Here come the Roddick retrospectives......
Building a Legacy
The Gift of Roddick
By HARVEY ARATON
“If I win one, it’s like career appreciation day. Then if I lose one, it’s like we should take him out in the field and shoot him in the head.” — Andy Roddick after a 6-2, 6-1 drubbing at the Olympics by Novak Djokovic.
Rest assured nobody wants to exterminate Andy Roddick from the men’s professional tennis tour. Muzzle him, perhaps, on those occasions he takes out mounting frustrations on courtside officials. But Roddick is at the point in his career — documentable decline, if not sunset — when a general valuation is almost unavoidable.
A decade has passed since Roddick burst on the scene, all serve and American swagger, in stark contrast to the emerging Swiss imperturbability of Roger Federer. He will turn 30 on Thursday, during the first week of the United States Open, the one Grand Slam tournament he has won, in 2003, but where he has fallen to the 20th seed.
Happy birthday, Yankee Doodle Andy, and know that those who might dwell on expectations unmet appear to be greatly outnumbered by those who celebrate your 32 tournament victories and nine consecutive years in the top 10 (through 2010) and the unbridled passion and playfulness you brought to the sport at home just when the most serious men’s star power was shifting abroad.
“To his peers, Andy has been someone to admire — winning the U.S. Open, a Davis Cup title and being No. 1 in the world,” said Justin Gimelstob, a serve-and-volley player turned broadcaster and a longtime friend of Roddick’s. “For an American kid, that’s pretty much the tennis trifecta.”
Gimelstob added: “Has Andy always treated people the right way? No, he hasn’t. Is Andy perfect? No, he isn’t. When people see tennis players complain on court, they are usually seeing the worst of us, and it gets real easy from the broadcast booth and the stands to go with the negative. But anyone who says that Andy isn’t a good guy or has been an underachiever doesn’t know him or tennis.”
Sam Querrey, 24, was a rising junior when he watched Roddick, then 21, pound Juan Carlos Ferrero into the Flushing Meadows hardcourt for his one Grand Slam title. It was logical to assume that Roddick was taking the baton from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, about to run the next leg in the continuum of American dominance.
“I think because of Andy having to follow those guys here and then Roger taking it to a completely different level, I’m not sure some people understand what a great ambassador Andy has been for the game in the U.S.,” Querrey said.
Querrey was 17, contemplating his pro future, when Roddick invited him to Austin, Tex., to trade ground strokes and give him a sense of what to expect on the big-boy circuit.
“This was about the time he had been No. 1 and won the Open, playing Federer in the Wimbledon final back to back,” Querrey said. “So when Andy Roddick calls, you drop whatever plans you have and get on a plane. He had me stay in his house, treated me like a little brother.”
Querrey noted that even as Roddick began his descent, he took the teenage Ryan Harrison under his wing.
“I think he feels that was part of the responsibility of being the No. 1 player in the country,” Querrey said.
Roddick’s brother John said Andy was bred to be a team player, as the youngest of three boys who also flourished in baseball and basketball.
“Football was the one game we weren’t allowed because our parents didn’t want us to get hurt,” said John Roddick, who became a college tennis coach, at Georgia and now at Oklahoma, after mentoring his brother as a young pro. “But you could see by the way Andy loved Davis Cup how much he appreciated the camaraderie of sports.”
Patrick McEnroe saw some of his older brother, John, in Roddick’s need for escape from what otherwise is among the loneliest of athletic professions. In his prime, Roddick’s best friends were Davis Cup teammates like Mardy Fish and James Blake. In a sport in which the men’s and women’s tours operate largely in parallel universes, Roddick befriended Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
McEnroe said we could all say what we will about Roddick’s results, but the effort to be the best he could be was seldom lacking.
“I’ve been critical of his strategies — that he hasn’t adjusted his positions on the court, taking the ball earlier,” McEnroe said. “But you could never question his willingness to put it on the line, to leave everything he had out there.”
McEnroe added: “You know, it’s easy to compete when you know you’re going to win. But there was a Davis Cup match we played in Madrid, and we’re down, 2-1, and Andy’s got to go out and play Rafa Nadal on clay. He went into the lion’s den, knowing he was going to get buried, and he never once went through the motions. To me, that’s the definitive Andy Roddick.”
In that sense — Roddick as the inevitable underdog against the balletic Federer and the ferociously athletic Nadal — the broadcaster and former American top-10 player Jimmy Arias argued that the notion of Roddick as an underachiever was wrong.
Arias said: “He hung in there for a decade with what I would call the greatest players of all time and with a couple of holes in his game, especially on the backhand, where you could attack him. You could almost go the other way and say he’s overachieved for the game he’s had.”
From the European perspective, Tommy Haas of Germany, at 34 one of the ATP Tour’s most respected players despite never having won a Grand Slam title, said he only wished he had had an uninterrupted run like Roddick’s.
“As good as it gets, in many ways,” said the oft-injured Haas, acknowledging the exclusion of the chosen few. “I think at the end of the day, when you come from a country that had a lot of tennis history, these questions come up. Now you have it from Switzerland and Spain and maybe Serbia. But maybe 10, 20 years from now, it looks different again and you have a few American superstars.”
In that Grand Slam scheme, compared with America’s storied past and the current axis of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Roddick was almost destined to disappoint. But is that really his doing, or his problem?
“There’s no birthright that because we’re American we have to have a No. 1 or 2 in the world,” said Brad Gilbert, who became Roddick’s coach for a year and a half shortly before the 2003 United States Open. “We expect it and want it, but that doesn’t mean it has to happen.”
Still, Gilbert said, “sports can be cruel,” and the tennis gods were unmerciful to Roddick when he misplayed a high backhand volley at 6-5 in a second-set tiebreaker against Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final and wound up losing, 16-14, in the fifth.
“He’s up a set and 6-2 in the tiebreak and then has that makable volley at 6-5,” Gilbert said. “He takes that set, he probably wins Wimbledon, and now you’re going to look at Andy in a completely different way.”
Instead, Federer broke Sampras’s record that day with his 15th Grand Slam singles victory (he now has 17) and Roddick, as Gilbert and others agreed, was never quite the same.
“I saw Andy that night,” Patrick McEnroe said. “We were going to play Croatia in Davis Cup soon after and he pulled out, naturally. I think that match really hurt him inside. You could see it on his face, like he knew maybe he wouldn’t get another chance like that again.”
Federer defeated Roddick in all four of his losing Grand Slam finals and has trounced him, 21-3, in head-to-head matches, but he has always been quick to defend him. When Roddick upset him in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March, Federer issued a diplomatic admonition to quibbling American reporters and fans.
“He’s still very good,” Federer said. “I hope you guys give him more credit than he’s getting at the moment. He’s a great champion, and, yeah, enjoy him while you have him.”
Roddick’s best may be much better than it is going to get for American men’s tennis in the foreseeable future. The next decade could move along much more slowly than the last.