Without a Net

by: Steve Tignor | September 20, 2012

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Andy Roddick said a lot of things during his brief farewell tour at this year’s U.S. Open. Lost among the wisecracks and reminiscences was a quick but telling statement that he made about the future of American men’s tennis, and his relationship to it.

In the press conference that followed his retirement announcement, Roddick was reminded of the words he had used after Andre Agassi called it quits in 2006, leaving Andy, at 24, as the new standard-bearer for U.S. tennis. Six years later, Roddick found himself in Agassi’s position.

Q: 2006, Agassi retires. I remember you saying, The training wheels are off for us. Now the training wheels are off for the younger guys. Are you comfortable where the younger guys are moving ahead?

Roddick: I think so. You know, I can’t protect them now, that’s for sure. But I think John [Isner]’s ready. Mardy [Fish] is really good with the younger guys. Ryan [Harrison] will play well once he figures everything out.....I feel pretty good about it all. Even though I won’t be competing against them, I think they all know I’ve never been more than a phone call away from them.

A ringing endorsement? Not exactly. But it was a hopeful one. The most striking line to me was, “I can’t protect them now, that’s for sure.” It sounded like a joke, but it was true, and it’s one of the keys to the immediate future of the men’s pro game in the States.

Like Agassi, Roddick led by example. As the top-ranked American man and a Top 10 fixture for nearly a decade, he was a model of consistency. As far as Davis Cup went, he was a more active leader than Andre. Roddick led a tight-knit U.S. team for years and clinched innumerable ties. In fact, according to captain Patrick McEnroe, it was Agassi’s disruptive influence that helped lead to one of the most disappointing U.S. Davis Cup losses of the last decade, at home to Croatia in the first round in 2005. Two years later, a team consisting of Roddick, James Blake, Bob and Mike Bryan—with practice partners Mardy Fish, John Isner, Robby Ginepri, and Donald Young—won the country’s first title in 12 years. This was Roddick’s team through and through.

Outside of Davis Cup, Roddick was also friendlier with his compatriots than Agassi was. He lived in the same house with Mardy Fish when they were teenagers, and he was buddies with James Blake. “Buddies” is not the word that comes to mind when thinking about Agassi and his main American rival, Pete Sampras. From Isner’s baseball cap and baggy clothes to Harrison’s fiery (and at times counterproductive) demeanor, Roddick’s stamp is all over this generation of U.S. men. At the Open, Sam Querrey called Andy the “biggest role model” of his career. As of last week, Jack Sock’s Twitter photo shows him as a little kid, sitting and grinning in front of Roddick.

Next week I'll start taking questions and comments for my Reading the Readers column by email. Please send any that you have to stignor@tennismagazine.com. I'll answer a few of them each Tuesday.

Roddick protected his peers, more than anything else, from the pressure and scrutiny of being the top U.S. player. Over the years, James Blake and then Mardy Fish passed him in the rankings, but neither was willing to claim the role of standard-bearer, or even mention their No. 1 American status without a show of respect for Roddick. Whatever the rankings said, in their eyes he remained the man—through force of personality as much as talent—when it came to U.S. tennis. It’s probably not a coincidence that thus far neither Fish nor Blake has lasted very long as the country’s No. 1. They’ve obviously had their physical problems, but national top dog was a role they had long believed belonged to someone else.

After losing early at Indian Wells, Fish said that he had had some trouble adjusting to the pressures and time demands that came his new position. When Fish pulled out of the Open because of concerns about his heart condition, it was interesting that Justin Gimelstob, a friend and sometime coach of his, said that it was in part caused by the mental stress of the moment—stress that came from Fish's own expectations for himself.

With Fish struggling, it has been left to Isner to take the mantle as the No. 1 American. At the Open, Roddick said he thought the big man was ready, but Isner’s results since cracking the Top 10 for the first time this year have been decidedly mixed. As the No. 2 man on the U.S. Davis Cup team, he beat Roger Federer in Davis Cup in February, and followed it with a win over Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells. This certified Isner as the next great hope for U.S. tennis; soon after, he began a slump that saw him lose in the second round at the French Open and the first round at Wimbledon. By the time Isner was sent packing in the third round of the U.S. Open, when his draw had looked so promising, you might have wondered: Is there a curse on the No. 1 U.S. ranking?

When Sampras and Agassi hung up their sticks, the U.S. lost two all-time greats. When Roddick did the same, the U.S. didn’t lose a legend of similar status, but it did lose a player who had the confidence that he belonged in the top tier. Even though he didn’t put up dominant results, Roddick still walked with the swagger of a once-dominant tennis nation, of a player who had believed at one time that he would carry on that tradition.

Without Roddick, the future of U.S. tennis is a sentence with multiple question marks at the end. Blake is re-energized, but he’s also 32. Fish has Top 10 talent, but his surges, which usually happen on U.S. hard courts, tend to be followed by what he calls “lulls.” The same is true for Isner, who can beat anyone on any day, but who hasn’t shown staying power over the course of a season. Sam Querrey is capable of reaching the Top 20 without much trouble, but his solid baseline game hasn’t troubled the first tier—Querrey is 3-19 against the current Top 6. Twenty-year-old Ryan Harrison, as Roddick says, is still figuring things out. Considering that Fish and Isner didn’t reach their career highs until their late 20s, Harrison and 19-year-old Jack Sock would seem to have some leeway. Donald Young, after reaching a career of No. 38 in February, is now ranked No. 122.

The training wheels are off. Which of these players might thrive without their leader, or grow into the role himself now that Roddick’s shadow no longer hangs over U.S. tennis? This year’s trip to the Davis Cup semis is a decent start for the group as a whole. But as Blake, Fish, and Isner have found out, it can be lonely at the top. They weren’t lying when they said they’d miss Andy Roddick.

Podcast: What's Next for the U.S. Davis Cup team?

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