In the second edition of the Fan Club, we talk about—I don't want to say look back at—a veteran American player who may be heading into the homestretch of his career. I discuss Andy Roddick with a longtime fan of his, Kristy Eldredge, a freelance writer from Brooklyn, New York.
These are tough times for an Andy Roddick devotee, about as tough as they've ever been, don't you think? He's hurt again, his ranking just dropped 10 spots, to No. 27, and there's been word that he might retire next year.
Which makes this a good time, I think, to look at what his appeal has been. While Roddick has had his ups and downs playing-wise, and his career hasn't been what we thought it would be eight or nine years ago, he has still been one of the more (for lack of a better word at the moment) interesting characters in tennis, a guy with a brain and a sense of humor and a not-so-nice side that he couldn't always control—he's one of the game's big personalities, and one who has divided a lot of fans.
To start, let me ask you two questions.
Do you remember when you first saw Roddick play? My first memory was seeing him teamed with Taylor Dent in doubles at the U.S. Open in 2000. Their smash mouth style seemed to be a harbinger of bigger and bigger and bigger games stretching to eternity, though that future thankfully didn't quite come to pass. It was on a side court, and the force of Roddick's serve from that close up was astounding. Even in the warm-up, it brought gasps from the crowd. I liked the raw power, and Roddick's wide-eyed teenage enjoyment of every moment of being at Flushing Meadows and in New York.
Second, as a fan, how do react to Andy's, um, moodier or more abrasive moments on court? Even he has said that you get some bad with the good with him.
Yes, these is a low moment for Roddick fans. Not just because it's sad to know his retirement announcement is hovering on the horizon, but because it's hard to be excited or hopeful for him even in the short term. With his injury count mounting, his matches are becoming grim tests of his tissue strength and his trainers' bandaging skills instead of his will and mettle.
Unfortunately for our purposes, I don't remember the first time I saw Roddick. There was no "aha" moment—just an awareness of him as someone good looking and blond, with a cute grin and a bashing style. Oh, and a temper. I think the temper is what made me pay attention to him as I watched him battle Federer over and over. (Isn’t it odd to remember that he used to play Federer quite often in the late stages of tournaments?) But I’m not even sure that it was the temper and not the roguish grin. I think I saw Roddick, as many did, as the next big American star, and I thought he was worthy of that mantle, and likable. For a time, that’s about as deep as it went.
It was watching his prolonged struggle with Federer that made me aware of his other qualities—his valor, grit, and tremendous decency. Because he didn't win—he just didn't. He had to soak up loss after loss at the hands of the phenomenally talented Swiss. And Federer didn't just beat him, he tee'd off on every aspect of Andy’s game and made Roddick look like a lumbering fullback. Roddick often looked furious and miserable during these encounters, but afterward, he gave Federer his due every time. After one particularly brutal loss in Australia in 2007, he said Federer wasn't given enough credit as a tough competitor. To compliment someone who’s just smashed you into tiny crumbs on the court—to defend him against faint praise by the media—that seemed heroic to me. But so did Roddick’s ability to keep taking the losses. What is that like? I wondered over and over. What is it like to have a nemesis like that? And why did the question fascinate me?
I think the reason the dynamic intrigued me so much might be because I have a sister with an unusually buoyant temperament, whose graceful dance through life resembles Federer’s, while my own more truculent, embattled style is a lot closer to Roddick’s. His temper, which you mentioned, reminds me of pointlessly defiant moments of my own—for example, when my sister and I would play chess, as kids, and she always beat me. There came a moment in every game when I couldn’t stand it any more and I flipped the board into the air so all the pieces scattered and some went down the heating vents. That would not be a good moment for me—only fleeting satisfaction, and then the creeping shame. But could I ever keep from flipping the board? No, and so Andy Roddick has a devoted fan in me.
That said, I invariably cringe when Roddick starts a snipe-fest on the court. It’s so transparently an effort to vent his frustration with how the match is going, and his disdain for the officials he berates is often chilling. So the question of his abrasiveness is a hard one. I’m mortified by it, but I don’t defend it. I do understand it, though, since I can see it comes out of frustration. That doesn’t excuse it in the slightest.
I have way too much to say about Roddick, Steve. I hope this wasn't too longwinded. Look forward to talking some more.
That’s interesting that you came to like Roddick basically because he didn’t win; that he, in fact, almost never won against Federer. I’m trying to think of analogies in team sports. The Chicago Cubs are “lovable losers” who still sell out every game anyway, but that isn’t the first description that comes to mind with Roddick, and that's not really what you’re saying about him, I don’t think.
It is amazing, looking back, that Andy never showed any bitterness toward Roger, or at least none that I remember. The worst must have been the 2009 Wimbledon final. He plays the match of his career, loses 16-14 in the fifth when he easily could have been up two sets to love, and then turns around and tells Federer, who has the number 15 on the back of his jacket, that he “deserves everything he gets.”
Now that I write that, though, Roddick’s attitude toward Federer begins to seem almost bizarrely respectful to me, or at least not the best way to approach an opponent. It was originally noted by a reader on my blog with the handle Slice-n-Dice that Roddick, like a good tennis soldier and Davis Cup leader, is sensitive to hierarchy, to chain of command. If he starts to lose to someone ranked below him whom he believes he should beat, he’ll get his back up: How dare you? This attitude has helped him survive many challenges from lower-ranked guys over the years and made him a strong competitor in general. But when he perceives that someone is better than he is, like Federer, he can be deferential to a fault and he loses that edge. In 2004, Roddick, who was the defending champion at the U.S. Open that year, played Rafael Nadal in an early-round night match. Roddick seemed offended by the teen Rafa’s fist-pumps, and he used that anger to basically tear him limb from limb. But since Rafa became Rafa, he’s treated him with the respect you would expect. He also hasn’t exactly torn him limb from limb, either. Last year at the Open, Nadal turned the tables and blew him out. Still, when it came to Federer, it was always going to be a bad match-up for Andy, whatever attitude he brought to the court.
Going back to how you’ve grown to like Andy in defeat over the years, I wonder if this is where being a tennis fan becomes more personal than it does in team sports. In American team sports, at least, we don’t decide whether we like an athlete based on how gracious they are or how they handle defeat. We like the team we like, no matter what they say in the interview room or how sincere they are when they shake hands after the game. But it was the way he handled himself, rather than his game itself, that was a big part of your Andy fandom.
You also say you identified with Roddick's heroic losing cause, and his truculent attitude. I'm trying to think if I've ever identified with a player in that way. I was an Andre Agassi fan rather than a Pete Sampras fan, I think out of some general youthful anti-establishment bias. But I'm not sure it ever got more personal than that.
With that in mind, do you see any general difference in the way men and women act as tennis fans? I ask mainly because the Internet has made me more aware of female fans and what they watch for than I was when I was almost exclusively reading the opinions of male sportswriters in magazines and newspapers. Women fans seem to be just as into stats and tactical anaylsis as men stereotypically are, but in general I think they add a personal dimension to it—now everything, from first-serve percentage to unforced error count to a player's choice of nail polish to how long a handshake lasts at the net, is worthy of discussion and judgment in the new media. This is the way fans have always talked about tennis in their living rooms, but now it's out there for everyone to see, which has made fandom more intense.
Looking forward to your responses tomorrow.