Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Andy's Dandy but Federer was Betterer

Apologies for the late (and short) post today. I'm just back from a little upstate vacation, and the workplace is abuzz with things for me to do. As anyone who knows me can tell you, office work is my top priority in life. Everything else comes second; ambition, love, money, and blogging. As long as I can excel at mundane tasks in a sterile, fluorescent environment, I will be a happy camper.

Down to business. Today's post is all about this man:

If you're out there, in the world, chewing food, making use of the air, and maybe walking around when the mood hits, chances are you hate Andy Roddick. That's just the way this stuff goes. Something about him rubs you the wrong way, and that "something" is a highly specific look and attitude that evokes spoiled American kids, the arrogant side of fraternal organizations, and eventual weakness all at once. Believe me, I was on board that train for a day and a half, metaphorically. And the results bore us out.

He couldn't win the big matches. Yeah, he won the 2003 US Open for his lone Grand Slam victory. But here are the last names of each player he beat, in order: Henman, Ljubicic, Saretta, Malisse, Schalken, Nalbandian, Ferrero. A few stiffs mixed in with some sorta/kinda contenders, but no top names. Ferrero won the French Open that year, but otherwise none of those opponents ever won a major tournament. You could call it the luckiest Grand Slam victory in history. The draw just opened up.

But when Roddick faced the big guns, he couldn't get a win. He was outplayed, to some extent, but at some point in the marquee matches you could see him quit. He'd start to whine about calls, smile in that faux world-weary way that made you cringe, and adopt the smugly annoyed expression of a man who blames luck and everyone else for his shortcomings. More often than not, he'd make a fool of himself in the post-match press conference by trying to appear stoic and superior, coming off as a petulant kid. Here he was after losing to Federer in the 2007 Australian Open:

He was asked, "Can you just take us from 4‑All on. Up to 4‑4, you're in the match. Then you got broken." Roddick replied, "Yeah, I got broken. Then I got broken three more times. Then I got broken two more times in the third set. Then it was over 26 minutes later. Is that what you saw, too?"

It didn't seem like things would ever change, but then they did. You could see the difference starting in 2008. He began handling his losses with grace, he stopped reacting as though he was entitled, and his game acquired new dimensions. In my last post, Wednesday, I wrote the following about Roddick's upcoming semi-final against Andy Murray:

"As for Roddick, he's grown on me a lot in the last two years and has even matured a little, I think. But it'll be fascinating to watch him face down a strong opponent and a partisan crowd that won't treat him with the same deference afforded to Federer. It could be the biggest test of his career."

Well, he passed with flying colors. The win against Murray put a button on his career's dramatic upswing. It was a strategic, intelligent effort that proved he's more than a strong, tall body with a big serve. He mixed his shots with style and forethought, showing an advanced understanding of the game it would have been impossible to expect in his youth. Murray didn't have a chance; it was absolute domination. And it was the best match of Roddick's career, until he topped it two days later.

What can I say about the Wimbledon final? Contrary to the immensely clever title of this post, Roddick was the better man. It's that simple. Federer was virtuosic, as ever, but Andy played slightly better tennis. Roger couldn't break him until the last game of the match. To play for four hours against Federer and never lose serve is astounding. Here's the only reason why Roddick lost the match.

*Serving in the second set tiebreaker, up 6-5 with a set point, Roddick served wide to Federer's forehand. Roger sent a lame return, and Roddick was approach, but the ball went higher than he expected. He had to make one of those leaping reverse backhands. It's not an easy shot, but it's well within the skill set of every professional. But Andy didn't get over the top, and the ball went wide.

End of story. If he wins that point, he goes up two sets to love, and Federer loses. You can talk all you want about the fallacy of the predetermined outcome and blah blah blah, but the truth is that Andy was playing too well to lose three sets in a row.

In the third set, Federer went up big in the tiebreaker, and Roddick came back to within a point before losing. At that juncture, down a set to the best player in the world and having dropped two heartbreaking breakers in a row, I expected Andy to fold. Maturity aside, there had to be too much of the old choker left to bury him, right?

Not so. He took the fourth 6-3, and did not succumb until 16-14 in the deciding set. That's 30 fucking games in a single set. Unbelievable. After the match, Boris Becker compared it to a soccer game that goes to penalty kicks. Roddick had nothing in the tank, but he still managed a couple break points that would've given him a chance to serve for the championship. But Roger's Roger for a reason, and he served his way out of trouble and finally broke for the win.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a more unlikely tough performance. Roddick? Tough? But that's exactly what happened. It was a match of improbable experience. To hear a stunned John McEnroe rightly admit that Roddick was outplaying Federer and controlling the flow of action was absurd enough. To watch Andy recover from brutal setbacks and come within inches of defeating the guy he was 0-7 against in majors, and 2-18 against lifetime, sent it over the top. And by the way, when the dust had settled, Andy won 38 games. Roger won 37.

But a win is a win, and credit to Federer for setting the all-time mark. I already considered him the greatest ever, but this Wimbledon victory puts it beyond doubt.

Still, to watch Roddick cry when he gave the runner-up speech to an appreciative British crowd was to see a man transformed. The brash, whining kid had been left behind for good, and a champion took his place. There's no better story in sports, and while I'm happy for Roger, you can guess who I'll be rooting for when they come to New York in September.


  1. I agree with you completely, but that whiny kid is still there. You saw him EVER so briefly when Roger said he knew how Andy felt because of the loss to Nadal last year, and Andy piped up "but you had won it 5 times before this Roger." I don't fault Andy for it, but that entitlement is still there a LITTLE, and that's what makes me worry that as amazing as this performance was, the fact that he played perfect and lost is going to mess with his head and you will see Federer defeat him again in the US Open title - and by a larger margin. Just a humble man's prediction. HArd court IS andy's surface...but he couldn't have played any better than he did on Sunday, and as you say, Roger is Roger, so I don't see a Roddick victory in the US Open unless Federer gets ousted before somehow.

  2. It's interesting, because I know he still gets caught saying things like that. I think, more than being a whiny kid, it's just that he's sort of a wisecracker, and also sort of cynical. Basically, that he'll always say weird stuff and you just have to judge him by what happens on court. Put him in front of a crowd and he'll say something cutesy, but even that's reduced, and his on-court focus is better.

    Could the loss screw with him? Possibly, but if he held it together after the awful tiebreak losses in sets 2 and 3, I imagine he'll come back from this too. He's having a lot of success lately and hopefully instead of discouraging him, getting this close will give him even more to build on. We'll see. I'm predicting a Roddick US Open win.