By Bernie Lincicome
Scripps Howard News Service Tuesday, July 6, 2004 9:32 AM PDT
WIMBLEDON, England — Talk about being under fire.
Here's a tennis story and a human story and a hero story and an Andy Roddick story. All in one. Go figure.
That Roddick is the last American male standing at Wimbledon is notable and a bit depressing for the several who might still care about American male tennis. This is not a number large enough to need a crossing guard.
Roddick is, and none too soon, the next savior of the game. So says John McEnroe, for one, and if McEnroe says it, that means his mouth was open. All sorts of stuff falls out of Johnny Mac's mouth these days, generally about tennis being in the dumper since he left.
"Today's players are like Darth Vader compared to me," McEnroe said. "Where is the passion and the feeling?"
A little risk is what tennis needs, a little more edge. You know, like skateboarding, or like auto racing, like NASCAR.
"The drivers are risking their lives and they're out there, talking to fans an hour before the race," McEnroe said. "Tennis, knock on wood, is relatively safe."
Yes. So few wrecks are in tennis, so few lives are in constant danger.
And just what the Brat ordered. Here comes Roddick. Risking lives? How about hauling his mattress out onto a balcony in a burning Rome hotel encouraging Dutch tennis player Sjeng Schalken and his wife, Ricky, to jump from the balcony above. From the seventh floor to the sixth floor. Roddick promised to catch them. And he did.
Roddick also helped maybe a dozen others to safety in the blaze, which claimed the lives of three people.
Fast-forward seven weeks. There will be Roddick again, this time catching Schalken's serve in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon.
"I think there is a special bond between us," Roddick said. "There is always something there when you share an experience that's pretty traumatic. I don't know what that bond is, but there's something a little different there. Kind of neat."
Perspective is dangerous in a tennis player, and it got to Roddick, who quickly lost in the Italian Open.
"It rattled me for a week," he said. "Rome was probably the first time in my life when I was out on a court and I couldn't care less if I won or lost."
As for Schalken, how to repay someone for saving your life? Beg for mercy on the tennis court.
"He's just killed me the last three times," Schalken said. "I hope he's thinking about (Rome) and will be taking it easy on me."
Tennis cannot rely on hotel fires before every tournament to find new heroes, of course. (Later, at the French Open, Roddick awoke to a clanging hotel bell. He called to find out it was a false warning. "I threw my shoe at the fire alarm" said Roddick, who then went back to sleep.)
Tennis needs, according to McEnroe, a real rivalry, as McEnroe had with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. This skips the generation that was Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, which would do, as well.
"Two Americans, with personality," McEnroe said.
What tennis is stuck with is a bunch of Argentinians and Spanish back-courters and Roger Federer, as neutral as he is Swiss. By consensus, Federer is the best player in the world, certainly the best player here, seeded first and the defending champion.
Here is an endorsement from Lindsay Davenport, like Roddick, an American.
"As a tennis fan," Davenport said, "you have to think that Roger Federer is the most amazing thing to watch. I mean, the way he plays, the way he moves, the way he acts. If you were to mold a perfect tennis player, it would be him. I think he's incredible. I could sit down and watch Federer all day long."
This is all sadly true, that tennis as tennis has become Federer-ized, as it was for an alarming time, Lendl-ized. Roddick has the promise to break it out into the wider world.
"He's helped," McEnroe said, "getting out, being on Saturday Night Live and all."
Roddick was also on the Weakest Link, still somehow a fixture here on the BBC. His participation was televised one of the days that rain washed out play.
Roddick blew a question on a barnyard animal that sounds like a letter of the alphabet. Roddick answered "baa;" the answer was "ewe." In tennis, this would have been called a let.
"You'd be shocked at the stuff I don't know," Roddick said.
Here's a thought, a sure way to save tennis: How about Roddick dressed like Darth Vader rescuing Federer from a burning building, on Saturday Night Live, while trying to answer a question about sheep?
I'd get up early to watch that.