Roddick makes clean, flawless exit

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Andy Roddick's tennis career will close at the U.S. Open, the site of his biggest triumph.

Andy Roddick's tennis career will close at the U.S. Open, the site of his biggest triumph.

For once, his timing was impeccable. Andy Roddick announced his retirement Thursday on his 30th birthday, at the U.S. Open, in a swirl of universal admiration. He isn't leaving the game too soon, nor does anyone feel he stuck around too long. Rare is the world-class athlete who makes such a clean, flawless exit.

He'll go down as the leading American player of his generation, a distinction reserved strictly for the greats. It won't be any particular shot or stylistic impression that marks his legacy, nor will a Grand Slam history that records just a single major title. What people will remember most about Roddick, I'd surmise, is his indomitable spirit.

Throughout so many eras in tennis history, American difference-makers were feisty, provocative, often downright controversial. The trend started with Bill Tilden, raged on with Pancho Gonzales, peaked with Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. What Andre Agassi left behind in the realm of presence, Roddick kept at the forefront, and this is important to remember. There are no spiritual heirs to Roddick's throne, and it won't belong before fans -- even those who didn't particularly care for him -- miss his utter command of the room.

The American landscape is barren in that respect now, not a soul to be chased by the mainstream media (unless Ryan Harrison's thrown racket crashes through Jennifer Aniston's windshield). You'll find a wealth of talent on a list that includes John Isner, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Harrison and Donald Young, but star power? The kind of panache that transcends the sport? Not a chance.

People went out of their way to hear Roddick, on any subject, at any time. His was a fine blend of wit, sarcasm and absolute truth-telling. Fittingly, he struck each of those moods in his Thursday press conference, a clear-eyed, good-humored session that left no doubt about the strength of his conviction.

Someone mentioned Roddick's age, and the fact that Roger Federer has persevered so brilliantly in his dotage, and suggested, "In a sense, you're retiring early."

"Now you're saying that," said Roddick, breaking up the room. "I didn't want to make it through this press conference without a direct comparison to Roger, so thank you for that."

Roddick chose an interesting time to make his announcement, for he has a second-round match on Friday, under the lights, against Bernard Tomic. He admitted to have shed a few tears Thursday afternoon, after breaking the news to friends, and "I don't know how tomorrow night's going to go," he said. "I hope I'm sticking around, but I just imagined being off the court [afterward] in an empty locker room. I wanted an opportunity to say goodbye to people."

If Roddick can get past the gifted but unpredictable Australian, the atmosphere will be tumultuous and unforgettable -- a fitting tempo for Roddick's career. For all of his on-court temper tantrums and volatile confrontations with officials, he compiled a record that guarantees him a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.

Once you get past the single-major regret (he defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero for the 2003 U.S. Open title), the numbers are remarkable: 610 wins and 32 tournament titles since he turned pro in 2000. A year-end No. 1 ranking (2003), and eight straight years finishing in the Top 10. One of the all-time greats in Davis Cup, racking up 30 singles victories and a 12-0 record when given the chance to clinch a tie for the U.S. "That's pressure," noted team captain Jim Courier. "He was the No. 1 guy and he always got it done. And it was always against the No. 1 from the other team."

Roddick would have loved to take a long-term grip on the world No. 1 ranking, and there are those who have suggested that he was born in the wrong era. That makes little sense; pick any era, and there were a handful of players whose performance and reputations surpassed Roddick's, right through the epic Agassi-Pete Sampras rivalry.

Courier chose the correct word, though: pressure. Roddick carried the Americans' global hopes by himself for years, earning him a singular place in history. Going back to 1920 and the days of Tilden and "Little Bill" Johnston, give or take a few isolated years, the U.S. had always had at least two dominant players of international renown. That all changed when Sampras and Agassi departed, leaving Roddick to go it alone.

Even Roddick's best friend in the game, Mardy Fish, spent years without grasping the burden of Roddick's responsibility. "It didn't really hit me until I got into the Top 10 myself," he said Thursday on Tennis Channel. "He's taken the pressure off all the Americans in my entire generation. Just dealing with all those people betting on him to win, or investing in his performance. The press obligations after every loss. It's amazing how incredibly well he's done that, for so long."

Roddick also had to deal with Federer's magnificence from point-blank range, losing three Wimbledon finals and a U.S. Open final to the player widely recognized as the best of all time. He's not much for regrets, preferring to remember his career as a start-to-finish blast. But in the coming years, Roddick is certain to recall that '09 Wimbledon final, when one of his most inspired performances turned to dust.

The match wasn't decided until 16-14 in the fifth set, and Roddick held serve 37 times in a row until the last, fateful game. But it was the second set, leading 6-5 in a tiebreaker, when Roddick's best chance was lost. He badly missed wide on a crosscourt backhand volley, struck a bit above his head, which would have put him two sets up. But the aftermath of that match captured Roddick at his best. He may have been a jerk when his temper got the best of him, but he always found perspective at the most difficult times.

"It was a lot tougher being that close than the '05 Wimbledon final, when I lost in straight sets and was never really in the match," he said. "I was bummed out, no doubt. But if my world falls apart because I lose a tennis match, I really don't have much else going for me. My worst day, my most heartbreaking loss, is a lot of people's best day. I had Centre Court at Wimbledon chanting my name afterwards. That was really cool."

Roddick spent much of his career dealing with critics of his groundstrokes, his net play, and his general lack of variety. He always had a pretty good answer. "I keep hearing how great all these guys hit the ball," he once told Inside Tennis. "People just drool over so-and-so's this or that. And then I hear how I can't really do anything. But yet, I beat all these guys consistently. That kind of lends itself to me being a really good bad player."

And his unbridled temperament on the court? No excuses. "I'd rather be over the top and brash and see the passion come out of me; I'd rather play with emotion," he said at last year's U.S. Open. "I assure you when I was 12, maybe it wasn't the F-bomb, but it was something. In the heat of the moment, I've always played with passion. If you took a poll, asking who would want to see someone go mental and hit a ball into the stands or something, I think people would probably vote for that. I mean, John McEnroe is still getting endorsements and he's 87 years old [laughter]. What does that tell you? Love it or hate it, but watch it."

Roddick's friends and family always knew the flip side, the sense of compassion. He once saved a player's life by helping him flee a burning hotel. He's been known to personally reverse calls if they went unfairly his way. He wept when recounting the day he traveled from London to Paris to fire his longtime friend and coach, Tarik Benhabiles. And there was a day at the 2003 Wimbledon when a cabdriver named Stephen Little picked up Roddick and Brad Gilbert for a ride to a London restaurant. The engaging Little became a regular for both men, and when Roddick found himself stuck in town (seems he lost his passport), Gilbert asked Little to keep an eye on him. The two struck a powerful friendship, to the point where, in ensuing years, Little stayed at Roddick's rented house during the tournament.

It was at Wimbledon, this year, when Roddick dropped his first clear hint of the exit strategy. "He did a little pirouette and waved to the crowd," said Courier, "and he's never the type to do that. He tends to get right off the court after a loss. That's when I got the feeling this was it."

Roddick hasn't had a particularly bad year, winning two tournaments and scoring a rare victory over Federer in Miami, but he's been plagued with injuries for months. "I don't know if I'm healthy enough or committed enough to go another year," he said Thursday. "Just the way my body feels, the way I'm able to compete, I don't feel it's good enough. Whatever my faults have been, I've always felt like I've never done anything halfway. I don't want to disrespect the game by coasting home."

Roddick says he has "no idea" how he'll feel, or play, on Friday night against Tomic. "I could come out and play great, or it could be the worst thing you've ever seen. I haven't done this before. I'm sure it will be very emotional."

Retirement can be a tricky thing in tennis. It's a game you can play for life, knees and shoulders willing, but there's that inevitable moment of closure, be it shockingly early or astoundingly late. Connors and Gonzalez played forever, or so it seemed. Borg and McEnroe cashed in early, to their fans' everlasting regret. Sampras left New York with the 2002 U.S. Open trophy and made his decision shortly thereafter. Agassi prepared a speech and left the National Tennis Center patrons in tears.

Roddick's method is singular and refreshing, giving people a chance to appreciate his career in real time. As he addressed the media on Thursday, I thought back to Joel Drucker's comment from Indian Wells a couple of years ago: "Roddick will know in his heart that he left no stone unturned. It's a distinctive contrast to how the likes of Marat Safin have squandered their gifts. Roddick will never look back at his approach to tennis and ask, 'What if?'"

I don't imagine he'll question the circumstances of his retirement, either. There is no arguing with perfection.