Fan Club: Roddick II
The second part of my discussion with Kristy Eldredge, an Andy Roddick fan who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Catch up with Part I here.
I don’t think of Andy as quite in the “lovable loser” category. To me he’s more arrogant than that, or maybe has just always seen himself as a contender, which goes a long way. When you think of those famous losing streaks in books like The Natural, where a baseball player just can’t get a hit in game after game—maybe it was Malamud’s writing, but it seemed to me the slumping ballplayer was tortured beyond what Andy endures. He’s scrappy, and he always has belief.
But “bizarrely respectful” is a good way to describe a streak in Andy's nature. It always bothers me that he reacts so submissively to being aced—he immediately ducks his head and barrels over to the other side of the court, almost before the ball touches the ground. This may be a stretch, but that quick acceptance strikes me as a sign of that excessive respect for the hierarchy you mention, Steve. Also, as the youngest in a family of athletic boys, maybe he feels his defeat is almost inevitable? I’m not a huge fan of birth-order theories of personality, but I will take this moment to point out that Djokovic is the oldest in his family, and Federer and Nadal have no brothers. Maybe it’s easier for them to see themselves as winners.
Like you, I find it amazing that Andy’s never shown bitterness toward Roger. He has rolled his eyes at Federer—I remember one acceptance speech when Roger was clumsily trying to praise Andy, saying: “He’s a fair, fair player.” Andy did smirk at that, but never took a public shot at it. He had a much more contentious clash with Djokovic during the 2009 US Open. Djokovic’s many retirements prompted Andy to riff: “Both ankles, back, SARS, bird flu, Anthrax, I don’t know, he seems to have everything.” But in general he isn’t scornful of his fellow players, publicly anyway.
Thank you for reminding me of that beautiful speech Roddick gave after losing to Federer in the heartbreaker, Wimbledon 09. It’s really one of the gutsiest moments of his career. He pays tribute, is honest about his regret, keeps a wavering voice steady, and just generally breaks your heart. I defy anyone to watch that with dry eyes.
That’s a good point about team sports not drawing the same kind of personal analysis as tennis. (Though two Yankees fans in my office talk endlessly about the players and it’s almost on the level of our own loving dissection of tennis players.) I was struck, in the Fan Club about Nadal, by how many commenters go immediately to Nadal’s nature, not his tennis. People were praising his modesty, his fairness, his unassuming attitude, at least as much as his fiery play. When I try to explain my passion for tennis to friends who don’t share it, I always bring in this personal element, trying to get them to understand how a player’s character and persona is fun to watch in action, and under pressure. No one ever looks convinced. So maybe it doesn’t translate beyond tennis, as you suggest.
It’s interesting that you think women as writers/commenters on the Internet have made discussions of tennis more personal. Since you’re more familiar with sportswriting on the subject, I believe you, and also because it fits with my observation of many men’s and women’s responses to things. I have a male friend, a sports fan, who always asks me, "How do you know that?" about my conjectures about players' motives/mentalities. It's not in his makeup to think that way. I will admit, though it pains me to do so, that I’m wondering in a completely regressive way if biological determinism might create in women a greater tendency to scrutinize people for vulnerabilities, since it’s essential that mothers do that for children. (Then again, it’s just as true that men are biologically determined to assess people’s vulnerability. It’s a human trait.)
But do women then identify more with those vulnerabilities? I don’t know about that. Reading the comments on Tennis World has made me think that obsessive-fan-identification is shared equally between men and women. We all suffer nerves when our player is facing a dialed-in opponent, and we all seem to deal in similar ways—drinking, despairing, and snapping at critics of our player are three favorites.
If you look back on a tennis player’s career, you can see it as a lifetime compressed into a dozen years or so—youth, immaturity, the prime, and then a grizzled, gradual, sometimes painful fade out. Roddick, despite his injuries and disappointments, or maybe in part because of them, has given us a full and wide-ranging story of an athlete’s life. He had the early blaze of glory at the 2003 U.S. Open; the more hard-earned win in Davis Cup four years later; the crushing disappointment of Wimbledon 09; and in between a thousand other moments of excitement, excellence, ugliness, and, where his game is concerned, a puzzling conservatism. Over the years, Roddick’s playing style has become progressively less flashy. He seemed hesitant to make radical changes that might backfire and send his ranking plummeting.
Roddick always says that he considers himself incredibly lucky to do what he does, but when I think of him at the start of his career, and then think of him now, it feels like the peak wasn’t quite reached—something in the middle is missing. These days Roddick is more ornery with officials and brusquer with the press than he once was. The game and the travel seem to have worn him down.
So I choose to remember this: Watching him in 2001 or 2002 in Armstrong Stadium, when he owned the U.S. Open, against Juan Ignacio Chela. After one long point, Andy ended up near the sideline, where the fans were standing. 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. All of that youthful energy and promise—tennis has a way of making you realize how quickly it can go.
I also choose to remember: Watching Roddick and Mario Ancic go back and forth for five sets in Melbourne, before Andy won it 6-4 in the fifth. The peak came when Ancic hit a winning pass on a set point and celebrated so madly that his racquet fell out of his hand. But I guess like most tennis fans, I don’t remember any of the shots hit as much as I remember the handshake at the end. If there’s a “greatest handshakes of all time” list, this would be on mine—not because of its emotionalism, but because of its restraint. Roddick tempered his celebration out of respect for Ancic and the match they had just played. There were no big smiles 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, always came to play. He may have his bitter moments, but he should leave without regrets.
Wait, one more, just for, literally, kicks. 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 didn't end up being his era's greatest player, but he was always . . . what's the best word? I'll go with real.
Memories of Roddick—thanks, what a great way to wrap this up. One strong memory immediately surfaces, of a match he played with Younes El Aynaoui at the 2003 Australian Open. This was an emotional, wildly physical and seesawing five-setter. Both men played brilliantly, with countless gasp-inducing rallies. El Aynaoui was a fast, inventive player and Roddick responded with similar play. After hours of thrilling tennis, Roddick won, though the result almost seemed like a technicality. Like you with the Ancic match, my favorite memory is of the moment he and El Aynaoui shared at the end. Rather than a handshake or the one-armed hug so common now, both players embraced like long-lost brothers reuniting after years of famine and war. It wasn’t across the net, either—I think Roddick crossed to El Aynaoui’s side and they fell against each other in exhausted tribute. I remember being proud of Andy for being in the moment so fully, for acknowledging the emotion of a win like that. It shows both his sweetness and his respect for the game. While many commenters have praised his dry sense of humor, and I also enjoy it, I think it wouldn’t mean as much if you didn’t occasionally see that he’s also a softie.
But you may be right about the bitterness. There’s not much lightness to Andy anymore. I wish I’d seen that Ancic match. Your memory of Roddick as a confident youngster high-fiving the audience mid-game makes me sad I didn’t see more of him in those years. I thought Jimmy Connors, of all people, sobered Roddick up when he started coaching him—there was no more clowning from Andy from then on. His face under the inevitable hat brim was grim, and his team watched his struggles with the same set faces. I didn’t think such seriousness served him entirely well—sometimes when you try too hard, you lose the spontaneity that eases any effort. But what do I know about tooling your game for tennis at the highest levels? Roddick always did what he thought was necessary, not what he thought would make him popular. Ironically, that very attitude brought crowds behind him almost every time—even at Wimbledon, even against Murray, a large part of the crowd cheered for him, as Ted Robinson and John McEnroe noted in amazement. He’s just someone people seem to root for.
What more to say? The first-round loss yesterday at Memphis to Malisse was another grim sign of Andy’s waning powers. This most dogged of competitors is also a clear-eyed pragmatist, and it’s almost painful to imagine those two sides of him doing battle with each other. In the meantime, it’s satisfying to look back at a career full of moments where his character shone through, and sometimes, most satisfyingly for anyone who cheers for him, his talent.
Thanks, Steve, it's been an honor to be a part of this feature.