Almost three years have passed between the last overhead Roger Federer hit for a winner at the 2006 U.S. Open and the last backhand Andy Murray hit into the net at this year’s Wimbledon.
In the life of a tennis fan, much can change in that length of time.
At the end of 2006, players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Verdasco, and Robin Soderling weren’t on our radar. Players like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Juan Martin del Potro didn’t look like Grand Slam contenders.
Rafael Nadal hadn’t experienced the thrill of winning Wimbledon or the frustration of not being able to defend it. Federer was yet to first feel the sting of losing a Wimbledon final or the triumph of winning Roland Garros.
And, in that time, I had forgotten what it meant to be a fan of a player. I knew what it meant to love the game itself and to be a “fan” of all players in the sense that they all had traits I admired and that together they made my favorite sport a proud one.
I preferred to call myself a tennis fan, though, and to root for the results that would bring more glory to the game itself. This was more logical and more satisfying in the long run, and it helped me avoid (most) petty arguments over perspective.
It also meant avoiding hope, and the disappointment that it brings.
Few sports fans know disappointment the way an Andy Roddick fan does. When he caught fire in the summer of 2003, won his first US Open title, and finished No. 1 in the world, we were spoiled.
Federer had won a major, but was not yet using the power of his racket to turn everything he touched into trophies and prize money. Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin were slumping.
Nadal was promising, but he was only 17.
After that, times got harder despite the fact that Roddick was almost always improving on, or at least maintaining, the level he showed in ‘03. He reached two Wimbledon finals and another at the US Open. He advanced to the Australian Open semis three times. He led the United States to a Davis Cup win, and this year he will most likely finish in the top 10 for the eighth straight year.
That would tie him with Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe.
That would put him one ahead of Mats Wilander.
And yet, being a Roddick fan meant regularly having to hang your head and hope that Federer wouldn’t stand in the way next time.
At Wimbledon, the title Roddick most desires, Federer escaped his grasp in 2004 and outclassed him in 2005. At the US Open, the Swiss took the native son’s best shots in 2006 and 2007 before brushing him aside.
In 2007 and 2009, they met in the Australian semis, and the results there were more unkind than anywhere else.
At some point after Roddick’s last defeat in a major final, I stopped hoping.
I suspected he’d always be there, leading our country in Davis Cup and scoring respectable victories, but for him to win a second major was more than I dared believe in anymore.
Besides, the game itself was growing, and the younger players like Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray were making it more competitive.
At any rate, I no longer resided in America, and it was time to become a citizen of the world, cheering all players in this most globalized of sports rather than clinging to nationalistic sentiment (Davis Cup being the lone venue for unrestrained nationalism, of course).
And, for a time, Roddick did his part by not reaching any more major finals. He was the B-student, reliable but unexceptional, and he wouldn’t disappoint if more wasn’t expected of him.
When Andy Murray hit that final backhand into the net in this year’s Wimbledon semifinal, I remembered hope, hard as I tried not to.
His opponent in the final would be, after all, Federer, who had beaten him in 90 percent of their encounters and all their major meetings.
Hope, though, is hard to hold back when there’s so much to gain.
I suddenly realized why Federer fans expressed confidence that their man could beat Nadal on clay, why Red Sox fans spent decades believing they could win a Series, and why my home-state Tennessee football fans were always sure that this was their year to beat Alabama and Florida.
A win on final Sunday would double Roddick’s major haul, shed him of the unfair one-Slam-wonder status, and make him a threat for No. 1 again.
With images of Roddick crying and mouthing “I don’t believe it!," then finally holding the Wimbledon trophy, what Roddick fan, past or present, could stop themselves from hoping?
After nearly three years, I was a partisan again. Not because of what country he comes from, but because of who he is and how hard he’s worked to get here.
I cheered the games he won and cursed the ones that slipped away.
I decried his moments of bad luck and forgot the moments of fortune that brought him here.
I hated the thought of him losing badly, but I would be crushed by the idea of him dropping a close one.
Being a fan means celebrating harder when things go your man’s way and being at more of a loss when they don’t.
No doubt, Federer was going to play at a word-class level during the final, so, in that respect, Roddick is the one who gave us this draining, emotional championship match with its 30-game final set.
What he got in return—a runner’s-up check and a third small finalist's plate—seems very poor compensation.
He’ll need some time to recover from this result, to be sure.
Hopefully, though, it won’t be long before he starts to believe again. Through this Wimbledon, he has provided a reminder of what hope feels like.