As of last night, America doesn’t have Andy Roddick to kick around anymore. The 30-year-old American tennis star announced last week that this US Open would be his final pro tournament, and with his loss in the fourth round to Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro, the curtain falls on Roddick’s career. Now the debate begins regarding his legacy.
A great many casual tennis fans—the ones who only tune in during Wimbledon and the US Open—seem to take pleasure in dismissing Roddick as an underachiever. They tend to dwell on his failure to win a second Grand Slam title after his 2003 US Open triumph, which came at the age of 21. Surely, they argue, a guy with such a prodigious skill set, including one of the most lethal serves the game has ever seen, could find his way to another major title. Knocking Roddick is easy cocktail-party conversation. Bemoan the state of American men’s tennis, citing Roddick’s shortcomings as an example, and you’re sure to elicit some assenting harumphs from the drive-by tennis followers. That sort of talk is low-hanging fruit.
It also happens to be wrong.
Here’s what Roddick DID do over the course of his career. On top of winning that US Open championship, he made four additional Grand Slam finals; he won 32 total titles, including nine Masters-1000 crowns (the highest level of men’s tournaments outside the four Grand Slams); he led the United States to a Davis Cup title in 2007; and he achieved the number-one ranking and managed to remain inside the top ten, with only brief interruption, for nearly a decade.
Do you still think he’s an underachiever? To almost everyone who follows tennis closely, those credentials make Roddick a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
If you’re stuck on his failure to win more than one Grand Slam title, here’s an explanation Roddick himself would never offer, but one that must be considered: His career overlapped completely with that of the greatest player ever to swing a racket. It was a cruel coincidence of birth timing that caused Roddick and Roger Federer to share the same road during the course of their careers. Federer has won 17 slams—three of them via victories over Roddick in the final match. How many major titles would Roddick own if Federer weren’t in the picture? Hard to say, but you can bet it would be more than one. And that doesn’t take into account the Nadal/Djokovic factor. Those three Roddick rivals have combined to win 29 of the past 30 slam titles. Like instructors often say, tennis is all about timing.
I also believe American tennis fans have had their expectations unreasonably inflated by the two previous generations of US players. The McEnroe/Connors era, followed closely by the Sampras/Agassi era, provided an embarrassment of riches for tennis fans in this country. Those four men combined to capture 37 Grand Slam singles titles and provided two of the signature rivalries in the sport’s history. It is true that the Roddick/Blake/Fish era has not come close to rivaling the success of their predecessors. But that was never going to happen.
Tennis today is far more globally balanced than in the past. Time was, the United States, Australia and Great Britain were by far the sport’s most dominant nations (those three countries have combined to win 69 of the 100 Davis Cup titles in the history of that competition). Today, the top seven players in the world hail from Switzerland, Serbia, Spain, Scotland, Czech Republic, and France. Andy Roddick was competing with an entire planet for Grand Slam titles. That wasn’t the case for champions of past eras.
Roddick’s legacy has been complicated by the fact that at times, he can be a fairly disagreeable curmudgeon. His testy interactions with the press over the years may have informed how various reporters interpreted his career. Clearly, he did himself no favors in this regard. But now that he has stepped away from the game, we are obliged to bring his body of work into much more specific relief, and I believe his achievements require more consideration than his shortcomings.