Andy Roddick won his first Grand Slam at age 21. He was the next big thing. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Pete Sampras had retired only a year back, and the baton-passing had occurred at none else but the US Open. He ended the year as World Number One. This was 2003.
Andy Roddick is now 29. He won his last Grand Slam when he was 21. The year is 2011, and he has just crashed out in the first round of the China Open- the FOURTH first-round exit this year. For the first time in 10 years, he was ranked out of the top 20 in August. Remarkable consistency, you’d say, for an American professional male tennis player in this era…but the fact remains that the only and last Grand Slam title he ever won was more than 8 years ago. And he was the next big thing.
If you want pure statistics, go here. Because this isn’t about any of the 30-odd titles he has, or the speed of his shotgun serves.
Here’s the deal with someone like Andy Roddick: He’s a great throwback to the 80s, when American tennis players went down all guns blazing on court, and treated the world to musical profanities that sounded sweet to the years in an era that required a bit of zing. He never shies away from losing his mind on court, or even off it, especially at the very entertaining post-match conferences. His latest- ‘I think you should retire’, when asked by a journalist at the China Open after his shock loss. Yes, it is fair to expect him to be caustic, sarcastic, bitter and even witty at these conferences. After all, that’s what World Sport is about- it is as much about your image off the court/field than it is on it. And Roddick, in this era of perfectly-behaved idol tennis gentlemen champions that don’t harm so much as a fly, is like that dose of madness in the form of a free-spirited raunchy carefree young girl in an art film. People look forward to watching him speak on television, much like they do, now Novak Djokovic. Often, he is accused of being arrogant and too harsh on the umpires during games, but the guy is American. What else do you expect? It’s all part of that package. It is exactly what Serena Williams is known for too. But the only difference is- sometimes, she merits the right to lose her mind. She actually EARNS it. Could you ever say the same about A-Rod? For all his eccentricities and poker-faced frankness over the years, has he truly looked fear in the eyes and conquered it?
Well, probably not. But Fear, throughout his career, has had a name. It goes by the name Roger Federer. Back in 2004-05, the star-struck world called this future rivalry one of the most mouth-watering, legendary rivalries around in World Sport. But by 2007, Andy Roddick put it all into context very effectively when he said: ‘Not much of a rivalry if I don’t win some, eh?’ And moments after that, Roddick did what he has done throughout his long and almost-illustrious career: He smirked.
Now, a smirk, in any other context of any other sport, is a great moment to watch on live television. It gives us a rare peak into the minds of athletes, not least of what they’re thinking. For that moment, they let go. But Roddick has smirked throughout his career, following it up by a self-bashing joke prompting the throng of journalists into applause for his wit.
But this harmless little ‘moment’ of his after every match he plays- is what has defined him as the player that never was. The smirk is actually a shrug. Like, ‘Y’know, I train hard, I’m fit as an ox, I do my best out there. But somebody’s always better than me, man. Can’t help it. Yeah.’ That is what Roddick is actually exuding, most times. And the man shrugs way too much. In fact, at times, instead of conquering his fear, he walks up to it and shakes its hand- applauding the very power of fear, like a naïve little kid. Don’t believe me? Look here. Agreed, that it was probably the greatest tennis shot ever played by the greatest player to ever walk this earth, and as a spectator- that is EXACTLY how I’d react too. But a young Roddick here isn’t quite a spectator, is he? It was entertaining, alright, in true-American style- the way he threw his racket at Federer, crossed the net and looked at him in shock and awe. But hey, you’re the competitor out there. You don’t bow down to your conqueror like that, do you? The moment pretty much defined the rest of the guy’s career, against that SAME opponent time and again.
It would be easy to say that Andy Roddick would have won 5-6 slams if he was born in another era. Makes sense, too, for he has lost 4 Grand Slam finals to Federer (3 at Wimbledon) and atleast two more semi-finals. Not much of a rivalry, right? But the point is: If you run into one player, one wall, one monster time and again at the most important junctures of your career, do you shrug and say things like ‘I threw the kitchen sink and everything in the house at him’, or do you engine on like Federer does against Nadal, inspite of being completely mentally mastered by the Spaniard? You won’t see Federer smile, smirk or shrug as if to say ‘too good’. That’s throwing in the towel. Champions don’t do that. Nadal won’t do that against Djokovic, either. Djokovic, himself quite a shadow of Roddick as an entertainer around three years ago, used to do the same thing. He used to applaud, laugh and throw his hands up in frustration at every Federer winner. But, one suspects, he looked at Roddick’s career and asked himself: Do I truly want to end up as the best second best there ever is? Or…
In 2009, Andy Roddick stretched Roger Federer to his limit. It was the first time Roddick could truly have gone back to the dressing room and cried- for he had done everything in his power to beat the phantom rival that never was. He had given it his all in that Wimbledon final, and went down 16-14 in the fifth. The numbers are mind-boggling for a guy that’d be mentally steamrolled the moment he was the name ‘Roger Federer’ in the draw followed by curse of luck and a ‘I’ll do my best…let’s see…’. 16-14. That was his destiny. He was two points away from the title that had eluded him more than it had eluded Ivanesevic or Rafter. He was refusing to go away. Roger Federer couldn’t quite believe it, but he strolled on. Finally, the American broke. He was the better player throughout the match, but finally, the Swiss villain broke his impenetrable serve and- one suspects- Roddick, as a human being.
As a tennis fan, there was nothing sadder than watching Andy stand, a mute spectator, without smirking or shrugging, just mildly clapping as he watched Roger Federer lift his sixth trophy. It was a far cry from the days where the organizers would start carving Roger Federer’s name on the trophy early in the third set against a deflated Roddick.
But Roddick was 27 in 2009. It was, in all likelihood, his last hurrah- his final, desperate and brave lunge at a reward that he never deserved until then, but always needed. As expected, after that 2009 final, Roddick has never really figured as a serious contender in the Slams, ageing and looking more frustrated with every tournament that passes. He might never- no, make that: He WILL never win that elusive Wimbledon title. He MIGHT never get back into the top 10. He might even never win a tournament again…what’s the point? If players like Djokovic and Nadal come through, with the same work ethic and attention to fitness, and win multiple slams in just a few years…What’s the point, if you’re a Roddick or a Hewitt? You were simply not good enough, and you did your best to capitalize on that vacant era between the demise of Sampras and the birth of Federer. Sadly, for them, eras overlapped with Nadal and now Novak.
And to think, it was all because of that smirk. That generous crowd-pleasing shrug.