The realization came only after three hours had passed, in a match that had tunneled across a night and a day and endured rain, uncertainty and a smothering heat -- which, really, was of a piece with Andy Roddick's career. Because he shouldn't have lasted this long. Because he shouldn't -- at 30 years old, with a ravaged shoulder and legs gone to lead -- have gone this deep into the 2012 U.S. Open, or come this far against his younger, stronger, more gifted opponent. Yet it was only now, after the shadows had fallen across Ashe Stadium court Wednesday, that everyone knew.
There Roddick was, ten feet behind the baseline where victims dwell, and he had been scrambling back and forth, back and forth to keep the ball alive. Racing right, trying to set up his slingshot forehand, Roddick took this step -- a reeling half-slide/half-split -- that reeled him around and left him staggered. He looked as if he'd been clubbed with a crowbar. Now Juan Martin Del Potro held a 6-7 (1), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 5-3 lead in their fourth-round affair. It was 5:46 p.m. Roddick was done.
Yes, he had taken everyone for a sweet farewell ride, the old man's run that the Open does better than any other major. He had carried the tournament's first week, gave it heart, but now that was over. He walked to the service line as waves of cheering rolled over him, glanced over at his box and just as quickly away: It was too much. His mother and father and brother, his wife, the people who had long carried his tools and kept him whole -- all their faces were there. His eyes filled.
"You start thinking about how real it is," Roddick said after. "You're thinking about matches you're playing when you're 12 or you're thinking about -- you know, I was thinking about my mom driving me to practices all over the place. You just think about a million things. Then all of a sudden you have to play a point against one of the best players in the world."
He didn't have it in him to scale that ridge. At 23, Del Potro is much like Roddick at that age: Huge forehand, one U.S. Open title to his name, a nation's entire tennis future pinned on his back. But Delpo also moves more gracefully, more economically than Roddick ever could, and has both a game and an equanimity that seems to promise more. At 3-5, 30-all, serving to stay in the match, Roddick blasted his first serve wide.
"We love you, Andy!" yelled a voice out of the din. Roddick pawed at his eyes. He managed to toss the ball up and then, in mid-serve, another voice screamed. "Goodbye Andy!"
He's right: It was real now. There was no illusion anymore, none of the hope and hype that long attended his every move as the lone face of American men's tennis. It was always Roddick's burden -- though $20 million in prize money surely lightens the load -- to wash up after the last great wave of U.S. players, but his overwhelming power, that serve clocked in 2004 at 155 mph, gave off irresistible heat. His competitive fire, the sheer speed, the very bigness of his game, seduced those eager to be seduced. When he won the '03 Open and finished that year No. 1, tennis minds pegged him for four, maybe six, Grand Slam titles. Andy Roddick always made you think he was going to be better than he was.
It wasn't that he was fraudulent. Roddick could be a true jerk at times, abusive to umpires, in love with his own wit. But he never tried to con anyone, saw early that the game was moving to a place that valued movement as much as power, that his backhand needed much work, that he had to improve vastly at net. Because of the work, the lost weight and focus, he reached three Wimbledon finals -- and was, aptly, just one backhand volley from all but beating Roger Federer in 2009.
"Andy Roddick came onto the tour with lower expectations than a lot of people have placed on him, a lot of the media have assumed for him," said Davis Cup captain Jim Courier. "He's a proud man, and has reason: He without question maximized his talent. He's unlucky to have faced Roger, because he'd have had four, five, six (majors) -- who knows? But Andy will tell you how lucky he is because he got one."
That attitude always confused those who saw him capable of more. After he lost to Federer in the 2006 U.S. Open final, Roddick said that he'd gladly take eight straight losses in a major final. "That's bull----," snapped Jimmy Connors, his coach at the time, while watching the interview on a player's lounge TV. "I don't accept that."
Connors and Roddick split in 2008, after less than two years together, and if it seemed from the start a fatal pairing, that was only because the two had much in common. Roddick, like Connors, came from the edgy, oft-paranoid branch of the American tennis family, the one quick to find enemies and lash out. The one difference was that Connors used any means, devious or no, to work the crowd into a lather; his 1991 roll to the Open semis was the template for any codger looking to do one last bit of damage.
That's why, last Friday, Connors was so excited. Before the Open, he had tweeted, "It's called U S Open. US players step up and take your tournament back. NY is waiting." Now it was the day after his former charge had rocked the Open with his sudden decision to retire, and a few hours after Roddick had opened up enough, been demonstrative enough, acted like Jimbo enough in Ashe to ride a stadium-wide wave of affection and beat Bernard Tomic in straight sets. "You saw Andy tonight, right?" Connors said by phone from his home in California.
"When I was with Andy, I said, 'If you let 'em, those 25,000 people will help you win.' And it takes him to say that he's retiring to see it and to feel it. I guess, better late than never."
Roddick was even more relaxed, even playful, in his four-set win over the dynamic and dangerous Fabio Fognini Sunday, and when he blitzed a lethargic Del Potro to win the first-set tiebreak after play resumed Wednesday, thoughts of '91 Redux rose all over Flushing Meadows. But commentator John McEnroe had it only half right when he called Delpo "a hibernating bear"; Del Potro wasn't sleeping, and by the end of the first set his forehand swipe was drawing serious blood. Roddick's family box felt the bottom dropping out, fast.
"It was just weird," said Andy's former coach and brother, John. "It kind of felt like staring over the end of a cliff: You just don't know what's at the bottom. After he wins the first and the second set's in a breaker, you're not thinking about the end at all. Then all of a sudden you're down two sets to one and a break and it's amazing how quickly it happens. It sets in."
So it does. The ball came down, Roddick managed to drop his second serve in, but slapped a backhand into the net: Match point, 3-5, 30-40. He walked to the line puffing his cheeks, holding a towel over his face an extra beat, the crowd standing and cheering him with a warmth and, yes, love, that it had never shown him before. As it had done with McEnroe, Connors, Andre Agassi and other former rogues, the affection that had long been splintered toward other stars, that had largely eluded Roddick, now came at him full force.
Tennis is strange that way. There's no sport in which fans watch just two people live, work, emote for three, four hours at a time, over decades perhaps. The best players are puzzles, and we stare at them like aliens in a cage, because they're playing a game we sort of recognize at a level of unimaginable virtuosity. They also seem to be a tougher, meaner breed, looking as they do to reveal their opponents' weakness to the world, defeat them in public. "It's normally a very selfish emotion for us," Roddick said.
Del Potro sent a forehand long, saving one match point, then another, then Roddick charged in to stab a nifty backhand volley to win the game, walking back to his chair with eyes gone glassy. "It was fun," Roddick said. "This week I felt like I was, you know, 12 years old playing in a park. It was extremely innocent."
Del Potro was merciful. In the final game he launched four quick serves at 5-4, winning them all. In between there were chants of "Let's go, An-dy!" and boos when the Argentine fans chimed in with, "Del-Po!". There was, at one point, one voice yelling, "Fight back! Fight back!" It could well have been Jimmy. He knows the silence that comes when a career ends.
"It's sad," Connors said. "I know there's other life out there, but there's never ever anything that can replace it. Nothing. No matter what you do, business-wise or whatever, you're just never going to replace that feeling of doing what you've done in front of 25,000 live and hundreds of millions around the world and showcasing your talent. It's the best feeling ever."
In the end, Roddick, like the rest, will be forgiven any slights or pettiness he engaged in, all the blowups, all the snark, even the majors he didn't win. Nobody forgives like a tennis fan, because, by the end, with their aches and in their slowing and their efforts to remain in the game, the great ones, too, come down to our level. The crowd was screaming now, and you could see it happening: At 5:54 p.m. Roddick roused himself from his chair for the final game, strode to the baseline, and hopped from foot to foot, waiting. Finally, the chair umpire announced its name, the meanest player of all.
"Time," he said.