Many Americans look back at the 1990's with nostalgia.
Our economy was booming. We weren’t at war. Our president was still a deeply flawed man, but his flaws were the source of great comedy.
One wonders if Andy Roddick feels the same way about the past decade, and ever ponders what kind of career he’d have enjoyed had he been a player of that era.
True, there probably would’ve been past greats who’d have outshined him, much as the present greats have. Except, unlike today, those greats would also be Americans, thus relieving the burden of a nation’s expectations from Roddick’s shoulders.
Consider this: as there are four slams in a year, there are therefore 40 in a decade. In the 1990's, Pete Sampras won 12 major titles, Andre Agassi five and Jim Courier four. This means that 21 of the majors that took place in that decade—or slightly more than half—were won by Americans.
With only three-quarters of a year’s majors left for this decade, only six have been won by Americans, and five of them were won by Sampras and Agassi. Roddick, in 2003, added the sixth, and has spent the last five and a half years vainly trying to add to that total.
A much more global game has brought innumerable benefits for tennis fans, but America has not kept up with the evolution in the game. For while Roddick, America’s top player for most of the decade, has the head and heart of a champion, his game is distinctly out of step with the times.
Only a decade ago the game was full of player’s who weren’t great athletes but had enormous serves. These players—Greg Rusedski, Richard Krajicek, Mark Philippoussis, and Goran Ivanisevic being most prominent—were able to carve a very good living for themselves and even snag a couple a major titles thanks to a racket technology that had not boomed like it has today and an abundance of fast surfaces to play on.
One can only wonder what Roddick, who serves even harder than they did and has shown a far greater commitment to fulfilling his potential, might have accomplished in that era.
The slower surfaces of today, especially at Wimbledon, along with better rackets have aided returners and ralliers, thus making today’s game more watchable, but have exposed the flaws in Roddick’s game. For, while the American’s game can be described in many superlative adjectives such as “big” and “potent,” one rarely used for it is “complete.”
His movement is, for a pro, average.
Examine the current top eight players—Roddick is, as of this writing, No. 6—and ask yourself if there is a weaker shot in that group than the American’s backhand. I stop short of calling it a weakness, as this word implies that he shanks it regularly or that it consistently sits up in the middle of the court for opponents to crush. It does none of those things; it is simply the least consistently useful groundstroke among the top 10 players, and today’s game relies on groundstrokes more than ever.
In the past it would’ve stacked up well against the shots of certain other greats: Courier’s backhand, for one, and Stefan Edberg’s forehand, for another. Such is the strength of today’s baseliners that any groundstroke that is not a weapon may be considered a “weak” shot.
Roddick may also feel out of place in today’s international climate. Though he originates from a red state and now resides in an even redder one, he has not indicated any overt political leanings. Nonetheless, as the worldwide image of the United States has sunk, the critiques of his country have often been foisted upon him.
This is not to defend his tendency toward confrontation with umpires, but every time he argues a line call he becomes a scapegoat for the anti-intellectualism, brashness, and aggression for which our country is now regarded.
There’s no doubt that some of Roddick’s antics toward line’s judges have crossed the line, but the sport has a long history of such incidents.
One reason the American’s outbursts probably get so much attention now is because his toughest opponents – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – are so exceptionally polite.
As we enter the third month of 2009, there’s indication that the United States has turned a corner. It remains to be seen how successful its new center-left government will be in aiding the nation’s—and the world’s—economic maladies; but its new president is both a member of a minority group and an out-of-the-closet intellectual.
Both of these qualities are likely to be beneficial to the nation’s image, even if his policies are not.
Roddick has also started the year on a fresh note. With a new coach he reached his first semifinal of a Grand Slam event in two years. In a nation known for having fewer and fewer svelte citizens, a much-trimmer Roddick scored an upset when the world’s third-ranked player wilted in the heat against him.
Last week, he won his first title of the year, but it was his actions off the court that earned him even more praise.
The tennis world witnessed an injustice in Dubai as a female player was barred entry because of her nationality. Nearly all onlookers saw this for the wrong that it was, but most responses to it were limited to words.
The American, Roddick, however, did something: The week after women’s tournament, he was to defend his title at the men’s event but declined to. His reason for doing so was as concise as it was refreshing.
"I really didn't agree with what went on over there. I don't know if it's the best thing to mix politics and sports, and that was probably a big part of (my withdrawal).”
The 2009 tennis season is still in its infancy, and it remains to be seen what kind of year its top American will have. If he stays healthy, maybe he’ll make more deep runs at majors.
Depending on how the draw plays out, he may lead the United States to another Davis Cup title.
Even if none of these comes to pass, this nation’s top player does us proud through his professionalism, and through his perspective. Perhaps he’d have been more successful in another decade, but I’m happier watching him now.
I've received several submissions for the Change One Thing project begun last week. The results will be compiled and published by Thursday, so there's still time for those interested in submitting.