Roddick still reaching for 'moment'

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I have never had many feelings about Andy Roddick. It always seemed to me that there are athletes you love and athletes you despise, athletes you respect and athletes you fear, athletes who can turn games into beautiful events and athletes who can turn your stomach inside out because you so badly want them to lose. And these are the ones you remember.

Take A.J. Pierzynski. Please. He has been a pretty good-to-good player in his 12 seasons in the big leagues. His Baseball-Reference comps are Terry Kennedy, Tony Pena, Todd Walker -- very solid players. But as far as I know, nobody loved or hated those guys as players. Pierzynski, meanwhile, moves the Love/Hate Balance needle. They boo the White Sox catcher in Kansas City even though, as far as I know, he's never said or done anything specifically to Kansas City. As far as I know, the only current baseball players who routinely get booed in Kansas City are:

1. Johnny Damon: leftover bitterness from those days when the Royals felt compelled to trade him.

2. Derek Jeter: probably because he's glamorous and represents New York and he's just something else Kansas City cannot have.

3. Tony Pena Jr.: because he can't hit.

4. A.J. Pierzynski.

A.J.P. is like the baseball version of Bill Laimbeer -- you hate him because he's annoying and almost every game he will do something that will get under your skin. As his manager, Ozzie Guillen, said in his inimitable way: "If you play against [A.J.], you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less."

But this gets to the point: There are those players -- the bulk of players -- who don't get booed or cheered. They are just there, in the middle, the other people in the crime lineup. Look at those A.J.P. comps. Terry Kennedy was a good player -- a four-time All-Star -- but when you search "Terry Kennedy" on Google, you get a full page of links to:

1. Someone's MySpace page. 2. A Wikipedia entry on Terry Kennedy the skateboarder. 3. Some YouTubes of Terry Kennedy the skateboarder. 4. More links about Terry Kennedy the skateboarder. 5. "Terry Kennedy's web page," which links some 19th century books on tunneling in New York. 6. A collection of suggested Terry Kennedy searches, the first one being "terry kennedy in jail."*

*Apparently this is Terry Kennedy the skateboarder again.

When you finally get to Terry Kennedy the baseball player's Wikipedia page, you are informed that he was "known for not wearing batting gloves." Really? That's it? A man dedicates his life to the game, becomes a college baseball star, gets drafted with the sixth overall pick, makes his way through the minors, gets traded, makes the All-Star team his first full year, is the main catcher for two World Series teams ... and people will come up to him and say: "Hey, aren't you the guy who didn't wear batting gloves?" That's what it's all about?*

*On the other hand, the Web site wezen-ball points out that another comp, Tony Pena, had the single most average season in baseball history in 1984 ... so he's got that going for him.

But that's the plight of most athletes. I always like the introductions at the All-Star Game -- not to hear the players who get the loudest cheers or the wildest boos but to catch those who get neither, the players the fans give that most tepid cheer that really says, "I have potentially heard of you."

Now, I am not speaking for anyone else, but Roddick was in this netherworld for me the last few years. I was, of course, plenty aware of him, knew all about his monster serve and knew that he was with Sports Illustrated cover model Brooklyn Decker -- apparently he saw her in SI and had his agent set them up.* I had seen him play lots of times, saw him win the U.S. Open in 2003. I once went out to a team tennis event to interview him, and for some reason or other the interview never happened, which was probably just as well because I probably didn't have anything I especially wanted to ask him. I did sit in on a few Roddick press conferences at various events, and they were perfectly uneventful. As brilliant readers point out: There are some better ones on YouTube.

*I actually have an agent too -- a literary agent. As far as I know, he doesn't set up clients with supermodels, but maybe as a happily married guy I've just not been asking the right questions.

Point is, though, that while I was fully aware of him, I never had any feelings about him -- positive or negative. He might be a nice guy or not. He might be a talented player who did not live up to his ability, or a limited player with a big serve who maximized his game -- I never really knew and didn't especially care to guess. I did not root for him or against him when he played. He was just a guy to me. I don't mean that to sound harsh -- think of the (at least) 80 people on the PGA Tour who you don't care one bit about.* That's about how I felt about Roddick. He's interesting and charismatic, but you can't make yourself care about an athlete any more than you can make yourself love William Faulkner or Charlie Parker if their words and music don't speak to you. I've never wished him well or ill; he was background music for me.

*If I had to pick a golfer who was the best comp for my feelings about Roddick, it would be Sergio Garcia. He won, he lost, he dated Martina Hingis,he did beer commercials ... whatever.

All of that changed on Sunday, though. Funny thing, Sunday morning -- for the first time in more than five years -- I went out and played tennis with friends. That sparked quite a few emotions (one of those being an emotion called "back pain" -- it still hurts, tennis at 42 is not like tennis at 36).

I used to be a moderately good tennis player, had a big and inconsistent serve, pretty good hands, and I could hit a variety of shots (though keeping them in was a whole other story). I was -- and I realize now that I'm getting into preposterously boring self-scouting on my tennis ... but this does fit in somewhere -- one of those players who looked really good in practice. People would watch me warm up -- or they would be on the other side of the warm-up -- and at that moment they thought I was REALLY good. But I wasn't REALLY good. I was a good wall player -- I could hit against a wall really well. I was a good machine player -- I could hit with authority against a tennis machine. I was a good warm-up player because I could always hit one or two good shots that looked completely out of place. But I was not so good in games because opponents had this nasty habit of not hitting the ball waist high at the proper speed.*

*Once I was in a match, and I was serve-and-volleying, and I hit a serve long. The guy hit a brilliant return down at my feet, and I put the racket behind my back and hit what would have been a clear winning volley through my legs. My opponent was stunned -- called it the single greatest shot he had ever seen. He then beat me like 6-2, 6-2.

In any case, I was absolutely awful starting out on Sunday. But slowly, very slowly, I started to get a little bit of my game back. It felt good, a bit like I was a kid again hitting balls against the brick wall outside the Harris Teeter shopping center in Charlotte. Of course, I wasn't hitting the ball as hard or as accurately or as consistently or, you know, over the net much of the time. But just playing tennis again brought back those memories when I believed, really believed, that I was going to be the next John McEnroe, the next Ivan Lendl, the next Bjorn Borg. I really thought I was going to be a professional tennis player. I lost my baseball dream before I entered high school. I clung to my ludicrous tennis dream for a little longer.

By the time I got home Sunday afternoon, I already knew that Roger Federer had beaten Roddick in five sets and that the fifth set was 16-14. But I had recorded it, and I wanted to watch a little bit, since this was the match where Federer broke the Grand Slam record. I wanted to watch some -- instead, I watched all of it. I found it mesmerizing and not all for the reason I expected. Some time early in the first set, I (quite unexpectedly -- I would call myself a Federer fan) found myself connecting with Roddick. It's hard to explain, really. It isn't that I associated my own tennis game with Roddick because I did not. Yes, sure, every so often I see a player and think, "THAT is who I would be if I had real athletic talent."* But Roddick is not that guy -- not even if you multiply my game by a million.

*Former major league second baseman Duane Kuiper, of course, was the player who best represented this feeling for me, but I've also felt that way about ex-NBA guard John Bagley, golfer David Toms and a pitcher like Brian Bannister, which probably best explains why I have written more words about Banny than J.K. Rowling wrote about Harry Potter.

No, the connection came from something else. I think it came from a theme that I find constantly and endlessly fascinating. That is: The theme of ordinary people reaching for their moment. Most of my favorite books, favorite sports moments, favorite movies (and many of the movies that I found myself loving despite myself), revolve around that theme. I unabashedly love the flawed movie The Fabulous Baker Boys -- not entirely because of the mega-crush I had on Michelle Pfeiffer but also because I'm mesmerized by the idea of those talented people who play piano at hotel bars night after night, people who had to settle low but who still hope against hope that something big might still happen. I watch It's a Wonderful Life every year, not for the Christmas feel of it but because I feel so deeply with George Bailey, who just wants to get the heck out and do something but he can't because ... he can't. The original Rocky. The Full Monty. Waking Ned Devine. The Hustler. Especially the Hustler.

One of my favorite sporting events ever is Buster Douglas' upset over Mike Tyson,and not just because I hated Tyson (I don't know that I really DID hate Tyson then) but because Douglas got his one chance, his moment, and in that moment he was greater than anyone ever believed he could be. Another was Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable Russian at the Olympics. This stuff just hits me.

Andy Roddick is not George Bailey. He's not ordinary. He's the No. 6 tennis player in the world. He's a multi-multi-millionaire tennis player married to a swimsuit model. He hops around the world and hosts Saturday Night Live and probably wouldn't even want to win the lottery because of the tax complications.

But here's the thing: He wanted to win Wimbledon. I mean, yes, of course he wanted to Wimbledon, but you could see from the first point on that he WANTED to win Wimbledon, that it was hugely important to him, that it was everything to him. You could surmise from his look and intensity that this was, in fact, what he had been dreaming about since he was a little boy. This was his moment, and few really thought he could win. As soon as the match began -- Roddick facing off against maybe the greatest tennis player ever on his favorite surface -- I felt like it was Roddick staring into the mirror and asking himself that same question that I think most people ask themselves at some point in their lives: "Am I good enough?"

And he was good. He was very, very good. Federer is a beautiful tennis player who hits so many brilliant and impossible-to-reproduce shots that the opponent, at some point, goes, "Oh, geez, what's the point?" I think this is why Rafael Nadal is one of the few players to have success against Federer; he doesn't care about those beautiful shots.

And I think Roddick psyched himself up to not let Federer's splendor blind him on this day. He won the first set by breaking Federer (in rather stunning fashion) and he had Federer on the ropes in the second set. It was, in fact, a shot late in the second set that brought me entirely over to Roddick's side. He was serving at set point, and he charged the net, and Federer was out of position and hit a high shot to Roddick's backhand. It was not an easy volley, certainly not for anyone less than world class. But it was a volley that Roddick could have put away. It was a volley, I imagine, Roddick will see in his mind again.

He missed that volley, of course, Federer won the second and third sets, Roddick showed guts and won the fourth, and then it came down to that massive fifth set with neither player able to break the other's serve. It wasn't especially glamorous tennis -- not like last year's match between Federer and Nadal -- but it was ultra-compelling not (as I expected) because of Federer's chase for his 15th Grand Slam but because of Roddick's desperate chase to beat Federer on Centre Court and be the best in the world on this day.

And the chase became more and more desperate as the games went along. Even though I knew all the while that Roddick would lose at the end, I kept hurting with him, especially in the final games when it was clear that while he might hold off Federer (and he did hold serve TEN STRAIGHT TIMES with the match on the line), he would never actually beat this beast. Federer's last few games were ace after ace after ace; he was in complete control. At some point, the realization had to hit Roddick (like it hit everyone who was watching) that he was only postponing the inevitable. He was not going to win Wimbledon.

That point was the 30th game of the final set. Federer did not hit a single great shot in that game. He simply put the ball in play. And Roddick, who had been so great for so long, made errors and lost the match.

When it ended, Roddick looked like a broken man. And I could feel that pain with him -- couldn't we all? He was damned good. He was probably better than he had ever been in his life. And he wasn't quite good enough. Isn't that the saddest thing about sports? Isn't that the feeling that we all have at that point when we realize that we won't play big league ball, we won't be an NFL starting quarterback, we won't be on the 18th green putting to win the Masters? I remember playing someone on a high school tennis court, losing convincingly and then doing the math: If I wasn't good enough to beat this guy (and I wasn't good enough), and he wasn't even the best player on the team (not even the second best) and our team wasn't that good just in our community (our team wasn't good at all) and Charlotte, N.C., wasn't exactly a tennis mecca and some of the best tennis players nationally weren't even PLAYING high school tennis, they were already out on junior tours or even professionals ... well, wow, I wasn't good enough.

Roddick stared out at the court, and he seemed to be on that aqueduct between crying and bravado, and then he said a few words -- congratulated Federer, thanked the fans, all that. Then Federer, trying to be a gentleman like always, tried to compare Roddick's feelings of loss to his own one year earlier when he had lost to Nadal. Roddick was not having any of it: "Yeah," he said, "but you had already won five times." Federer smiled and repeated the line without a terrible amount of sympathy. There was no way Federer could understand.

But I felt like I did understand. I really like Andy Roddick now. On Sunday at Wimbledon, he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together. Roddick is still 26, and he still has that serve, and he will probably win a lot more money and big championships -- he still might win Wimbledon someday. Then again, he might not. I thought of this conversation I had with a coach once. I asked him if he believed there were lessons to be learned in losing.

"Yeah," he said. "Get better."

And I wish I would asked him then if there were lessons to be learned if you couldn't get better, if you had been your very best and that still was not good enough. I suspect his answer would have been simple: "Yeah," he would have said. "Get used to it. Because that's life."