The Transition Game

The first time I ever saw Andy Roddick play live was in 2002 at the U.S. Open when he took on Juan Ignacio Chela in the fourth round. Yes it was that match during the “visor” days when Roddick, in the middle of one point, made some spectacular saves before hitting a final running winner that sent him over to the sidelines where he then proceeded to high-five anyone close enough to him.

It was my first Roddick moment.

Roddick won the match and I remember thinking that he reminded me of Jimmy Connors with his on-court swagger and the way he pulled the crowd in with him. Afterwards, while just wearing socks, Roddick signed autographs for fans (men, women, young, old) who had wandered down to the front row near the left side of the court, drawn to him already like admiring teenage girls who had just met their favorite rock star for the first time. Their giddy, excited chatter floated over to where I stood watching them.

Roddick won the U.S. Open the next year. I was working for a publishing company at the time and we had sponsored a contest for high school students with one of the prizes being that the winners could attend a live taping of MTV’s ‘Total Request Live’. The celebrities for that day’s taping were Johnny Depp promoting his first “Pirates” movie and yes, Andy Roddick who brought along the trophy for everyone to admire.

As they say, a star was born.

Roddick went on to become No. 1 and soon did what most rock stars do. Made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live”, dated Mandy Moore when she was a singer and not an actress and became a household name here in the U.S. even while Roger Federer was slowly beginning his dynasty over the sport. And like most rock stars there were some down moments too. The ill-fated American Express “mojo” campaign that was quickly scrapped after Roddick lost in the first round at the U.S. Open in 2005 to Gilles Muller on Roddick’s birthday.

“I don’t really remember a loss where I’ve felt this bad afterwards,” Roddick said. “I love playing here. I probably had the best practice week I’ve ever had in lead up. It just didn’t translate tonight. … I’m in a little bit of shock right now, to be honest. I’d give anything to go back four hours right now.”

It was the first time, but not the last time, that Roddick would be overhyped and then under deliver, at least to the public at large. While all this was happening, there were also the outbursts, the dressing down of lines people and umpires, the snarky press conferences as well as the borderline morose ones when he suffered a bad defeat, usually at the hands of Federer. Roddick was one of the sport’s biggest stars but while he attracted fans to him because of his off-court persona, others were quick to criticize him as a “smart ass frat boy” who would always be a one-Slam wonder. His game was viewed as one-dimensional and as he suffered a dip in results around 2006 that saw him fall out of the top ten, some thought his days on a tennis court were numbered.

Roddick ended up hiring Connors after all as his coach, one of many symmetrical moments that would appear throughout his career. Roddick rebounded to reach the U.S. Open finals where he lost to Federer in four sets. It seemed that Roddick was back in the mix for Majors and soon would win another one.

We didn’t know it then of course, but it was the last time Roddick would make the finals of New York. By now Federer’s grip on the sport was tightening while the emergence of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray began to squeeze Roddick out of not only reaching the finals of another Major for three years but also began the period where Roddick began hearing the ever growing complaints of why he couldn’t play better along with the increased pressures of being the lone American man with any hope of winning another Slam.

I remember listening to his match against Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2007 (no internet video streams then), a match he was up two sets to love in but then managed to lose in five sets. By the end of it, I was completely fed up with Roddick and declared it was “over” telling myself I would never root for him again.

I was done with him and as I far as I was concerned Roddick was done too.

But after a cooling off period, I found myself watching his matches again. 2008 was another okay year for Roddick who was now back to be a fixture in the top ten but still far away from being a Major contender. But after reaching the semis of Melbourne to kick off 2009, Roddick appeared to have one more run left in him. It came, quite unexpectedly at Wimbledon, where Roddick edged past his old rival Lleyton Hewitt in five sets before shocking Murray in four sets to reach the finals. He took on Federer in what would become a classic with Roddick getting oh so close to finally winning the title – a final that still has some wondering what would happened if Roddick had hit that backhand volley to go up two sets to love.

Many have said something died in Roddick that day. It certainly did for me. It’s not that I stopped rooting for Roddick more so that I just knew that I would never ‘live or die’ for another player again based on whether they won or lost. Maybe it was sign that I was getting older or that the current generation of players lacked something that I could really get behind but I sort of knew that after Roddick it would take a lot ,and I mean a lot, from a new player to get me to feel that same affinity I had with him.

2011 marked a turnaround of sorts, not so much in his ranking but more so in an appreciation of Roddick. There was that magical diving shot he hit to win the Memphis title over Milos Raonic and then later in the summer when he took command at the U.S. Open when many players voiced their displeasure at the USTA’s handling of the scheduling of matches after Hurricane Irene roared through the New York area. The sight of Roddick marching towards Court 13 while followed by a herd of fans, photographers and, yes, his opponent David Ferrer was one of those classic moments we’ll never forget. After Roddick beat Ferrer in four sets, the sight of Roddick running around slapping hands with those fans in the front row reminded me of that night back in 2002. America’s love affair with Roddick had resumed.

And then his final year. Of course we (being the public) didn’t know 2012 would be his final one though some people very close to him had already been told it would be. Or would it? Roddick yet again underwent massive lows and highs that included the sudden passing of his long time agent Ken Myerson and then an unexpected but inspirational win over Roger Federer in Miami. That was followed by a dismal losing streak during the clay court season, expected in some ways but still one that had many openly saying it was time for Roddick to hang it up. He defied expectation again by winning Eastbourne and though he lost at Wimbledon to David Ferrer there was still hope that perhaps one more run at a big title was in him.

But then there was that last kiss goodbye to Centre Court at Wimbledon. It was brief yet poignant as if Roddick knew it would be the last time. He then went to Atlanta where he won his 32nd career title against Gilles Muller – the same man who beat him in the first round in New York all those years ago. A strange symmetry indeed but in some ways very appropriate. After all, it was in Atlanta that Roddick won his very first pro event back in 2001.

After defeating his friend James Blake in his opening match at the Winston-Salem Open, I asked Roddick about his body and how he was feeling. Roddick started by giving a roundabout answer about how in school you get credit for attendance before going on to say it had been a frustrating year. Perhaps it was Roddick’s way of saying he still wished he gotten more credit for being consistent all these years instead of being criticized for not having more Majors on his resume.

So why did Roddick decide to call it time at New York this year? In his last press conference he said that he had made up his mind after beating Rhyne Williams in the first round. The timing of his announcement felt abrupt and odd to some, but if you think about, we’ve all at some point in our lives thought about leaving a job, a lover or even an apartment but then dwelled on it for a while. It’s only after we walk into the office on a Monday or having had another phone call with that person on a weekend that we then finally decide, “Yep, it’s time to end this.”

And that’s what Roddick did. I never expected Roddick to continue playing while his ranking slipped and no longer remained a factor at the Majors. He had done enough and it was fitting that he ended on his terms rather than let an injury or another up and down season dictate what he must do.

Is this post a tad rambling? Perhaps. But then so was Roddick’s career. His was never a clean, precise timeline by any means. A massive start yes followed by peaks and valleys. While he may have never achieved all he wanted, or as much as his fans or the American public may have liked, one legacy that will remain is his imprint on American men’s tennis. Just look at all the current and young U.S. players who all play in the Roddick way – a big serve, big forehand, a pokey two-handed backhand and an adequate return game. There are no one-handed backhand serve and volleyers like Pete Sampras and very few juniors with the laser like return game of Andre Agassi. The “children” of Roddick will be on display on the pro tour for years to come.

Why do we choose the players to root for among the hundreds that compete on tour each year? It all depends, but aside from Roddick being a fellow American perhaps I gravitated to him because of his brash personality, one very different from my own. Maybe it was because he reminded me of my youth watching McEnroe and Connors, both with their own fiery personalities. It certainly wasn’t his ability to hit 150 MPH serves or clock a winning forehand with ease. Roddick’s described himself at times as “the best worst tennis player on tour”, and that was certainly true but it was his ability to make the most of his game especially during this “golden age” that I will appreciate the most about him, more so than any of his trademark one-liners.

Because his retirement announcement was so sudden, it still doesn’t feel like he’s really not part of the tour anymore. It will probably hit us, and maybe even him, when the Australian Open rolls around and we don’t see his name on the drawsheet. No man is bigger than the sport, but Roddick’s larger than life personality will be missed. From the kid running around in socks on Armstrong to the man who gave a final speech on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Roddick wore many hats in his career — from America’s next hope to American superstar to the country’s favorite punching bag, go-to man for one liners and finally elder statesman and then mentor to the next generation.

It was a twelve year journey that was not always easy but one that was well worth taking — and I’m glad I did.

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