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Tennis

Roddick in a different era, WTA sans Serena, more tennis myths

It's a quiet week on the tennis front, the perfect time to tear down a few myths:

It's a shame Andy Roddick had to contend with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He was born into the wrong era.

Really? Which would have been the right era?

If we had to isolate Roddick's prime years, it would be from 2003, when he won the U.S. Open (his only major) through 2009, when he went to 16-14 in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final against Federer. Using that seven-year prime as a guideline, let's take Roddick back in time.

Born 10 Years Earlier: This would put his prime in the 1993-99 slot. He'd definitely like the setup at Wimbledon, his favorite tournament. The courts were faster then, and the game was almost exclusively ruled by big servers. The catch: They were serve-and-volley players, and Roddick has always stayed back on the baseline.

Chances are if Roddick had been born 10 years earlier, he'd have come in routinely behind his massive first serves. But this was the prime of Pete Sampras, who won 11 majors between 1993-99 and wouldn't have lost to a player of Roddick's caliber in any of them. Baseline genius Andre Agassi won four more. And if we're talking about the U.S. Open, those seven titles were divided among Sampras (3), Agassi (2) and Patrick Rafter (2), a far superior all-court player to Roddick. Can't see him winning that tournament even once during this period.

Born 20 Years Earlier: Now we're right in the wheelhouse of Boris Becker, and I don't think anyone would put Roddick's game in his class. Becker won four majors between 1983 and '89, Mats Wilander won six and Ivan Lendl won seven. Not to mention the greatness of Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe, who had his best year (82-3) in 1984.

Born 30 Years Earlier: Now we've probably got a long-haired Roddick, and with all that athleticism, he's definitely swarming the net. But would it really matter, in the era of Bjorn Borg (eight majors between 1973-79), Jimmy Connors (five), John Newcombe, Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase? Please. Roddick would be just another face in the crowd.

Born 40 Years Earlier: Here we'd find Roddick trying to determine whether it's worthwhile to turn pro, and most likely doing so. In any case, we're talking about 1963-69, a golden era featuring the vintage Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, Arthur Ashe ... the list goes on. This was an age of true artistry, a word never associated with Roddick's style.

The facts are that Roddick would have been hard-pressed to win more than a single major in any era, even the Roaring Twenties of Big Bill Tilden, and that he's fortunate, in a way, to have been the only American of consequence for so many years. When Sampras and Agassi left the game, it ended a seven-decade run in which the U.S. had at least two dominant, world-renowned players. Perhaps Roddick is very much a man of his time.

The women's game is in desperate need of Serena Williams' dominance and star power.

You hear this all the time, to the point where it is presented as fact, but I don't buy it for a second. I just got back from Wimbledon, and that tournament progressed beautifully in Serena's absence.

It was great to see her back on the court, and get her quirky perspective on things in the press conferences, but I was almost glad to see her eliminated. She's had her time, just as Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova had theirs. I don't think there's much chance of her aging "gracefully," giving generous credit to the younger generation or offering sort of a ceremonial presence. Serena has to be out there with all guns blazing, feeling she's the most feared player and assuming she can intimidate people (I won't miss her only-for-effect shrieking, not for a moment).

Serena has had such an impact on the game, some very wise observers (including Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim) have proclaimed her the best of all time. Hell, that could be true. And I'm hardly a Serena-basher; over the years, at the San Francisco Chronicle, I've constantly defended her lifestyle, career choices and resulting longevity. But I'm not depressed by the fact that the women's game can't seem to find a legitimate No. 1. I think that woman is on her way, a few years down the road, and until she arrives, we get to see some very talented and watchable players.

Was Francesca Schiavone not a great story at last year's French Open? Li Na at Roland Garros this year? Petra Kvitova staring down Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon? Hard-hitting athletes emerging from all corners of the world? I'm sort of enjoying the fact that you head into a major with no real idea who will make the quarterfinals. That marks a huge transition in the women's game, far removed from the days when nothing really mattered until the semis.

Bjorn Borg: The Most Fascinating Player of Them All

I have the utmost respect for Borg, and I can't think of too many historical feats more impressive than his winning the French and Wimbledon back-to-back for three straight years. That's a tale of pure fantasy to most players -- then or now.

It's just that Borg's game never really stirred my soul. It was dull, to the point of monotony, and hardly an aesthetic match for McEnroe's all-court elegance. It played well against McEnroe, or the raging Connors, because it offered such wonderful contrast. But in itself, it was not inspiring tennis.

Worse yet, to this day, we don't really know anything about the man. He shows up, looks great, cracks a handsome smile, but what's really going on with this guy? How do you dominate the game to such an extent and then put your Wimbledon trophies up for sale? How do you quit the game so early in life (25) when the future offers no suitable alternative? How can you party that hard (as legend has it, in his youth) but move through the daily tennis landscape at such a distance?

I can recall being granted a one-on-one interview with Borg in 1977, when he came to the Bay Area with the Cleveland Nets of World TeamTennis. I was hardly a polished interviewer, and he'd probably grown weary of the global spotlight, but he didn't flash a hint of insight, personality -- anything. Did his tennis speak for itself? You bet it did. Credit the man for crafting one of the great careers in sport. But as Mary Carillo once said, "It's not enough to watch greatness. You have to want to connect to it." So few ever felt a connection to this superb athlete, and, sadly, that's how he liked it.

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