Andy Roddick turned in an adequate but uninspiring performance in his first match at the 2011 U.S. Open, scraping past 33-year-old journeyman Michael Russell 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 Wednesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, needed nearly three hours to beat Russell, who dropped to an all-time worst career U.S. Open record of 0-7 with the loss.
Roddick entered the U.S. Open ranked outside the top 20 for the first time in nearly a decade, falling to the No. 21 seed. Having lost his spot as top-ranked American to Mardy Fish and without a quarterfinal appearance at a Grand Slam since January of 2010, Roddick is now an easier target than ever for commentators looking to fill air time.
But unlike larger sports in which commentators and athletes rarely interact and sometimes never meet, elite American men's tennis is a small, incestuous community. And because of the individual aspect of life as a tennis player, the people at the top of the sport often spend huge percentages of their lives together.
Patrick McEnroe, one of ESPN's primary tennis commentators and the current General Manager of Player Development for the United States Tennis Association, was also the captain of the American Davis Cup team for ten years, working, traveling, and eating with Roddick, the squad's star. With Roddick carrying the team, the Americans won the Davis Cup in 2007, ending a 12-year drought and garnering McEnroe praise for "his" success.
Considering all that Roddick has meant to the less accomplished McEnroe's career, it's understandable that Roddick may have taken exception to McEnroe's recent comments about his decline.
"How much more can he push himself to do this? Serving huge and playing defensively?" Patrick McEnroe recently asked. "If he continues to play this style, which is a grinding style, having to grind it out, it will wear on him physically and mentally. You're seeing that happen now.
"That doesn't mean hitting the ball harder. It means hitting the ball earlier and better and cutting the angles off. Maybe he doesn't believe he can do that."
Brad Gilbert, who was Roddick's primary coach when he won his U.S. Open title in 2003 (spending even more time training, traveling, eating with him than McEnroe ever did), echoed similar sentiments Wednesday night in his role as an ESPN talking head (as Roddick was on his way to the booth for an interview):
[Roddick]'s definitely going to need to get better. But the good thing is he's in an unbelievable part of the draw, so he's got tot take advantage of that situation. But he's going to need to play a little more aggressive, going to play the youngster and fellow Cornhusker Jack Sock next.
Let's take a look at a little highlights here...third set, look at that passing shot right there. Sometimes when Andy comes in, he covers middle. My coach used to say "cover the line! Stamped on your passport, cover the line!"
In the fourth set, look at Andy Roddick, well behind the baseline again, really playing counter-punching tennis.
He's still going to need to be much more aggressive...a low unforced error total. I'd like to see him serve a little bit bigger, more aces, be a little more bold on the second serve as well....He's still going to need to get a lot better.
None of the criticism was especially damning, but for Roddick to have to hear it immediately after a win from Gilbert, a man with whom he ended a long-term relationship of sorts due to irreconcilable differences, couldn't have been what he was in the mood for.
Two minutes after Gilbert finished, Roddick let off some scalding steam in the direction of ESPN's Chris Fowler, saying that his colleagues had "the easiest job in the world."
After correctly guessing a statistic about the following Maria Sharapova match, ESPN's Pam Shriver defensively laughed away Roddick's blast.
"What was Andy Roddick saying earlier, how easy this is?" Shriver laughed.
"Did you take a little offense to that?" asked Mary Joe Fernandez nervously.
"It--it was a little disrespectful," Shriver reluctantly said. "But Andy has a great sense of humor, and I think he was just having some fun with us."
"There were some priceless looks on some faces when Andy was making his comments," laughed Mike Tirico, an outsider to the sport who would have had little reason to be offended by Roddick's words.
If you interpret authority to talk about a sport as a hierarchy, it's easy to understand why Andy Roddick, a Grand Slam champion and four-time Grand Slam runner-up, would scoff at the likes of Patrick McEnroe (zero career Grand Slam singles titles), Brad Gilbert (zero career Grand Slam singles titles), Pam Shriver (a Hall of Fame doubles player, but zero career Grand Slam singles titles), and Mary Joe Fernandez (zero career Grand Slam singles titles), not to mention the non-players like Fowler.
Commentators are hired to give their opinions, to talk about tennis and its players at length, and to occasionally sound like they know what they're talking about. It can be an extremely formulaic task, as Roddick points out, and their remarks often pile on redundantly over time.
But when a former player hired as a talking head refuses to criticize a player, it's far worse. Justin Gimelstob, a retired player who never broke the top 60 in singles, is clearly proud of his closeness with much of the current generation in American men's tennis, including 19-year-old Ryan Harrison (Gimelstob linked to a photo of himself and Harrison together on Twitter in July, and seems to supervise Harrison's internet activities as well).
When asked by Emmy-winning sports journalist Mary Carillo for his opinion on Harrison's childish behavior, Gimelstob explicitly refused to condemn his buddy.
Carillo, who never once squirmed in the face of criticism the way Gimelstob did, stopped working for ESPN in the middle of the 2010 U.S. Open, reportedly over differences regarding her unwillingness to act as a cheerleader and promoter for American players.
Though she never broke the top 30 or reached the second week of a Grand Slam in singles, and though she can be one of the more negative voices in the sport, it's hard to imagine Andy Roddick ripping on Carillo individually in quite the same way. Carillo doesn't regurgitate a company line, doesn't act as a parrot for the current prevailing wisdom, and isn't afraid to call B.S. when she sees or hears it.
Maybe she and Roddick aren't so different after all.
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