News & Politics

As Andy Roddick Retires, It’s Time to Reconsider His Legacy

We should acknowledge what the American tennis icon achieved rather than dwelling on what he didn’t.

Andy Roddick at the Billie Jean King tennis center in 2011. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.