At some point in the not-so-distant past, Andy Roddick was our great American hope. It was early in the decade, and Pete Sampras was calling it quits. Andre Agassi was slowing down, and New York–area tennis fans turned to a cute, plucky native of Texas. He was going to be the new king of Queens.
He delivered early—winning the Open in 2003—and then never again. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal became a wall that Andy Roddick kept running into, at full speed. He lost and lost. He stayed in the top 10, but once a Grand Slam tournament headed into the second week, we all knew that the American with the best shot of winning a major—and an American hasn’t won one since Roddick’s Open triumph—would come up short.
He seemed to know that’s how we felt, too. Two years ago, when Roddick was gearing up to face Federer in the quarterfinals at the Open, he told an increasingly bored press corps before the match, “I expect a lot of myself. I don’t think anybody else really expects much from me.”
He played well. He lost in three sets.
“C’mon, Roger, give him a chance!” a fan screamed mid-match. Twenty thousand people in Arthur Ashe erupted into laughter.
That basically summed up his fan support in Flushing: They were behind him, but something kept them from turning into full Roddick devotees the way they did for, say, Jimmy Connors. In the end, they were resigned to the inevitable outcome.
“People would walk into those big matches and watch Andy get outplayed year after year,” said Mary Carillo, the NBC and CBS tennis analyst and Queens native. “I don’t think they lacked in support for him. I think they simply lacked faith in him.”
We’ve never really embraced him, but this year, it’s going to be downright suffocating.
But then something happened last month at Wimbledon. As New Yorkers gathered around their TVs with bagels and coffee for the men’s final, the only question seemed to be how quickly Federer would dispose of Roddick. Then Roddick quietly won the first set. He almost won the second set. He lost the third, but won the fourth. It took Federer 30 games in the final set, and the longest match in Wimbledon history, to beat Roddick.
Somehow, as far as the fans were concerned, it changed everything.
“He endeared himself to more people in defeat than he did in winning the U.S. Open,” said Jon Wertheim, a Sports Illustrated writer and author of Strokes of Genius, a book about the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final.
If Roddick was the man who we all vaguely disapproved of because of the limitations of his painfully inartistic game—big serve and forehand, period—he’s now heading into the Open as an unconditional fan favorite. He’ll be the underdog who needs a little pick-me-up. He’s finally the local hero.
“I think that Wimbledon was the seminal moment in Andy’s career—in that loss,” said Carillo. “He’s never had the crowd support that he will get this year.”
Or, as veteran tennis coach Nick Bollettieri put it: “Andy Roddick is loved in New York. He’s a friggin’ fighter. He’s got that spirited attitude.”
It has not been lost on Roddick that things are different now.
“To come back here and kind of not be able to go get coffee without people wanting to talk about tennis, I was sad, but that was awesome, because that’s not something I’ve been a part of here before,” he said on Aug. 17 at a press conference for a U.S. Open tuneup, describing fan reaction since returning to the States. “It was really cool that for a couple days, kind of tennis was at the forefront of water-cooler talk.”
He was at a loss to explain much further.
“I’m very thankful for the support that I have right now because it’s been fleeting throughout my career,” said Roddick at the press conference.
“I would be lying if I sat here and said I totally understood it.”
In tennis, more than perhaps any other sport, our perceptions of players can reverse themselves. Jennifer Capriati transformed herself from talented but lazy drama queen to a hardworking underdog favorite. Andre Agassi shaved his head in 1995, and suddenly he went from being a vain lout to a personally modest, well-conditioned workhorse.
There has been no similar transformation of Roddick’s persona. He is the same as always: chatty but sardonic, confident but not unpleasant.
His game, however, is a study in dogged evolution. He’s gone through four coaches in five years, not because he’s fickle, but because he’s single-minded in his desire to catch up to his tormenters in tennis’ top tier.
“I think the biggest change for Roddick came when he changed the backhand,” said Bollettieri, the tennis coaching legend. “When you go back to previous films, his backhand was very stiff. If you look at it today, he is using the top hand in his backhand. He gets under it and he can really drive it. For the first time in his career, he can hit cross-court, he can hit down the line, he can put spin on the ball, he can hit to the angles.”
Roddick’s new game, along with his sheer persistence—culminating in that showing at Wimbledon—has in turn changed his public image.
“Andy could have taken it a lot easier on himself, settled into a top-10 career and made plenty of money with far less pressure and expectations,” said Carillo, the TV analyst. “That he didn’t do that is a testament to his heart and ambition.”
“He showed a lot in that match,” said Wertheim, the tennis writer. “The guy has been in the top 10 for seven years. Tennis has had its Kournikova players who are more style than substance. But seven years in the top 10 can’t all be marketing. He hung tough and could have said, ‘It was nice to be here, I make my million bucks and I’m married to a supermodel!’ Instead he plays for five hours and nearly wins that match.”
Days after Wimbledon, Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski admitted that while, yes, he was always aware of the game’s biggest server, he “never had any feelings about him.” Before the Wimbledon final, Mr. Posnanski said, he was set to root for Federer—naturally, he was a fan. After the first set, he found himself “unexpectedly” rooting for Roddick.
“I think it came from a theme that I find constantly and endlessly fascinating,” he wrote in a 1,500-word valentine to Andy Roddick. “That is: The theme of ordinary people reaching for their moment. … When it ended, Roddick looked like a broken man. And I could feel that pain with him—couldn’t we all? He was damned good. He was probably better than he had ever been in his life. And he wasn’t quite good enough. Isn’t that the saddest thing about sports?
“I really like Andy Roddick now,” he concluded. “On Sunday at Wimbledon, he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together.”
‘WHERE’S ANDY’S MOJO?’
In 2005, two years after his Open triumph, at the early stages of Roger Federer’s ascent, Roddick began to slip. He’d lost his Open crown to Federer, and two straight Wimbledon finals.
With the bandwagon just beginning to clear out, the folks at American Express created a rallying cry for Roddick’s dropping stock: “Where’s Andy Mojo?” Roddick’s face was on just about every ad around the No. 7 train stop in Willets Point. There were nonstop commercials.
Roddick duly responded by losing in the first round of the Open in straight sets.
The backlash, particularly in the context of the rise of the no-frills Federer, began in earnest.
“It’s just too bad that famous credit card company spent millions on Andy Roddick’s mojo, only to watch him crash out of the tournament before it barely began,” wrote Lisa Olson in the Daily News, comparing him unfavorably to James Blake, Agassi and Federer.
“At age 24, Federer is gunning for his sixth Slam title. Refreshingly, he doesn’t do nearly as many endorsements as Andy Roddick and nobody’s clamoring about Federer’s ‘mojo.’ That modesty has endeared him in the locker room,” wrote Marc Berman in the Post.
Of course, since that time, as Federer’s Grand Slam total has ballooned from six to a record-breaking 15, that much-remarked-upon modesty has been a notable casualty.
Federer showed up to Wimbledon this year with an oversize, white-and-gold racket bag on his shoulder that looked like a chihuahua carrier. He wore a jacket adorned with laurel wreaths. (After he won the tournament, the jacket was also emblazoned with a 15—his major-championship total.) There was a little too much gold on everything he wore. He did commercials in which he pulled a wheelbarrow full of his Grand Slam trophies. He became a spokesman for a private-jet company.
“What’s most surprising to me is that Roger doesn’t seem to get it,” wrote Peter Bodo, the senior writer at tennis.com. “I suspect that the Nike designers and marketing folks must come to him and fill him up with a bunch of hooey about what an ‘ambassador’ he is for all things traditional and he goes all weak in the knees and capitulates to one cockamamie fashion disaster after another. The 14-time Grand Slam champ and budding fashionista turns commercial chump and, like some unsuspecting kid brother, lets his sister and her friends play dress-up with him. What next, lipstick and mom’s pumps?”
In an on-court interview after this year’s instant-classic Wimbledon final, Federer looked to Roddick and said he sympathized because he, Federer, had lost in the final the year before to Nadal.
Roddick responded instantly, hilariously, devastatingly: “Yeah, but you had already won five times!”
As a moment, it solidified Federer’s new position as the unseemly Apollo Creed foil to the more sympathetic Roddick.
Not that Roddick is in any danger of becoming a lovable-loser everyman. He’s a star, with a star’s looks. He’s still going to be described in the press, win or lose, as “brash.” He recently married the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker.
(“Spotting Decker in the stands looking like the picture of all-American cool has become half the reason to watch Grand Slam tennis and yet another reason to root for the tireless if sometimes overshadowed Roddick,” wrote Will Welch in the September issue of GQ. “More Andy means more Brooklyn.”)
Andy has always loved New York, and now we can return the favor.
Federer? He’s got his 15. What else does he need?
We’re here for you, Andy. Go out and win it.
Follow John Koblin via RSS.