As Roddick enters retirement, so exits the face of U.S. men's tennis
They say if you spend enough time in a place you become that place, yet in many ways Andy Roddick was already Arthur Ashe Stadium when he broke through on the men's tennis tour in 2001: young, much-heralded, stylistically grandiose, the way of the future. Like Ashe, the main show court at the U.S. Open where he's played more matches than any other player, a venue that's been called the worst stadium in the country, Roddick was both obviously flawed and a victim of hyperbolic, unjust criticism.
It's not surprising Roddick needed to quit the sport to be appreciated, given how immediately the American sports populace took him for granted after he won the U.S. Open at 21 in 2003 and finished that season ranked No. 1. Too often Roddick was knocked for what he wasn't instead of celebrated for what he was, even as he spent nearly a decade in the top 10, won 32 titles and emerged beyond argument as the best American of his generation. Maybe there's a lesson in the overdue appreciation that's flowed over the past six days, echoing a motif frequent in the 1980s power ballads of which Roddick is fond. Truly, you don't know what you got till it's gone.
Roddick's retirement -- now a matter of historical record after Wednesday's 6-7 (1), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4 loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round -- leaves the United States without an active men's Grand Slam champion for the first time in 129 years, since the inception of what then was called the U.S. National Championships. With him goes the face of American men's tennis. A successor will arise, as it always does, but none will stare down the impossible standards by which America measured the Omaha native, who arrived on tour during the twilight of a golden generation, the West Coast quartet of Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, whose combined 27 Grand Slam titles may never be matched. "I wasn't going to shy away from it, that's for sure," he said Wednesday of the crucible. "That was just the cards that were dealt, but as tough a situation as it is, in the grand scheme of things it's a dream."
The wake-up call rang in a fashion typical of a tournament where the weather only occasionally complies with the schedule, starting Tuesday night under threat of rain -- play was suspended with Roddick leading 1-0 in a first-set tiebreaker -- and resuming 18 hours later before a sparse Wednesday afternoon crowd. Even without the emotional ballast of packed stadium, Roddick won six of seven points to take the first set and went blow for blow with the formidable Argentine throughout the second. When Roddick held serve to force a second-set tiebreak, the fight was on.
Then Roddick blinked with his first double-fault of the set and second of the match. An even more foreboding sign came on set point when Del Potro's most famous weapon, that Wagnerian forehand, resurfaced from a conspicuous absence to level the match at one set apiece. "Once he gets his feet under him he likes to swing free," Roddick said. "I think he freed up a little bit and I gave him a couple looks."
Deflated by the lost opportunity, Roddick responded with a loose service game -- he was broken at love -- that proved all but fatal. Confidence goes back and forth across the net like the ball itself. Within a 13-minute span, Roddick had gone from touching distance of a two-sets-to-none lead -- against an opponent who'd never won from two sets down -- to finding himself down a break against a foe whose level was rapidly on the rise. Roddick's self-belief, visibly weighed down by the gravity of the ultimate elimination match, was gone for good.
When he fell behind a second break, the look of concern on Roddick's face was unmistakable. On the other side Del Potro was the cowboy in the black hat and seemed undeterred by the role, playing calm power-baseline tennis. Three years after ending Marat Safin's career in Rome, the Argentine was poised to retire another Grand Slam champion.
The fourth set was mere formality, playing out in front of a funereal crowd. "I could barely look at my box," confessed Roddick of when he lost his serve and defeat was imminent. He still managed a final throe of defiance, saving a match point amid chants of "Come on Andy, you can do it!" and "One more game!" But the outcome by then was inescapable, settled for good when a Roddick forehand missed the court by several inches. As the crowd stood and rained applause from the mezzanine to the luxury boxes, Del Potro quickly deferred the traditional on-court interview, with a misty-eyed Roddick taking the microphone for his final words.
A person's tennis game, John McPhee once observed, begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. This is most evident among the game's elite: Roger Federer is Swiss precision, organization and artistry, Middle European restraint and quiet imperturbability, while Rafael Nadal is Spanish ferocity, expressionism and grit, Iberian fury and bravado.
By comparison Roddick was dogged persistence and rugged individualism, the communion of initiative, hard work and pluck. He was a very American player, who made the most of his talent despite weaknesses -- limited movement, modest net play, vulnerable backhand -- that never quite went away. (Though, notably, not for lack of trying.) Year after year, major after major, he negotiated his way into the second week, only to be confounded by the European elite that came to overtake the sport.
If there was a tragedy in his career, it's that Roddick's greatest match was a defeat. In 2009, at a stage when lesser players would have lost motivation or faith, Roddick hired a new coach, recommitted himself to fitness and made an inspired and improbable run to the Wimbledon final, where he was a lopsided underdog against Federer. Roddick won the first set, held four set points during a second-set tiebreaker and was one high backhand volley away from a two-sets-to-none lead -- but let it fritter away as the match went the distance. He lost 16-14 in the fifth, holding serve in 37 straight service games but stumbling in the 38th. "In my mind, he is a Wimbledon champion as well," Federer admitted last week.
That match took something out of Roddick he'd never get back. Yet his determination over the past three years was admirable. He overcame a litany of injuries, most recently a torn oblique muscle that sidelined him for most of last season, defeating Federer for a title in Miami earlier this year. He sardonically referred to the nagging shoulder ailment that left him stringing his rackets 10 pounds looser this year as "hamburger helper."
He wasn't perfect. There was a bratty phase. His snarky press-conference demeanor, while part of his allure, prompted more than a few cruel remarks. Yet it's the positives that will endure. Like the sense of sportsmanship that once compelled him to overturn a linesman's call in his favor on match point against Fernando Verdasco at a tournament in Rome. (Verdasco rallied to win the match.) Or his patriotism: While previous American alpha dogs like Sampras and Agassi shied away from national duty to conserve time and energy for the high-stakes pro tour, Roddick was a consistent force at Davis Cup and an invaluable mentor for the players coming up behind him. "I didn't take any of it for granted," he said after Wednesday's loss. "I think I went about things the right way."
The past six days showcased a happier, mellower Roddick. Appropriately, he was the last American man standing in the draw. Wearing sneakers festooned with stars and stripes, he smiled during changeovers as fans danced in the crowd, soaking in the atmosphere. He exhorted the audience, raised his arms to the rafters on crucial points, grinned on court like never before. Ashe, often decried as antiseptic and impersonal, finally warmed up. "The stadium, there were a lot of people," Roddick said Sunday, after what proved to be his 612th and final victory. "That's the smallest it felt to me. It almost felt cozy for once."
Indeed, there's no place like home.