Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Into the Omaha Sunset: A Farewell to Andy Roddick

"It's been a pleasure. It's not something that's easy every day, for sure, especially when you kind of get anointed at a young age....For the moments where it's been hard, I've had 25 positive things that have come from it." --Andy Roddick on being the face of American tennis for the past decade

He lunged after a smartly placed short ball, smacked his reply a few feet beyond the baseline, and it was over. Andy Roddick's career ended in the 4th round of this year's U.S. Open after a hard-fought 4-set loss to the tall (and quite gracious in victory, given the moment) Argentine with the whip-crack forehand, Juan Martin Del Potro.

As the match's final point began, you could tell that sadness was tugging at the corners of Andy's mouth as the inevitable conclusion of his time as a top-tier tennis star neared. I dropped about the same number of tears as wife Brooklyn Decker probably did behind her huge sunglasses, as Andy fought back the cracks in his voice while thanking the fans of Arthur Ashe Stadium and his inner circle for their support. The guy known for berating incompetent umpires and filling press conferences with witty, self-deprecating banter was, in his own words, speechless.

The Omaha native and Austin, Texas, resident was the last great American tennis player of my youth, which made this particular retirement more difficult to handle than most, given both Andy's electric, acerbic personality and playing style and the impressionable nature of tennis fans my age and younger during his heyday. Rooting for Andy to make it deep into majors and upset the top of the 2000s tennis establishment was a ritual of my high school and college years. Which makes Andy's retirement feel like the snipping of one of those last remaining strands connecting the teenage Bruffy to the current version.

"I just got an 'Oh my' from Dick Enberg! How 'bout that?" --First words in the post-match interview after Andy won the 2003 U.S. Open

Andy ends his career with 612 career wins on the ATP Tour and 32 singles titles, which put him 3rd among active players before his retirement. He stands alongside such immortals as Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio, and Richard Krajicek as one-Slam winners in the annals of tennis history. But this distinction belies the strength of the road blocks at the top of tennis into which he kept slamming. But the all-around brilliance shown by the Big Three monolith of Roger Federer (arguably--and, for me, begrudgingly--the best all-court, all-around player of all time), Rafael Nadal (perhaps the best clay court player of all-time), and Novak Djokovic outclasses any top-of-the-rankings cabal since Borg/McEnroe/Connors in the 70s and early 80s.

And even those guys allowed the Adriano Panattas and Brian Teachers of the world to win a Slam every now and then. After Andy won his 2003 U.S. Open, only three other players besides Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic won one major between 2004's Australian Open and this year's Wimbledon. It's been an unprecendented near-decade of dominance from three players whose weaknesses are incredibly slight compared to the top players of nearly any other era (By comparison, Andy's weaknesses--his backhand and tendency to lose points the longer they went--closely mirrored some of the great top-tier serve-and-volley players of past generations, even though Andy stuck to the baseline much more than, say Pete Sampras or Krajicek).

"It was miserable. It sucked. It was terrible. Besides that, it was fine." --Andy Roddick after getting dismantled by Federer in the 2007 Australian Open Semifinals

And it's not like Andy won his one major and slunk to the background for the next nine years. He was the top-ranked American in the year-end rankings for most of the past decade and finished in the world top 10 in nine straight years. He also appeared in four other Grand Slam finals--and was thwarted by Federer each time.

Andy won just three of 24 lifetime matches against Federer. Many of them resembled the 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 Australian Open beatdown that preceded the above quote. But their 2009 encounter for the Wimbledon title was one of the sport's most epic battles of all-time. I remember nursing an Independence Day hangover and marveling at how well Andy was moving, how confidently he was hitting his strokes, and how he had turned a British crowd that had always been very pro-Roger in his own favor. It was the best match I ever watched him play.

Andy held serve 37 times in a row before succumbing 16-14 in the match's fifth and deciding set. I slammed a champagne glass on a kitchen counter after the final point. An overreaction? Sure. But I was pretty sure I had just watched my favorite tennis player rise to the challenge and play the match of his life. And now he and I both had to watch Federer strut around Centre Court in this stupid jacket to commemorate his breaking of Pete Sampras' old record of 14 career Grand Slam titles. There were slight moments during that trophy presentation where it looked like Andy wanted to smash a champagne glass into Roger's face. And I liked him even more for that.

"I'm all about the love. I love everybody. I'm falling in love with you as we speak." --Andy Roddick to a hyperactive press member who asked if he had time for love in his busy schedule

Andy Murray recently defeated Djokovic in a tense and thrilling 5-set U.S. Open final, making history by becoming the first British man to win a Grand Slam championship since Fred "Four Fingers" Perry beat Baron Gottfried von Cramm in the 1936 Wimbledon final. Murray's triumph was the culmination of a brilliant summer that included a runner-up finish at his home final at Wimbledon and a gold medal at the Olympics, where he throttled Federer in straight sets in the tournament's final. He's got that trademark dry British wit, and he's been known to share some particularly gracious and prescient thoughts during the climactic moments of his career, like here:

Murray has been the world's top-ranked Andy for the past several years, and he might now be my favorite active professional player. He's definitely the only top professional with a second serve slower than mine.

But I doubt I will ever again follow Murray--or any player, for that matter--as closely as I've followed Roddick over the past decade. Roddick was never the fastest guy on tour or the most physically fit; he had a couple overwhelming strengths and some glaring shortcomings at which he worked his ass off to improve, even late in his career. But as many have mentioned in their eulogies of his career, Roddick seems to have wrung every drip of possible success out of his talent and playing style. And through his jocular charisma and obstinate in-match resilience, Roddick demonstrated to a 15-year-old kid who hardly knew what he was doing on the court or off it a comfort in one's sense of self and an on-court determination worth emulating.

For that, I will really miss the Andy Roddick Era.

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