Iceman - Not Maverick - the Top Gun of Tennis

Matt MooneyCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2006

Icon"That's him - Iceman.  It's the way he flies, ice cold, no mistakes. He wears you down, you get bored, frustrated, do something stupid and he's got ya."     ~Goose, Top Gun

There's something about Val Kilmer's arrogantly stoic Iceman in the 1986 flyboy classic that distinguishes him from a typical bad-guy antagonist.  So why is it Maverick and not him we want to take home the Top Gun honors?  Is it the fact that Ice Man quietly outperforms the rest of his class and takes the Top Gun trophy with few theatrics?  Or is it perhaps the frustration that he can blandly outlast his opponent with monotonous, mistake-free technical mastery?  Maybe it's his robotically unemotional dissection of his opponents' games, even on their best day.  Whatever it is, odds are it's the same thing that's driving Andy Roddick insane.

That's because, for virtually his entire career, Roddick has been the tennis Maverick to the Swiss Iceman - none other than the incomparably cool and maddeningly subdued Roger Federer. Roddick plays like Maverick flies - by the seat of his pants but with incredibly savvy instincts that you just can't teach.  There is a good chance that when you watch Roddick play, you see some of the rarest shots in the entire history of the game (kind of like hitting the brakes and letting an enemy fighter fly right by).  His destructive groundstrokes can be impossibly accurate and his serve is no stranger to 140-mph territory.
But despite all the gifts, Roddick is still not the best in the world, as his recent loss in the US Open final showed in spades.  His mistake: turning pro in the same era as perhaps the greatest all-around player the game has ever seen.  Federer's success has been remarkable, but it's a shame that Roddick's American dream has never quite lived up to its promising beginning.

In 2003, it was a different story.  Roddick and Federer were both hitting the peaks of their respective tennis games.  The two players were powerful hitters with different styles.  Roddick's game reflected the apparently perfect fusion of his American forebearers: the crushing ground strokes of Andre Agassi combined with the untouchable laser-like serve of Pete Sampras.  Federer rose to the spotlight by ending Sampras' dominance at Wimbledon, an event he's since claimed as his own with four consecutive championships.  Even during that marathon - a five set quarterfinal match at the All England Club - Federer displayed a unique versatility that could only be described as sublime.  He could win at the net when he wanted to, and his groundstrokes and passing shots from the baseline were nothing short of brilliant.  His serve was a weapon and his return of serve rarely put him at a disadvantage.  The near-simultaneous ascension of the two young stars seemed to prognosticate the dawn of tennis's newest rivalry.

But the "rivalry" began to fade the moment they stepped on the court.  Any sports fan knows that it's not a rivalry if one side never wins.  Which, to be fair, is not entirely true, since Roddick has defeated Federer before.  It's just that a 1-12 record doesn't really keep the bookies guessing.  So while I'm sure Roddick would never sacrifice that single win, it might as well have never been.

So why is the tennis Iceman so successful?  After all, Federer doesn't have the regular jaw-dropping, shot-making flair that Roddick possesses.  But it just seems that all of his normal shots are just that much better.  Like Iceman, he makes tennis look simple and effortless, and his on-court demeanor mirrors the ease with which he dispatches opponents.  He is brutally efficient and rarely beats himself.  Perhaps that's the mark of a true champion - the ability to make the impossible look easy.

While I have established Federer as the Iceman nemesis to Roddick's Maverick, how are you supposed to hate a guy who plays with such a refined mastery of the game?  Any perceived animosity by Roddick (of which there has been little; for all his losing to Federer, he's always graceful in defeat) or American fans can only be a product of frustration.  And it is frustrating.  We want to see Maverick succeed, because not only does he have the talent, but he is entertaining to boot.

The American sports fan seems to value the champion that can go Mach 3 with his hair on fire and still have the discipline to win when it counts.  We want our heroes to entertain us.  American tennis has been blessed with two such champions in the same generation: John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.  These two legends were known as much for their demonstrative on-court personalities (and that's putting it mildly) as for their combined 15 Grand Slam singles titles.  Roddick is also one of this breed, frequently playing to the crowd, always looking for that psychological edge.  Indeed, it's no accident that he hired Connors as his head coach.

But I would suggest that if Top Gun had followed the careers of the two pilots Iceman and Maverick, Iceman would have wound up the more decorated and the more highly regarded of the two.  Maverick may have had his moment in the sun, but my guess is that Iceman never wound up flying wingman for him (as is predicted near the movie's end) more than once or twice.  Iceman was more technically sound and disciplined, and - as un-American as it probably makes me sound (especially given Iceman's Russian appearance) - was probably the better pilot.

It's no coincidence that an Iceman from another sport was courtside at the final in Flushing Meadows.  Tiger Woods has made little secret of the fact that he loves Federer's style of play, and it does bear similarities to his own.  Both players have the ability to will themselves to victory with superaltive shot-making skill, even when the competition is playing its collective best.  Connors and McEnroe aside, the man that Federer unseated, Sampras, was a kindred spirit in terms of disposition.  While never one for theatrics, Sampras won nearly as many Grand Slam titles (14) as Connors and Mac combined.  Maybe there is something to be said for the reticent victors, in their cold, calculated, unmerciful play.  They love winning, and while they sometimes show it on the trophy stand, they are unflinching in the pursuit.

Nevertheless, Roddick should not change his style, and he probably couldn't if he tried.  It is just who he is.  Roddick's game is still fun to watch, and I for one will continue to pull for him, even against the overwhelming odds Federer presents.  I still fully expect, though, that when the matches are over, Roddick's gonna need another cold one to put those flames out.