NEW YORK—After the last win of his career, over Fabio Fognini in the third round of the U.S. Open, Andy Roddick was asked who the “most random person” was that he’d heard from since announcing his retirement three days earlier. Roddick smiled and flashed the questioner the mischievous look that every tennis reporter knew well, the one that showed that he had, in the blink of an eye, recognized the absurdity of the question and was going to give it the retort that it deserved.
“Most random?” Roddick asked back. “It would be quasi-offensive to anybody I named, wouldn’t it? ‘Thanks for the text, but you’re random, dude.’”
In those brief lines you can find much of what made Roddick the best quote in tennis, as well the game’s richest personality. There was the quick wit. There were the busy brains and verbal dexterity; it wouldn’t be quite as funny without the extra “quasi” in there. There was the inevitable, fratty “dude” at the end—Roddick never forgot his roots. And there was also, beneath the humor, a thoughtfulness in keeping this “random” friend’s identity to himself.
Roddick had facets, and his story is more complicated than those of most retiring champions. From an American tennis perspective, it has a faint taste of the bittersweet. He doesn’t leave the way his predecessors Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi did, as a legend striding out of Ashe Stadium and into the sunset. Roddick’s career wasn’t as triumphant as theirs, but if anything that made him resonate more as a personality, as someone imperfect, rough-edged, and real. He was the kid who was supposed to carry on the Sampras and Agassi tradition of dominance, in a country that considers being No. 1 a collective birthright. But it didn’t work out that way for Andy. Instead, he became known for his struggle and heart, for how he dealt with not winning. It was that struggle that helped give Roddick the perspective and humor and sense of long-suffering dedication that were at the core of his appeal.
Boris Becker said that tennis players’ lives are so packed with incident and effort that they should be measured in dog years. Roddick’s retirement at age 30 bears that thought out. On the one hand, it was just nine years ago that he won the U.S. Open and reached No. 1 in the world. On the other hand, in that short time he gave us a full and wide-ranging story of an athlete’s life. There was the early blaze of glory at the 2003 Open; the hard-earned win in Davis Cup four years later; the crushing disappointment of his loss to Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final; and in between a thousand other matches and moments of excitement, excellence, and orneriness.
Roddick admitted once that with him you got the bad with the good, and he won’t be remembered as a spotless exemplar of how the sport should be played. He could be petulant and bullying with officials. And while his retirement seems abrupt, for the last couple of years, as injuries, defeats, and a slide in the rankings took their toll, he was harder on umpires and brusquer with the press than he once had been. Some of the lightness and fun and reckless abandon of his early years had gone out of Andy’s game. Roddick always said that he didn’t want to hang around nursing injuries, with a ranking outside the Top 20, and he was as good as his word.
In highlight reels on TV, we’ll seeing his tearful, “I can’t believe I won the U.S. Open” reaction from Flushing in 2003 for years. But a Roddick fan’s, or at least this Roddick fan’s, personal highlight reel is less about the wins than it is those moments of energy, humor, and comradely respect that, among tennis players, only he could deliver.
Mine begins with a match that Roddick played against Juan Ignacio Chela in a packed and raucous Armstrong Stadium, in 2002. This was at a time when he appeared to be the second coming of Jimmy Connors, when he could wrap the Open around his little finger. After a long rally, Andy ended up near the sideline, where the fans were standing and cheering. He walked over and high fived a bunch of them, even though he was still in the middle of a game. No player that I've seen live has taken over a New York audience the way he did in his early years.
From there my mind reaches back to a match between Roddick and Mario Ancic at the Australian Open in 2007. The two players went back and forth for five sets, before Andy won 6-4 in the fifth. It was a fabulous battle, but I don’t remember any of the shots hit as much as I remember the handshake at the end—not because of the emotions on display, but because of the way the two men restrained them. Roddick tempered his celebration out of respect for Ancic and the match they had just played. There were no grins or hugs at the net, just a nodded acknowledgement of a battle well fought. That was Andy at his playing, and sporting, best. The Wimbledon winners are the players we remember, but what might get forgotten someday is how Roddick, as much as any other pro, never gave the audience less than full value. He should leave without regrets.
Finally, there’s Roddick’s loss to Federer, 16-14 in the fifth, in the 2009 Wimbledon final. It’s fitting that this, his signature moment, would be one of bitter defeat, and the utter lack of self pity with which he dealt with it. There can be no better summation of what Roddick was about than his post-match words with Sue Barker. “This sport can be so cruel,” she said to him. But he wasn’t having any of her, or the crowd’s, sympathy. “No,” he said right away, “I’m one of the lucky few who gets cheered for.” This era of tennis has given us no shortage of role models at the top of the sport; Roddick taught us more than any of them with those words.
But that’s too somber a note to go out on when we’re talking about Andy Roddick—he wasn’t always so noble. Here’s one more highlight. After he beat Radek Stepanek in the final in San Jose in 2008, Roddick did a little wiggle with his right leg and left arm, imitating Stepanek’s customary Worm dance. Asked to explain this strange maneuver, Roddick said, “Everybody’s asking me about the Worm. All I hear is the Worm. I wanted to find something as cheesy if not cheesier to go with, which was tough. I figured one bad leg kick and I’d be on par.”
Roddick went out today in characteristic fashion, with a long and entertaining press conference. His personality was as warm and sarcastic and wide-ranging as ever. Asked what was going through his mind in the closing moments of the match, he said, softly, that he remembered “my mom driving me to tennis practice” when he was a kid. A few minutes later, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. Roddick said, in a mock bombastic voice, “I want everyone to look back and think that I was awesome.”
There was the swing, from the touching to the absurd, that Roddick could negotiate from one minute to the next. There will be a lot to miss.