For someone who won only a single Grand Slam tournament, Andy Roddick has always seemed to command an unreasonably large slice of attention in the world of tennis. Certainly, part of that is because I live in his home country, an America starved for tennis success after being spoiled by decades of dominance. Consequently, the national fan base cleaves to its one star, grasping helplessly at the hem of his increasingly tattered garment.
I was never really a fan of Roddick’s cocky demeanor, over-reliance on his serve, and relative mediocrity in a time of titans. Playing in the shadow of the near-invincible Roger Federer, and then effectively replaced when the almost equally dominant Rafael Nadal emerged as Federer’s true rival, it’s reasonable to say that his impact on the sport of tennis was minimal.
But as I look back on his career, I find something genuinely reassuring and edifying. Though it was easy to make him the poster child of unprecedented American ineptitude, people somehow forgot that he was the one American of his generation who actually won something. Carrying the weight of a nation’s expectations, he persevered and never fell apart. He had a big decline in the middle part of his career, and the lack of self-confidence was visible at times, but you can’t really argue that he sabotaged himself somehow, like a Marat Safin, or that he didn’t want it badly enough. He simply played as well as he could, which unfortunately wasn’t good enough to win Slams in this era.
I find his efforts to be particularly ennobling in light of the insatiable American appetite for winning that has led to the lionizing of athletes like Michael “Bong Hit” Phelps and Lance “Dickweak,” athletes defined by inordinate success based largely on innate gifts that overcame questionable work ethic, in the case of Phelps, and a poisonous “win at all costs” attitude, in the case of Armstrong. If not for the narcissism in our culture born of sitting on the shoulders of the rest of the world, there would be fewer news articles asking why Roddick had “underachieved,” and more articles celebrating how good he actually was.
Maybe Roddick himself got too caught up in the failures and disappointment to realize how proud he should have been of himself that he got as far as he did.
The saving grace was perhaps his outsize personality (at least relatively speaking in the bland world of pro tennis). He was a favorite subject at press conferences, and seemed to delight in comparing the intellect of a referee or a chair umpire to that of an 8-year-old. Most enjoyable for me was his career as a funny and occasionally hapless pitchman for American Express. Remember Roddick vs. Pong, Roddick buying a towel, and Roddick forced to buy a second seat on the plane because massive trophies kept falling from the overhead cabin and onto his gourd? Even better was the spin-off commercial (and I can’t find it online) where the second seat is empty because he ended up losing at the tournament. I respected the good humor it took to make a commercial where he’s on the receiving end of a joke about losing.
Federer called Roddick“a great man.” I'm inclined to think that he gave the sport everything he had, and the sport is in his debt. Though the 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer is a universally admired match, my favorite Slam final will always be the Roddick-Federer five-setter at Wimbledon 2009. I said it before (on a comment on my brother’s blog post): "I would love to see a Federer-Roddick final with Roddick bringing his best game ever to bear. Granted, he would still lose, but I'd like to see him press Roger to the limit just once in his life." And that’s exactly what I got.
You could say that Federer was already in decline by this time, or that this was Roddick’s last gasp of greatness, and that this somehow diminishes the meaning or quality of this match. But in the end, the tournament has to be played every year, and a player can only beat the guys who show up. Roddick showed up, and he forced Federer to show what a great player he really was.
It took a truly gutsy effort by Federer to win. As for Roddick, everything that was good about his game was on display, and mistakes were minimal. It was the greatest match I’ve ever seen him play, and I think that to perform at one’s very best level is a worthy goal in itself. Roddick’s landmark achievement is his U.S. Open championship in 2003, but I’ll always remember him for this match.
This was as close as Roddick would ever come to winning another Slam or beating his nemesis when it counted, and most viewers would agree that it could have gone Roddick’s way. Afterward, you could kind of see it in Roddick’s eyes – he knew that it was over, that he would never get this chance again. But in my mind, he solidified his signature role in the tennis world – he stood for persistence and resilience in the face of certain defeat. Americans need to be reminded of this virtue from childhood. It’s certainly more important than the Pledge of Allegiance, and will serve you better throughout your life.
So a great player retires without achieving all he hoped for, but let’s not get misty-eyed. At the end of the day, Roddick still goes home to millions of dollars, a beautiful wife, and the knowledge that at least for a few weeks, he was the world’s best player. But if you must make idols of the millionaires you see on TV, at least pick the Roddicks of the world, people who have visibly agonized over the weight of their fame and the sting of falling short of not just their own expectations but ours as well.
So how long will this dead man keep walking at Flushing Meadows? Since his next match is against someone named Fabio Fognini (and since he’s already up two sets as of this writing), I’m going to say that Roddick will prevail and reach the fourth round, and I’ll even give him the victory in a possible meeting with Juan Martin del Potro, setting up a likely (and by that, I mean, of course, “unlikely”) quarterfinals encounter with Novak Djokovic, who would surely be the end of the line for Andy Roddick, falling against the guy who once jeered him in front of his home crowd after beating him at this very tournament.
But you would request a dream scenario, wouldn’t you? Let’s say Djokovic keeps guessing wrong on Roddick’s serve, or maybe he comes down with a case of bird flu, SARS, or even anthrax. That and a few lucky breaks and favorable calls, and who knows, maybe Roddick pulls out the win and avenges the 2008 U.S. Open loss, the recent London Olympics loss, et al. Once in the semis, I think Roddick could very well handle a David Ferrer or a John Isner (and now we reach deep into the well of fantasy to consider Isner advancing to a semifinal), setting up the most worthy exit Roddick could have from the game, an impossible final “final” against Roger Federer, his true contemporary, and seemingly the only person to consistently go out of his way to label Roddick a real rival, even as Roddick himself denied the validity of such a lofty status.
One last chance to throw everything onto the court.
And who wins? Well, if Roddick is ultimately to have any kind of legacy, it won’t be about winning or losing, will it?