Andy Roddick had just taken the first set from Roger Federer in Sunday's Wimbledon final, inducing roars from the Centre Court spectators, when my wife-to-be posed a perfectly sincere question.
"How come they're cheering for Andy?" she asked. "I thought it was Roger going for the record."
I thought about it for a moment. This wasn't just a case of the crowd gravitating toward the heavy underdog, the customary move for impartial observers. Many fans seemingly were pulling for the American because they understood Roddick had more to gain from winning.
Not to trivialize Federer's stake in the outcome, which was obvious and considerable. Yes, the 27-year-old was playing for a place in history, to surpass Pete Sampras for the most Grand Slam titles. But Federer was a good bet to break this record no matter what, whether in September at the U.S. Open or sometime next year.
For Roddick, a victory would have altered the course of his entire career, bringing about a return to the SNL-hosting, Reebok-commercial-starring type of crossover superstardom he briefly experienced as a cocksure 21-year-old in the afterglow of his 2003 U.S. Open win.
And doesn't Roddick deserve it? Many American fans, spoiled by their country's legacy of tennis megastars and if-you're-not-first-you're-last mentality, have made Roddick a kind of a whipping boy in recent years. Some have pigeonholed the 26-year-old as a one-hit wonder instead of emphasizing his accomplishments, which are ample. Yes, Roddick has won only a single Slam, the last victory by an American man in a major tournament. But he's also finished every season since 2002 ranked in the top 10, a distinction only Federer can match, and collected 27 career titles. While previous American alpha dogs like Sampras and Andre Agassi only occasionally played Davis Cup, Roddick has been a consistent force at the international team event, winning 31 matches (second only to John McEnroe's 41) and helping the United States to the '07 championship, its first in a dozen years.
I don't think I'm alone in sensing that Roddick gets an unfair rap, which is why many hoped he could pull off the upset of upsets Sunday by derailing Federer and halting the longest Grand Slam drought for American men in the Open era.
And what a shocker it would've been. Roddick had lost 18 of 20 meetings against Federer, frequently in lopsided fashion, a trend punctuated by soul-crushing defeats in three Grand Slam finals.
On the other hand, this wasn't exactly the surprise many folks made it out to be. Roddick, aided by a renewed commitment to fitness under new coach Larry Stefanki, has been knocking on the door of a performance like this all season. He'd offered Federer a spirited challenge in the Australian Open semifinals and a stiff one in the Key Biscayne quarterfinals. Then, as he worked through the draw at Wimbledon, he seemed to beat those nagging head games, not getting down on himself even during some difficult matches. His semifinal win against hometown favorite Andy Murray was one of the finest performances of his nine-year career.
On Sunday, Roddick played a complete match. He saved some of his most spectacular moments for the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history, a 95-minute epic in which Roddick held serve 10 times with the championship on the line before Federer could break through. Perhaps most impressive was how Roddick held up against Federer. It's not like Roddick just caught him on an off day: Federer boomed a career-best 50 aces -- one short of Ivo Karlovic's Wimbledon record -- and had 107 winners against just 38 unforced errors.
Roddick could scarcely hide his pain during the postmatch trophy ceremony, like when Federer told Roddick that he also had experienced hard times at Wimbledon and overcome them -- a reference to his devastating loss to Rafael Nadal a year ago. "You'd won five already!" Roddick shot back, without the faintest trace of a smile.
It was a painful, awkward, honest moment that crystallized the central tragedy: that Roddick had just played the match of his life and it wasn't enough.
"before i forget, thanks a lot to pizza express wimby village for firing up their ovens after they shut last night just for me. really kind."--Andy Murray, giving a shout-out to the local pizza haunt, June 30, 2:40 p.m.
"Don't order your steak 'medium-well' in England unless you want beef jerkey. Now downloading Millionaire Matchmaker. So hooked on this crap!"--Bob Bryan, men's doubles champion alongside brother Mike, on the local haute cuisine, July 2, 5:04 p.m.
"I would love to stay on twitter but I have to get to work."--Serena Williams, just minutes before taking the court with Venus in the doubles final, July 4, 2:14 p.m.