is coming to net more often and even the stodgy British press has noted that Roddick's volleying technique has improved. Gilbert and trainer Doug Spreen also are trying to get Roddick to move more swiftly (and deftly) along the baseline, where he still makes his living.

Although Roddick's ranking slipped to No. 2 when Federer won the Australian Open, there's no doubt that Roddick is stronger this year. Consider his semifinal match at Queen's Club against Lleyton Hewitt. Roddick was 0-3 for his career against the feisty Aussie but rolled him in straight sets, 7-6 (7), 6-3.

Cynics, of course, will say that this is all part of Roddick's natural development. Count seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Mats Wilander as one of those cynics.

"Andy Roddick, he's gotten a lot of help from Brad Gilbert," Wilander said at Davis Cup in April. "But at the same time, I'm not sure he's doing anything for him anymore. What he taught Roddick didn't take too long -- it's just that somebody told him.

"Brad Gilbert worked with Agassi and he's got a lot of weight to what he says, and obviously, what he says is the right thing and it's great. But I'm not sure he's developing his game anymore. I think he's just keeping him interested in fighting and winning tennis matches."

Just keeping him interested in fighting and winning tennis matches?

Isn't that the goal of a coach?

"God bless him," Gilbert said, when asked about Wilander's comments. "He's a great player, but we're probably different kinds of coaches. From my perspective, anyway, it couldn't be further from the truth. At 21, there's lots more room there, plenty of things to improve on as you get older."

Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, sees the relationship developing.

"You can tell that Roddick and Gilbert are on the same page," McEnroe said. "It's instilled confidence. Brad is telling him, 'What you do is good. You've got a huge serve and forehand and people need to deal with you.'

"Sure, there are some things he can do better, but he's got Andy thinking, 'Hey, my strengths are pretty good.'"

Roddick confirms this.

"It's between the ears," Roddick said. "Tennis is a confidence game and I just seem to be building more and more inside with every day that passes on grass. Overall, I am an all-around better player."

You can see the connection between Roddick and Gilbert during matches. After each point, whether it's an ace down the middle or a botched backhand into the net, Roddick looks for Gilbert in the stands, almost as if seeking approval.

Since this was their first full season together, Gilbert had a large role in planning Roddick's campaign. For starters, there has been less tennis and a more intelligent travel itinerary. There are other, more subtle changes.

Remember the cute little visor Roddick wore last year, the one that made him look like a teenager at the local club? Gilbert -- who called it "the Fred Couples" visor -- has Roddick wearing a baseball cap backward more in style on the professional circuit because it makes him look "unfriendly."

Even if Gilbert isn't behind the scraggly three-week growth that Roddick was displaying at Queen's, the concept seems to be the same. Bjorn Borg always had some facial scruff going and it made him look meaner.

"He did a lot of things we all wish we could do," Roddick said of the man who won five straight Wimbledon crowns, from 1976-80. "I actually forgot my razor when I flew out for the French Open. I might keep it for Wimbledon.

"It's a game-time decision."

Gilbert is laughing through the trans-Atlantic phone lines again. He seems to genuinely enjoy Roddick's company. They talk sports -- European soccer is the new, big thing -- and hang out.

"He's got a lot of youthful exuberance," says Gilbert, sounding a little weary. "He's a great kid."

A kid, it turns out, who still has a lot of room for improvement.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Cynthia Faulkner contributed to this report.