As the celebrated era of Sampras-Agassi-Courier was drawing to a close, a new, brash American kid from the heartland was beginning to make his mark.
Born in Nebraska and gifted with a live, seemingly bionic, arm, Andy Roddick in 2002 catapulted into the top 10 – the youngest American to do so since Michael Chang. The following year, at age 21, Roddick won the US Open and became the youngest American to finish at No. 1.
The transition, American tennis fans surely thought, was firmly in place. Andy Roddick, with his invincible serve and dominant forehand (sound familiar?) would go on to continue the American dominance they’d gotten to used to, winning many more Slams. No sweat.
The 2003 US Open, however, would be the only one.
There would be 31 other tour titles, but – barring a miracle, fairytale ending to what is now Roddick’s final Slam appearance – never another major title.
Some might find it tempting to declare Roddick an underachiever and dismiss his career as that of a one-hit wonder.
But anyone who witnessed any of Roddick’s three gritty Wimbledon finals losses to Roger Federer – especially the epic and ultimately heartbreaking 2009 final that went to 16-14 in the fifth set – would surely argue otherwise.
Roddick may never have held aloft another Slam trophy, or again finish the year at No. 1, but he spent nine consecutive years in the top 10. Roddick won 609 matches and earned $20 million in career prize money. He won Davis Cup for the United States, notching more wins playing for his country than any American not named John McEnroe. He dated Maria Sharapova, married the supermodel Brooklyn Decker and hosted Saturday Night Live.
You’re not going to hear me argue that Roddick’s was an underachieving career.
Because he burst onto the scene at a moment when the American sports public was used to American excellence in tennis; because he possessed one of the most violently effective weapons the game has ever seen; and maybe because he was a brash and transplanted Texan at a time that sports fans were transfixed by another cocky Texan, Lance Armstrong, who had begun to dominate cycling, expectations for Roddick were immense.
And probably unfair.
Roddick was known for his thunderous serve, but his downfall was that too often he played defensively, merely looping a topspin forehand into play and slicing an unlovely backhand. He could be cocksure but also frustratingly tentative. Roddick was exceedingly well spoken, self possessed and smart-alecky—perhaps the quickest wit and snarkiest interview the tennis press corps has ever had the privilege of dealing with—even as he would berate umpires and lines judges on court. Roddick was frequently petulant, prickly and self-absorbed, but in the waning years of his career, he was a dedicated mentor to up-and-coming young Americans like Ryan Harrison.
The 2009 Wimbledon final against Federer seems an eternity ago. For Roddick it was the beginning of his undoing, certainly: his last, best chance to capture another major and bookend his career. A Titanic disappointment, sure. But the way Andy Roddick fought so valiantly that late Sunday evening in July, time after time stepping up first to the worn service line—holding his nerve, holding serve and holding off Federer—was nothing short of heroic. Roddick held serve 37 straight times, until the final game in the longest decisive set in Grand Slam history, and he forced Federer to beat him. Roddick did not back down and he did not crumble. He merely lost.
Though I’m loath to reduce the long arc of a career to a single match, that spectacular loss says more about Roddick’s career than any win, than any peevish outburst, or a Grand Slam tally that doesn’t measure up to Sampras or Agassi. That spendid, dignified afternoon—if you have to single out something—is what Roddick fans should remember most.
Roddick, a model of consistency, preferred to take the long view. “I was pretty good for a pretty long time,” he said at the press conference announcing his retirement.
“I don’t know if I’d change much,” he reasoned. “Everyone would like to win another match or two. And obviously if I’d won another match or two, we’d be looking back at something very different.”
Roddick said he considered his career a privilege: “Hey, I got to play.”