Andy Roddick is unfortunate.
Unfortunate that he came along right at the end of the United States’ most recent period of tennis dominance, headlined, of course, by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Michael Chang.
Unfortunate that, because of the convergence of those two situations, Roddick is perpetually cursed with having to shoulder the responsibility of sustaining American tennis’ global relevance—something which, although he has tried mightily for almost a decade, he simply cannot do.
His most recent loss—a five-setter in the fourth round at Wimbledon to the obscure and unseeded Yen-Hsun Lu—pushed Roddick’s streak of consecutive grand slams without a championship to 26. Despite the fact that he has reached four finals since defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero to win the 2003 US Open, can Roddick seriously be classified on the same level as Federer or Nadal, or, dare we ask, even up-and-coming studs like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray?
The answer, regardless of how epic his championship battle with Federer was last year, is no.
Still, despite the fact that Andy remains America’s best male tennis player—a gap, however, that is being encroached upon by the likes of Sam Querrey and John Isner—he has still failed to be fully embraced by the general public.
That too is unfortunate.
Do American fans dislike Roddick because they know that rooting for him will ultimately end in disappointment? Or is it because, unlike most ATP Tour players who go about their on-court business with unprecedented stoicism, Roddick is wont to slam a racket, yell at a linesman or umpire, and/or shower himself in expletives?
If the reason is the former, then it is patently understandable. Until Roddick shows he can be a legitimate grand slam threat—and let’s face it, nobody cares about tennis events if they aren’t played in London, New York, Paris, or Melbourne—why should casual fans ever get their hopes up, regardless of whether he is consistently ranked in the top 10 and owns 29 career titles and one of the best serves in the history of the sport?
It’s more fun to root for the flawless best player ever (Federer) or the exuberant, lady-killing superstar (Nadal), the two legitimate threats to win every event they enter.
But if we choose to jeer Roddick for his emotional outbursts then our hostility is misguided. We love the raw emotion in every other American sport—guys in both individual and team sports, from Phil Mickelson to Brett Favre to Kobe Bryant to Patrick Kane, have risen to national cult hero status thanks in large part to their willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves. So why is Roddick ostracized for his demeanor?
Without a doubt, if Roddick had put together this decade-long path to almost-greatness by methodically going about his business and never seeming to give a damn when he lost, we would have grilled him long ago for a lack of passion and desire.
Reacting to failure? Criticizing umpires, even when justified? There’s no place for raw emotion, no place for brutal honesty, no place for visible expressions of frustration, in a sport as pristine and cultured as tennis.
As Federer and Nadal, 28 and 24 respectively, continue to dominate the field and face each other seemingly at will in tournament finals, the horizon isn’t getting any brighter for Roddick, who turns 28 in August. In all likelihood, he won’t win more than maybe one more grand slam—be honest, you know that he has one more US Open run in him, and it will draw you in with Agassian zeal—and will ultimately wind up on the pantheon of what might have been, a classic case of a talented guy whose career just happened to coincide with those of two all-time greats.
Andy Roddick is not as good as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Never has been, and probably never will be. But he has done more than his part to carry the torch of American tennis during an era in which he has received virtually no help.
A tragic hero, yes, but a hero nonetheless, and Roddick deserves to be recognized as such. The fact that the American people choose not to embrace him, instead preferring to pick out his flaws like bruises on bananas, is, well, unfortunate.