NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08: Andy Roddick of the United States returns a shot against David Ferrer of Spain during Day Eleven of the 2011 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for USTA)
Despite playing in the same era as Roger Federer, Andy Roddick managed to put together an admirable career, even if he will be remembered as much for what he almost accomplished as for what he did.
Right after Andy Roddick announced his impending retirement on ESPN on Thursday, the ESPN crew of tennis personalities quickly attempted to digest and react to the news. They did a good job overall -- Patrick McEnroe, who has worked with Roddick extensively through the years, kept it together, while Mary Joe Fernandez perhaps struggled a bit -- but they tossed around one phrase that caught my wife's attention: hall of famer. Her first reaction: "Hall of famer? What has he won?"
Tennis is an incredibly cruel sport in so many ways. When you break down mentally, there is absolutely no place to hide. You cannot lean on or hide behind a teammate. You cannot call timeout, at least not without faking an injury. You cannot sit the bench for a while. You have to continue going out onto the court and breaking down in front of hundreds or thousands of people (and sometimes a Duchess). And at the same time, you are judged mostly on your titles. Other sports have all-pro or all-conference teams, where the five (or 22) best players get recognized for their greatness. But in tennis, as in golf, the second-best is often forgotten.
Charles Barkley was an unbelievable basketball player, and he was always recognized as such, but he was never the best player in the league because Michael Jordan was around. Andy Roddick's Jordan, of course, was Roger Federer.
Roddick made the semifinals of 10 slams; if we are to think of the top four as an "all-tournament team" of sorts, then Roddick made the all-tournament team at slams 10 times. That is damn impressive. If there were a five-man all-pro team in men's tennis, he would have probably made it in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009, at the very least. He won (was "Finals MVP" of) the 2003 U.S. Open, and in is other nine semifinal or final appearances, he lost to Federer seven times. Seven!
Sure, there was an upset loss to Rainer Schuttler that scuttled a potential Roddick-Agassi final in the 2003 Australian Open. And sure, there was a four-set loss to Lleyton Hewitt in the 2005 Aussie semis that prevented a chance at a title there. But otherwise, all we definitely learned about Andy Roddick over the last decade is that he wasn't as good as potentially the greatest player in his sport's history.
The other figure ESPN flashed that was less than impressive to my wife: Andy Roddick's career weeks at No. 1. By my count, Roddick spent nine weeks atop the ATP rankings. That isn't a lot. He won the U.S. Open title in September 2003, then spent November, December and early-January in the top spot. Roger Federer won the 2004 Australian Open (Roddick, the No. 1 seed, fell to Safin in the quarterfinals), assumed the top spot, and that was it.
From February 2004 to January 2005, Roddick spent all but five weeks at No. 2. From January to July of 2005, he was either No. 3 or No. 4. (What happened in 2005? Rafael Nadal, another "Greatest player ever" candidate, won his first of 11 slams.) From August 2005 to June 2006, he was between third and fifth, and after a bit of a slump, he was once again between third and fifth from January to November 2007. Following his gut-wrenching, five-set loss to Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon finals, he even made a return to the top 5 for a couple of months.
In the end, Andy Roddick was consistently elite, but never the most elite. He won 32 singles titles. In the "open era" (i.e. 1968 to the present), only 19 players have won more than that. Only two retired players have won more than that and HAVEN'T ended up in the Tennis Hall of Fame yet (clay-court masters Thomas Muster and Manuel Orantes). Like Muster and Orantes, Roddick won just a single slam; but Roddick was also No. 1 for longer than both of them combined (Muster for six weeks, Orantes for none).
Is this a slam-dunk hall-of-fame resume? Probably not. But it will probably be good enough. Remember: the Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't just include Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax; it also includes Ryne Sandberg, Gabby Hartnett and Andre Dawson. Roddick wasn't a Ruth, but he was almost certainly a Dawson.
Beyond the hall-of-fame talk, it is worth admiring Roddick for his perseverance through some absolutely dreadful times for American tennis. In the 1990s, the United States saw nearly unprecedented success in men's tennis, with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi combining for 124 singles titles and 22 slams. Jim Courier and Michael Chang threw in another five slam titles. In all, this foursome won 27 of 56 slams from the 1989 French Open to the 2003 Aussie Open. Sampras won his final slam at the 2002 U.S. Open, Agassi won the following Aussie title, and Roddick seemingly took the baton in winning at Flushing Meadows that fall. But that was it. There was nobody else to take the baton; Roddick had to run every leg of the relay by himself. He led a team of James Blake and the Bryan brothers to a 2007 Davis Cup championship, and he almost did the same in 2004 with a terribly inexperienced Mardy Fish as the only other singles player available.
Without Roddick, the state of American tennis will remain in flux. It will be up to somewhat aging stars like No. 10 John Isner (somehow already 27) and No. 25 Mardy Fish (coming back from a health issue at 30 years old) to hold the fort while we find out what we have in others. Once thought of as the Next Big Thing, players like Sam Querrey (28th at 24 years old), Jesse Levine (76th at 24) and Brian Baker (70th at 27 after a long string of injuries) are still improving, it seems; and technically 23-year-old Donald Young has time to recover from what has been a simply awful year. Querrey in particular is rising quickly after losing time to an injury of his own.
Meanwhile, we wait to see what becomes of America's Next Next Generation. Ryan Harrison is ranked 61st at 20 years old, and while that doesn't sound impressive to those who remember that Sampras won his first slam at 19, he is indeed one of the youngest players in the top 100. Junior star Denis Kudla (161st at 20) gave No. 24 Marcel Granollers hell in the U.S. Open first round. Steve Johnson (245th at 22) is in the second round. Rhyne Williams (289th at 21) qualified for the Open before losing to Roddick. And, of course, there is a lot to love about 19-year-old Nebraskan Jack Sock, who whipped No. 22 Florian Mayer in the first round this week and cruised past Flavio Cipolla in the second. He will face off with No. 11 Nicolas Almagro (himself an incredibly aggressive player) in the third round.
We've been here before, of course, but between Isner, Querrey, Harrison and Sock, there may be reason for optimism in the future of American tennis. And even if this country continues to struggle, for a decade Roddick assured that the U.S. had a relevant presence in both the sport and in pop culture (which is what happens when you date Mandy Moore and marry Brooklyn Decker). He will be remembered as much for his almosts as for his wins, but that isn't entirely his fault.
Roddick’s legacy will be similar to that of Federer’s in one important way that has nothing to do with statistics or titles: He’ll be remembered as a man who truly loved the game and gave himself over wholly to it. This fidelity not only overwhelmed what shortcomings he had, it also enabled him to absorb all the tough blows and move on, continuing to search for answers that didn’t exist to questions that he couldn’t duck. And that rewarded him with a record of consistency that will stand up to any amount of scrutiny.
As has been said many times now, if Roddick had been born five years earlier, he could have avoided some of Federer's prime and may have raked in quite a few more titles along the way. But he seems at peace with both his accomplishments and his retirement, and that's enough for me.