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Steve Flink: Roddick leaves at 30 somewhat unfulfilled

9/2/2012 10:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS—  Andy Roddick just got past Fabio Fognini in a third round match on Arthur Ashe. But as I sit in the media center now, the Roddick skirmish with Fognini or his next match against Juan Martin del Potro are not at the top of my list of concerns. It is my turn to reflect on his career and his decision to retire from the game he has played so passionately. Roddick’s announcement the other night on his 30th birthday that this U.S. Open would be the final tournament of his illustrious career caught us off guard in terms of the timing. Why would he choose to disclose his plan to walk away from tennis in between his first and second round matches? Why not wait until he loses here and then tell the fans in a post-match television interview that he is saying goodbye to the game?

I wish I had the answers to those questions. I can only surmise that his timing was carefully designed to give him a boost with the crowds. Perhaps there was at least a shade of gamesmanship on Roddick’s part in deciding to spring the news on the press and public at that particular time. He might have been looking for an extra edge, hoping the fans would get behind him even more vociferously. I wish he had waited until the final bell had rung, and then he would have been cascaded with applause from every corner of Arthur Ashe Stadium as soon as he told everyone what he was doing. The way I look at it, that would have been a classier way for Roddick to make his farewell.

But it doesn’t really matter. Here is a man who has been the best American male tennis player of the last decade, the player who was put in the unenviable position of taking over at the top of the American game in the wake of the highly accomplished Pete Sampras and Agassi. Sampras, of course, won 14 majors, captured Wimbledon seven times, won the U.S. Open on five occasions, and finished no fewer than six years in a row at No. 1 in the world. Agassi recorded a career Grand Slam, secured eight majors, took five of his majors after turning 29, and climbed higher into history than many astute observers thought was possible.

Along came Roddick, and many fervent followers of American tennis expected him to carve out his own niche in history, to win a bunch of Grand Slam titles, and to carry the American game on his back. I remember watching him in 2003, when he won his only major here at the U.S. Open and finished the season at No. 1 in the world, above Roger Federer. During that U.S. Open--- when he saved a match point in the semifinals against David Nalbandian and then toppled Juan Carlos Ferrero in a straight sets final—I recall telling one of my colleagues that I believed Roddick would come away with six major championships in his collection before he put the racket down.

That, of course, did not happen. Many of his most ardent supporters contend that Roddick would have won many more majors if only he had not been around during Federer’s era. It was Federer, after all, who bested Roddick in three Wimbledon finals and one U.S. Open final round contest. To be sure, it has not been easy for a lot of players in this era. Federer was utterly dominant from 2004 to 2007. He won 11 of 16 Grand Slam events in that span. He captured 42 ATP World Tour events in that brilliant four year period. And he was often a nightmare for Roddick. They played 25 times in head to head competition, and Roddick won a grand total of three times, including, ironically, their last duel this year in Miami.

But the fact remains that Roddick had chances to make more inroads against Federer, and he did not exploit them. In the 2004 Wimbledon final, he won the first set, dropped the second after recouping from 0-4 back to 4-4, and then led 4-2 in the third set before rain delay occurred. That was bad luck for Roddick. When they returned, Federer took the third in a tie-break and pulled out a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4 victory. Roddick could have won that match had he played marginally better under pressure. In two of his other final round losses to Federer at the majors, Roddick was clearly outplayed, falling in straight sets at the 2005 Wimbledon and a year later at the U.S. Open.

But his landmark match with Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final was the defeat that changed the face of his career. That would have put him into a different category as a player. He could have moved out of the “One Slam Wonder” club and taken his place deservedly among the multiple winners at the majors. And he gave himself every conceivable chance to succeed. Roddick won the first set of that final, and led 6-2 in the second set tie-break. After Federer had saved three set points, Roddick served at 6-5, approached on the Federer backhand, and should have put away a backhand volley. He read Federer’s down the line forehand pass, but the shot was slightly miss-hit and Roddick hesitated, thinking the ball might go long. Roddick had the court open for a crosscourt backhand volley, but he bungled it.

Had Roddick been decisive at a crucial moment and made that volley, he would have been ahead two sets to love and it would have been nearly impossible for Federer to stop him from claiming that crown at the All England Club. Instead, Federer took that set. Roddick fought on gallantly, and took the match into a fifth set. But he was serving from behind the entire final set, and Federer was serving stupendously by then, finishing the match with 50 aces. Federer stopped a disconsolate Roddick 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14. In many ways, he never really recovered from that setback. It was a match he could have won. It was a confrontation he should have won. But the fact remained that Roddick did not win on a day when he was awfully close to his very best. In fact, he held serve 37 times in a row before getting broken at 14-15 in the fifth. Federer did not outplay him on that occasion; he simply willed himself to the win.

Since that loss in one of the greatest matches ever played, Roddick was riddled by a wide assortment of injuries. But perhaps he was also permanently wounded psychologically by that devastating defeat at the hands of Federer. It is hard to imagine that it did not haunt him. History would surely have seen him in a different light if he had managed to win the two biggest titles in tennis, rather than his one U.S. Open triumph. And yet, his list of shining credits is considerable. Roddick—as I mentioned earlier—finished 2003 at No. 1 in the world.

That was the year he joined forces with Brad Gilbert, who did an admirable job coaching him. Gilbert came aboard the Roddick ship in June of that year, and it was no accident that Roddick went on a tear across that summer that he would never replicate. From the start of his union with Gilbert at Queen’s Club in 2003, Roddick won five of the next seven tournaments he played through the U.S. Open. Those were the days when Roddick was more impetuous as a player. He was always unafraid to go for his forehand, which was one of the mightiest weapons in the game at the time. He would drive through the ball with complete lack of inhibition, flattening it out for inside-out forehand winners, taking control of matches with that shot as well as his magnificent first and second serves.

I know that Roddick took great pride over the years in diversifying his game, improving his volley, turning his two-handed backhand into more of an asset by going down the line more frequently, and generally rounding out his game. But I still believe he made a fundamental mistake across the years in largely abandoning the flatter, more explosive forehand in favor of covering it more, giving it more air and more topspin. The view here is that he would have been a lot better off if he had avoided trying to win matches with his legs and his defensive skills rather than gunning for the forehand the way he had done so successfully in the early years. He was a more intimidating player when he went for the forehand. I liked his game more when he was more uncompromising.

In any case, his record is still extraordinary. He turned professional in 2000, won 32 tournaments over the course of his career, and spent nine consecutive years entrenched in the world’s top ten from 2002-2010. On top of that, he was a stalwart Davis Cup competitor for the U.S. He led the Americans to victory in 2007, the first time the U.S. was victorious since 1995. His overall record in singles was an impressive 33-12. When you add it all up, even with the deficiencies in his record, Roddick has every right to be proud of what he achieved.

In most instances, I would argue that a player who only takes one major should not make it into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But Roddick clearly is an exception to that rule. The fact that he concluded a year at No. 1 and carried his nation to a Davis Cup victory is not insignificant. He should have done more, but the fact remains that Roddick accomplished prodigiously in his own way. In my view, he definitely deserves to go into the Hall of Fame. Yet it’s too bad that he could not have found a way to transform himself and his game the way Novak Djokovic did. The Serbian had won only one major himself heading into 2011, and now he owns five of those prestigious prizes. Djokovic had the same problem Roddick did for a very long while. He, too, lived in the era of Federer and Rafael Nadal, but he found a way to move out from beneath the shadows of those towering figures and established himself in the front line of his sport.

Djokovic, of course, is more gifted than Roddick. He is a fundamentally better tennis player. He has had more to work with. But the analogy is there. That is why I can’t subscribe to the theory that Roddick would have prospered more in another era, far away from the overwhelming force called Federer, nowhere near Nadal or Djokovic. Would Agassi have won a lot more majors without Sampras standing so frequently in his way and beating him in four of their five major finals? No one can really say. Roddick’s career is what it is. No one can argue that he did not give the game everything he had. Roddick was the quintessential competitor, a man with an unshakable will to win, a champion with an indisputably strong work ethic. He played hard, pursued his goals forcefully, and realized many of his largest dreams.

In the final analysis, Andy Roddick was a somewhat unfulfilled champion. His injuries over the last couple of years probably hastened his retirement. But this much is certain: Roddick was a warrior who pushed himself as long and far as he could. He is leaving the game on his own terms, and he can’t ask for more than that.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.