Roddick Got The Most Of His Ability

Andy Roddick salutes fans after his fourth round loss to Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2012 US Open tennis tournament Sept. 5 in New York. Roddick said he would retire after the match. AP photo

I’m going to miss Andy Roddick. His retirement announcement was a surprise to me, mostly in its suddenness. Sometimes tennis players give a heads up before their final season, sometimes they make no announcement at all and just hang up the racket without a proper goodbye. Roddick’s proclamation after a first-round victory at the U.S. Open that this would be his final tournament as a professional tennis player made the process more hurried than I had imagined it.

Roddick has always been my guy. We’re almost the same age (he’s just about two months older), and I feel like I’ve always understood his personality while maybe others have not. He’s been the most fun to root for of any post-Golden Era American tennis player because he truly cared about every aspect of his tennis life and displayed personality along with his intensity. He’s been energetic, exciting, brash, bright, self-aware, self-deprecating, theatrical and thoughtful. And while people had been labeling his career a disappointment during the past few years, I think it was the exact opposite.

Roddick was known mostly for one thing: his monster serve. If you grade out the rest of his game, his forehand was the only other element considered above average. His backhand and net play were often criticized, and his less aggressive style as he got on in years was picked apart by the analysts. Yet somehow, a kid who was never a dominant player in the junior ranks until 1999 went on to have one of the most consistent careers of his generation, though the lofty American expectations made his accomplishments more difficult to appreciate.

Roddick ended nine straight seasons — 2002 to 2010 — ranked in the top 10. The only other player to do that over the same time period is Roger Federer. The kid with so many flaws hustled and grinded his way to the No. 1 ranking at the conclusion of the 2003 season, during which he won his lone Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. That victory appeared to be one of many to come for the 21-year-old. Little did we know that Federer was about to make Roddick one of the many also-rans in the sport for some time.

Roddick’s U.S. Open championship is probably less appreciated than it should be because he didn’t have to beat Federer to win it. His dominant, straight-set victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final came a round after he fought back from two sets down and saved a match point against David Nalbandian. He didn’t beat Federer, but he earned that trophy.

While another major championship would never manifest itself, Roddick won 32 ATP titles and compiled a career singles record of 609-212. Some of the shock of his announcement comes from the fact that Roddick has been playing relatively well recently. He won two ATP titles this year, made the Round of 16 at the US Open and despite a pedestrian 23-16 record, mostly because of injuries, he picked up a rare victory over Federer in March. Federer has held over Roddick with a 21-3 record throughout their careers and while Roddick had multiple chances to add to his Grand Slam haul, making it to four more Finals after 2003, he faced and lost to Federer in all four.

The last was a memorable Wimbledon Final in 2009, when Roddick played perhaps the best tennis of his life, pushing Federer in an epic five-set match but falling 16-14 in the deciding frame. You could read on his face and in his effort that he felt this was his last best chance at becoming a multiple Slam winner. When it didn’t happen, it was not a look of defeat or resignation that swooped in, but the acknowledgement that again, he had maximized his ability and simply been beaten.

He was never OK with losing, but he was OK with the process of moving forward and continuing to work in an effort to remain among the world’s best. He was OK with that process until he wasn’t, which apparently came to fruition these past few weeks. He couldn’t commit to working as hard as he needs to in order to remain a top player, so he chose not to disrespect the game by giving less than 100 percent.

Roddick has always been the best interview in tennis, someone who told the truth no matter the answer, someone who gave honest self-critiques but also wasn’t afraid to dish out a few jabs when warranted. He maximized everything about himself in the tennis community, be it press conferences, youth interaction, charitable donations and, yes, his ability on the court.

Some consider him the Charles Barkley of tennis for existing in an era when Federer was playing the Michael Jordan role.

I disagree. He wasn’t unlucky to play in the era he did; he was a kid who took one extraordinary gift and built a game around it that was highly relevant and entertaining for a decade.

The only unlucky ones are the rest of us now that it’s over.