The Cincinnati tournament just doesn't feel like the familiar, county fair-like event it has become with Andy Roddick out of the draw. Born in Nebraska, raised mostly in Florida, now living in funky Austin, Texas, Roddick has somehow managed to retain vestiges of his essentially Midwestern character despite the global nature of the game and the inevitable sophistication that is a by-product of success.
Roddick is innately intelligent, but in a practical, rather than a dreamy or geeky way. He's inquisitive and good at critical thinking, but it still doesn't take much to bring out the prankish boy or even the knucklehead in him (ask any umpire). If you want to match personalities with tournaments, I'd say Roddick and Cincinnati are an excellent fit. Yet he's already out of there, and it's pretty clear that at age 29 he's struggling on various fronts to not only salvage this year but to extend his career.
A finalist in the tournament now officially called the Western & Southern Open three times (he's 2-1, with wins over Mardy Fish and Juan Carlos Ferrero and a loss to Roger Federer), and a semifinalist on two other occasions, Roddick lost in the first round of Cincinnati the other day to Lucky Loser Jeremy Chardy of France. He was surprisingly philosophical afterward, saying, among other things, that he still feels good about his game. "These past weeks have been the best of my year," he explained. "As far as my confidence level goes, there's just no comparison to the beginning of the year."
Roddick's year began with frustration; he had to abandon his second-round match in the Australian Open because of a hamstring injury, the effects of which would linger. He had twinges in his shoulder. He had trouble getting traction in the winter indoor tournaments, winning just one match at San Jose and Memphis. He had a great run in Miami, with an upset of then No. 3 Federer in the third round, but puzzlingly came up flat as the Nebraska long grass prairie in a winnable match against Juan Monaco. Europe was, as usual, best forgotten — until the scene shifted to British grass, and Roddick won Eastbourne.
Given Roddick's record at Wimbledon (three times a runner-up to the same nemesis, Federer), you'd think a third round loss to David Ferrer, a clay-court expert, would be disappointing. But as brash and aggressive as Roddick sometimes is, he tends never to take anything for granted and truly respects his peers. As he said, "I had a pretty good run at Wimbledon, I had a good look and nearly turned the corner."
When he followed up with a hard court win in Atlanta, a tournament he last won as an 18 year old at a different venue and on clay, he said, "I've won 32 times (tournaments), and in every one of them I've never assumed I was going to win again. I just go about the process of playing, work hard, and hope I can put myself in a position enough times where I can create some success for myself."
These days, though, and injuries apart, Roddick is having more success arriving in that position than taking advantage of it at big events, and that's challenging. At the Olympic Games, Roddick found himself back on the Wimbledon grass that has been so kind to him, but in a much anticipated showdown with No. 2 Novak Djokovic he just couldn't muster the lethal serve- based game, adequately confident, combative attitude. It wasn't so much that he lost; after all, he was ranked No. 21. It was more that he got just three games, losing 6-2, 6-1.
After the Olympics, Roddick skipped Toronto and then lost to Chardy. Among other things, the setback will set him scrambling to get matches in order to recapture his confidence for the U.S. Open. Roddick isn't in a do or die situation; he's been No. 1, he's won a major title (U.S. Open, 2003), he's been a model of consistency — a year-end top 10 player for nine consecutive years ending in 2011. Roddick doesn't need to win another tennis match for the rest of his life to sleep content, knowing he got the most out of his career.
But what Roddick is dealing with now — and handling with great poise — is that gnawing question, "Can I still contend?" He's right not to ask himself that, point-blank, nor should we ask him. He's absolutely right to remain focused on working hard, staying healthy, and taking every tourament one match at a time. My own feeling is that as long as a player is enjoying the pro's life, he or she ought to keep playing, no matter what the results show.
Roddick is just two weeks from celebrating his 30th birthday, and it's been proved repeatedly (most recently by Wimbledon champion Federer) that it's an unreliable milestone, at least as far as suggesting inevitable decline. But the body doesn't lie, either, and Roddick knows that. It doesn't help him if Federer plays happily until 36, because everyone is different. As Roddick said, "This sport beats the hell out of some guys. I've never been a guy who's super graceful about the way he goes about things. It's a physical game for me. I don't think it's coincidental as I get older I get hurt more. I don't think I'm naive to that fact."
At Cincinnati, Roddick received treatment for his back; it was a case of spasms, just one of those periodic tweaks that occur (in his case, it was brought on by a lunge forehand) to everyone. But it's left him scrambling for matches before the big show moves to New York, a place he loves, a place where he's known great success, a place that could play a significant role, depending on how things go, in how he views this year, but also the year — or years — ahead.
Roddick left Cincinnati grappling with how to approach the days leading to the U.S. Open. "I don't have any answers yet, we're going to have to figure this thing out (presumably, he meant the back spasms). It's tough for me to say what side of the fence I'm sitting on. I don't know where I'm going to be in two or three days. In a perfect world, I'd love to play next week."
In a perfect world, every player at the age of around 30 in Roddick's position would have a clearer view of his future. But one of the challenging things about a career in tennis is that it doesn't end in a pre-determined or predictable way. Sampras went out in a blaze of glory; he won the U.S. Open in his last official ATP match — but the year leading up to that triumph was pure hell. Banged up Andre Agassi hobbled to the third round of the U.S. Open at age 36 in 2006, and lost to No. 112 Benjamin Becker and made his now famous retirement speech immediately after the match, on court. Gustavo Kuerten faded in and out, hampered by a bum hip until he finally and unceremoniously threw in the towel.
Each player lives in an imperfect world, just like the rest of us. And how he navigates it affects both his career and longevity. Roddick is not yet at an age where calling it quits seems inevitable any time soon, and we can only hope that he'll be able to compete with all or most of his powers intact until such time as his scores and rankings, rather than the state of his back, shoulder, hamstring or hips, tells him that it's just not that much fun anymore.