When evaluating an athlete’s career, it’s convenient to predict what would have unfolded if he or she had come up from a different era. Over the last decade, no sports star has been the subject of such a conversation more than Andy Roddick. (Phil Mickelson, second fiddle to Tiger Woods during the height of Tiger’s power, is right there with him).
Poor Andy. He won one Grand Slam title, the U.S. Open, back in 2003, as a 21-year-old with a 140 miles-per-hour serve. He was destined for so many more wins. He had the talent and the work ethic. He was just brash enough to keep you glued to the set, but not cocky or mean enough to turn you off. In the post Sampras-Agassi era, he’d carry American tennis.
Then came Roger. And Rafa. And Novak Djokovic. Roddick could win no more Slams, and American men’s tennis would see a decade-long drought in the majors.
But who’s to say Roddick would have won any more titles if he had to face Sampras and Agassi on a regular basis? Or McEnroe, Connors, and Ivan Lendl? So with Roddick, the former world No. 1, announcing that he’s going to retire at 30, after this year’s U.S. Open, rather than rue his supposed misfortune, it might be better to reflect upon what we know for sure: Roddick was a great, if sometimes frustrating, American tennis player.
His serves alone made him memorable. Many tennis traditionalists hate the modern power game, and Andy’s aces didn’t hold the same suspense of a volley-heavy rally. But those serves screamed at you, and kept you from tuning out a Roddick match, even if you knew his game wasn’t complete enough to beat Federer. And don’t think Roddick’s style didn’t inspire wimpy weekend warriors, not-so-proud owners of 25 mph first serves, and 5 mph second serves, to put a little more mustard on their swings, despite the disastrous results. I can attest to this from experience: Roddick could creep into your psyche. He mattered.
(MORE: 10 Questions For Andy Roddick)
And at times, he made you want to throw a racket. He suffered too many early exits from big tournaments, the worst being the 2005 U.S. Open. In the lead-up to that year’s tournament, American Express put Roddick at the center of an ad campaign called “Where’s Andy’s Mojo?” The idea: Roddick couldn’t play well until he found this “mojo.” The ads were ubiquitous, and kind of annoying. Then Roddick went out and lost in the first round, in straight sets.
Fittingly, the finest moment of Roddick’s career might have been a loss, to nemesis Federer, in the 2009 Wimbledon final. No one expected Roddick to make it that far. Then he went shot for shot with Federer in a classic that ended 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Roddick lost his serve just once, in the 77th, and final, game of the match. “In my mind,” Federer said on Thursday, after Roddick announced his retirement, “he is a Wimbledon champion.”
In a way, Roddick’s failures did America a favor. As sports fans, Americans had become too parochial, always obsessing over the next great American, as if the lack of a U.S. champion somehow reflected badly on the country. But over the past five or so years, once it became clear that Roddick would have no place at the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic table, Americans stopped seeing the European roots of this transcendent trio as a detriment to their popularity. They relished their rivalries, and admired their grace, athleticism, and grit on the court. The fact that Roddick had faded from consciousness these last few years is a testament to the expanding global tastes of U.S. sports fans.
That said, Roddick’s retirement leaves American tennis in a deep hole. Who will compete, on the men’s side, in the foreseeable future? Serena Williams is still red-hot on the women’s side, and she’s talking about playing for a long time. But she’s about to turn 31, and she’s unpredictable: if Williams suddenly announced her retirement soon, would it really be all that surprising?
America’s tennis reputation continues to be in trouble. But Roddick deserves plenty of credit, for giving his best effort to restore it.