Andy Roddick Retirement: Will American Tennis Fans Turn to John Isner?

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Andy Roddick Retirement: Will American Tennis Fans Turn to John Isner?
Julia Vynokurova/Getty Images

With the announcement of his pending retirement from the sport, Andy Roddick prepares to leave the tennis circuit as the most recognizable American-born athlete at the U.S. Open (via ESPN).

Roddick, of course, had moderate success throughout his career in the sport. His only Grand Slam victory came early in his career: a 2003 win at the U.S. Open. He also finished second at Wimbledon on three different occasions, losing to Roger Federer each time.

Despite going nearly nine years without repeating his 2003 U.S. Open and World No. 1 ranking success, Roddick has been the most recognizable American male tennis player for nearly a decade.

His retirement not only removes a major athletic figure from the tennis circuit, but it also takes with it some of the national interest in the sport.

America as a nation is not uninterested in tennis, but with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic dominating the sport (the three have combined to win each major tournament since the 2009 U.S. Open, and every tournament before that dating back to the 2005 Australian Open), the motivation for many viewers to become more than just casual fans is limited.

Roddick’s announcement will not simply bring about reflection of his remarkable career. It will also ignite speculation about who the next big figure in men’s tennis will be for the whole country.

Immediately, the most likely candidate seems to be John Isner.

Isner gained recognition after his marathon Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut in 2010—a match whose deciding set ran a record-shattering 138 games. The total match spanned the course of three different days.

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Isner’s larger-than-life accomplishment matches his larger-than-life stature. The Florida native towers over players like Federer and Nadal, standing at 6’9” and possessing a powerful serve that should surprise no one, given his build.

He appears to be approaching the apex of his career at the right time. As Roddick prepares to trade in the racquet on the court for the racket in the broadcast booth (because, let’s be honest, Roddick has the perfect personality to cover the sport), Isner achieved his highest career ranking (ninth) earlier this year. He currently sits 10th, the highest among Americans.

Appropriately, his campaign to retain the attention of the casual, nationalistic American tennis viewer would seem to begin in New York, at the U.S. Open.

The focus of the world will be, as always, on Wimbledon champ Roger Federer, defending U.S. Open champ Novak Djokovic and reigning gold medalist Andy Murray. Rafael Nadal will not be playing in the tournament due to injury.

But up until the semifinals, every player, even in the men’s bracket, has a chance to draw attention to himself.

Isner’s best finish at a Grand Slam event was a quarterfinals appearance at last year’s U.S. Open, where he fell to Britain’s Murray.

His current draw would have him matching up with ninth-ranked Janko Tipsarevic in the fourth round, assuming that both players win their second- and third-round matches. The matchup would be no easy task for Isner, but it would likely not be enough on its own to rally the country behind him in future tournaments.

Should Isner perform well enough to not only face Tipsarevic, but also defeat him, the men’s draw would (all favorites winning) pit Isner against David Ferrer in the quarterfinal. Ferrer is ranked fifth in the world—a testament to his talent and notability in a men’s era defined by the “Big Four.”

 

It is conceivable that even an upset of Ferrer would not be enough to make Isner a household name like “Roddick,” though an appearance in the semifinal against (once again, presumed) Novak Djokovic would finally insert Isner into the spotlight that has largely eluded him since his saga with Mahut.

Why would that semifinal appearance be enough to get the country replacing Roddick’s name with Isner’s?

Quite simply, television.

The tournament’s weekday matches are broadcast largely on ESPN2—a network that is by no means obscure, but still lacks the exposure of the broadcast networks.

Weekend matches are broadcast on CBS, and for much of the casual viewing public, the U.S. Open will not be featured on home television screens until the semifinals, which begin Saturday, Sept. 8. There, the draw would be down to four athletes, presumably the healthy members of the Big Four, and one wild-card player.

If all three major players qualify, the fourth will come from Isner’s quadrant of the bracket.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

John Isner’s performance at the U.S. Open could be the perfect confluence of events for Roddick to symbolically pass the torch to him.

Undoubtedly, all eyes will be trained on Roddick for as long as he remains in the U.S. Open. Certainly, the storybook ending would be for Roddick to finally recapture the title that has eluded him for nearly nine years—a final glorious moment in a magnificent but somewhat undecorated career.

Should the story fail to write itself in Roddick’s favor, however, perhaps there is a second tale waiting to unfold: One of another American on his home court preparing to shine as the sun sets on his countryman.

For this American tennis fan, that alone is enough to make me watch.

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