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USA TODAY: With Coaches, Blake, Roddick Take Different Paths To Success

Thursday, March 12, 2009

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 12: James Blake fields questions from the media at a press conference during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 12, 2009 in Indian Wells, California. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

By Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY

Since turning pro within a year of each other nearly a decade ago, Andy Roddick and James Blake have become friends and travel partners, shared Davis Cup duties and carried American hopes on their backs.

But the best male players of the current generation have taken a radically different approach when it comes to the voice in their ears.

Since joining the circuit in 2000, the cannon-serving, forthright Roddick has engaged no less than seven coaches on a part- or full-time basis. Blake, who spent two years at Harvard before jumping to the pros in 1999, has had one.

"I've always said about tennis, it's a very individual sport," 13th-ranked Blake said in a conference call last month. "What works for one will never work for another."

Roddick and Blake will be vying for the BNP Paribas Open title at Indian Wells, Calif., during the next 10 days

"I don't think it was a conscious decision or anything I set out at 18 years old" to have so many different voices over the course of the career, Roddick says. "I don't think it's something that you can generalize."

Roddick began his 2009 campaign with new coach Larry Stefanki, a former pro and veteran coach who has worked with a number of top players. Stefanki replaced Jimmy Connors, who Roddick parted ways with last spring.

Blake is in Indian Wells with Brian Barker, the only coach he has had since age 11.

Blake is much more the exception than the rule. Most players switch coaches throughout their playing days as priorities change and relationships become stale. Compensation, travel and logistics also play a role.

Finding the right mix can be tricky, as Roger Federer learned last week. The Swiss No. 2 could not come to terms with former pro and ESPN commentator Darren Cahill after inviting him for a trial run to his second home in Dubai last week. Cahill, with two young children, didn't want to travel as much as Federer required.

Both Americans say there are pros and cons to their different approaches.

"For me, I would not be nearly as successful with someone that didn't know me as a person, and know my strengths and weaknesses on the court," says Blake, who at 29 has finished in the top 10 two of the last three years.

Roddick joked that mimicking Blake would "require me finding a coach that could put up with me for nine years."

Blake praised Barker for knowing the nuances of his game and for being as much friend as mentor, as when he supported Blake through his comeback in 2004 following a broken neck, the death of his father and a vision-blurring disease.

"I credit him with making me the best player I can possibly be, and absolutely maximizing my potential," says Blake, adding that "we are going to be friends for life, that's not even a question."

"One of the things that makes our bond strong is that there have been so many ups and downs," Barker says.

Former No. 1 Roddick, 26, likes to pick the brain of some of game's best minds, and it has often paid quick dividends.

He rode his early association with Brad Gilbert in 2003 by storming through the summer hardcourt swing and winning the U.S. Open. He has also started strong with Stefanki, reaching the Australian Open semifinals and winning last month's indoor tournament at Memphis.

"There's been a couple of times in my career where it's really jump-started my playing just by having a fresh voice," Roddick says.

The downside is the getting-to-know-you process, along with periods of transition.

"Obviously, continuity is a good thing, and there have certainly been times where I've been without someone or in transition and you're just kind of trying to make due," Roddick said.

With 37 titles and a Davis Cup championship between them, the two Americans must be doing something right, even if they have chosen opposing coaching paths.

"If he had the same coach the whole time he wouldn't be as good as he is, said Blake of Roddick. "If I had changed coaches, the way he has, I wouldn't be as good."

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