Tuesday, July 14, 2009

From Crayons to Perfume

I don’t consider myself a big tennis fan. I have a pretty good grasp for the sport and the rules of the game, but I am much more of a casual fan than a major aficionado. I do play the sport from time to time with a few friends, and I can easily name the major matches and players in the professional realm, but my knowledge doesn’t go too much further than that. Nevertheless, I am a huge sports fan, so obviously the world of tennis will inch its way into my interest every now and then. And the main way that tennis always seems to creep into my curiosity is Andy Roddick.

Any sports fan and casual tennis fan (like myself) certainly knows the name Andy Roddick. In fact, any casual sports fan in general most likely knows the name Andy Roddick. And while we’re at it, we might as well mention that the majority of young women (15-30) are familiar with the man as well. By far the most recognizable male American tennis player, Roddick has been one of tennis’s biggest stars for nearly a decade. He broke onto the scene as a professional in 2000 and has been ranked in top-10 worldwide among pro tennis players since 2002. So considering his notoriety and top-notch world rankings, it would be pretty obvious to state that he is one of the best tennis players in the world…unless you’re me.

I have never been much of an Andy Roddick fan. Over the past few years, I have been extremely critical of Roddick and his tennis game. I have gone on the record as saying that I don’t consider him an elite athlete in the game of tennis and that I think his hype is much greater than his actual production. The main reason I have been so opposed to deeming Andy as a great player is my feeling that he consistently chokes in big matches. The barometer by which great tennis players are measured is almost always by the number of Grand Slam titles they win. So if you want to be considered among the best, you need to be successful in the four major tennis tournaments: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open. These tournaments, played each year, usually separate the good from the great. Roger Federer, for example, has 15 Grand Slam titles. Pete Sampras has 14. Andre Agassi has 8. Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg have 11 each, John McEnroe won 7, and Rafael Nadal (pro since ’01) has already won 6. These are some of the great tennis players, and they have the Grand Slams to back it up. Andy Roddick, on the other hand, has a total of…(drum roll)…ONE Grand Slam. That’s right, just one. The numbers don’t lie.

All of the hype surrounding Andy Roddick sure seems overblown when you realize his only major win came at the U.S. Open in 2003. In fact, Roddick has competed in a total of 33 Grand Slam Tournaments, with only one win and four second place finishes. This not only means that he isn’t winning majors, but that more often than not, he isn’t even coming close. Any time the pressure is high and a big match is on the line, Roddick has the propensity to choke like a cat on a hair ball. He’s like the bizarro Michael Jordan. And without those majors, he simply cannot be considered among the tennis greats. Roddick’s inability to come through in the clutch just completely cripples his chances at prominence. Historic players thrive in the clutch. Everyone else is more a less a spectactor, and Andy is in that category. But it can’t all be chalked up to chocking in big moments, can it? Wouldn’t a good tennis player find a way to win more than once in 33 chances? Is cracking under the pressure the only reason for his Grand Slam shortcomings? Well…

Not exactly. The truth is, Andy Roddick has never been a strong all around tennis player. Starting around the age of 17 or 18, tennis experts were deeming Roddick to be the “next big thing”, the American that would pick up and dominate the sport where Sampras and Agassi would leave off. At this young age, a lot of the excitement surrounding Andy came from his power and speed when serving the ball or hitting forehands. And while this potential has translated into a talent today, it has been the only consistent aspect of Roddick’s game. Andy’s all around skills have been questionable over the years, which has really hindered his chances at winning those Grand Slam tournaments. Unfortunately for Roddick, he was and up-and-coming player at the same time that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were rising through the sport. Federer and Nadal are very, VERY good all-around players (Federer is the best all-around player I’ve ever seen, for what it’s worth) and the two also excel on all types or court surfaces. The well-tuned skills of Federer and Nadal are the main reason why the pair has combined to win 18 of the last 21 Grand Slams, and why Roddick still has one. Andy can’t compete with Federer and Nadal, and to be honest, neither can anyone else. The numbers don’t lie.

Roddick does have a solid forehand and is the game’s preeminent server, clocking the fastest serve ever recorded at 155 mph. However, he exceeds at little else. He has a decent back-hand, a sup-par net game, and struggles greatly when he has to play defensive tennis. He’s basically a specialist, like a punter in football, a closer in baseball, or a 3-point shooter in basketball. He can be the best server in the world (and probably is), but it won’t win him any majors. The numbers don’t lie.

So if Roddick has only one Grand Slam title and doesn’t have the all-around skills to compete with Federer and Nadal…what’s all the fuss about? Why is Roddick such a big name in the world of tennis? Well, this is where my other problems with Andy come up. While Roddick may not be a spectacular pro tennis player (in my opinion), he does possess many of the qualities prized by the superficial female. Or in other words, he’s a good lookin’ dude. He gets a lot of publicity and endorsements. He’s in numerous commercials and magazines. He even hosted Saturday Night Live in 2003, which was his most successful year on the tennis court. Even his personal life gives his time in the public eye a nice boost, as well. He used to date singer/actress Mandy Moore and is currently married to Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker. So he’s a good/decent tennis player…good looking guy…very well known…but doesn’t win many tourneys, and always seems to choke in big spots. When you add it all up, it basically means that he is the male Anna Kornikova. He uses his good looks to make up for his shortcomings in his profession. Roddick has always gotten more notoriety and publicity out of his pretty face and famous girlfriends than he has out of winning tennis matches. As the great Jerry Seinfeld once said: “He’s a male bimbo. He’s a mimbo.” And sure, that may be a little blunt, but until Roddick starts winning some Grand Slams, it’s tough to argue otherwise. The numbers don’t lie.

Unfortunately for Roddick, it’s pretty easy to be critical of him. With his poor record in the major tournaments, mediocre all-around game, and fame based largely on good looks, it’s actually surprising that he doesn’t get criticized more often. He even has other traits that you could argue should hurt his public image a little further, whether it be his changing coaches numerous times or griping and whinnying to the umpires during matches. And I’m still stunned by the fact that he isn’t condemned more for continuing to choke in big moments. Remember how much flack Phil Mickelson used to take because he could never beat Tiger Woods and secure a win in any of the professional golf Majors? How is Andy’s situation any different? Why does he get a pass?

But with all of that said, it is impossible to avoid the fact that Roddick may be hurt by his timing more than anything else. He is peaking as a tennis player just as two of the all-time greats are in the middle of their prime. It’s tough to climb the mountain when Nadal (a fantastic, young, all-around skilled player who dominates on clay courts) and Federer (arguably the greatest of all time to ever pick up a racket) are standing at the top. And to make matters worse, Roddick entered the ranks when Sampras and Agassi were still dominating the landscape. Andy truly has been caught between a rock and a hard place.

You can actually see a stunning similarity to Roddick’s story with the career of the great Charles Barkley. “Sir Charles” was drafted into the National Basketball Association in 1984 with the 5th overall selection. Alas, Barkley’s entrance into the league coincided with the height of the Larry Bird / Magic Johnson era, when the two superstars and their teams ruled the league. It was tough for Barkley to solidify himself as a true power in the league. Then, when Bird and Magic were reaching the tail-end of their prime, things got even worse for Barkley. Drafted the same year as Charles, Michael Jordan was developing into the greatest basketball player to walk the earth. How was anyone supposed to compete with that? Barkley was forever left to survive in MJ’s shadow: Barkley’s team made it to the NBA Finals in ’93, but they were defeated by Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. Barkley also won the Most Valuable Player Award during the 1993 season, but that was mainly due to the fact that everyone was tired of Jordan winning. And Chuck’s one MVP couldn’t stand up to Jordan’s five – not to mention his six championships to boot. Barkley is one of the greatest 50 players in NBA history, and yet his legacy will always be watered down because of the time period he played in. Andy Roddick is in the same boat. He came in with Sampras and Agassi and now he’s trying to keep up with Federer and Nadal. Timing wouldn’t be something to put on his resume.

Another parallel to Roddick’s career can be made with the band, The Wallflowers. The Wallflowers were a major band towards the end of the ‘90s, for a number of reasons. They gained a great deal of attention and hype due to the fact that they were fronted by Jakob Dylan, son of the great Bob Dylan. They also had a major album release in 1996 with Bringing Down the Horse, thanks in large part to their mega-smash hit, “One Headlight.” Nevertheless, the band failed to fully live up to their initial hype and the success of their ‘96 album and single. In a similar sense, Roddick was propelled by his hype as a young pro, which was enhanced due to his spectacular 2003 season (in which he achieved the world’s #1 ranking) and topped off by his lone Grand Slam title at the year’s U.S. Open. And, just like The Wallflowers, Andy has fizzled out over the years, coming up short of the expectations we all seem to have for him, time and time again.

And yet, despite all the criticism I’ve leveled him and all the ways I think his skills have been overblown, I have always wanted to see him succeed. Despite the fact that I once wrote how I would put money on my grandma if she were facing Roddick in a Grand Slam Final, I always root for Andy Roddick and hope that his luck will change. I would love to see him do well, love to see an American tennis player once again exceed in the game of tennis. So, when Roddick made it to the finals of Wimbledon against the great Roger Federer in early July, I was really pulling for him to bring home a victory. I wasn’t getting my hopes up or anything, but I was definitely rooting for him.

Much to my surprise, the mimbo turned into a man. Roddick came out of the gates, blasting on all cylinders. He refused to be intimidated by Federer, despite the fact that Roger had 14 Grand Slam titles (including 5 at Wimbledon) and had defeated Andy 18 times out of the 20 they had faced each other. Roddick started strong, keeping Federer on his toes while Andy stole the first set. He even looked to be cruising to a win in the second, before Federer forced a tiebreaker and eventually won 6 straight points to win the set. It was classic Federer, and a moment that kind of felt like it would break Andy and his spirit. But just as I was thinking Roddick would crumble like a lawn chair under a fat man, he hung tough in the third set and easily won the fourth, even after injuring his leg. I couldn’t believe how much Roddick had improved his overall game, showing flashes of touch and a net game that I had never seen from him before. I thought he kept Federer on the ropes, forcing him to stay back and fend off his attempts instead of allowing Roger to charge the net, which is arguably the best aspect of Roger’s game. Andy forced Federer to become the more defensive player, saving himself from dealing with that aspect of the game, which he still struggles with greatly. Roddick’s effort made the match worth watching.

While I felt it was obvious that Federer was the more sound and skilled player, I thought Roddick actually played better. He stuck to the things that he did best and refused to let Roger get him off his gameplan. Andy was in no way frightened by his adversary, and it led to one of the greatest Wimbledon finals in the history of the sport.

The final set went a record 30 games, with Federer winning 16-14 and taking the match. The win gave him the most Grand Slams all-time of any tennis player, and solidified him as the greatest in the sport. Roddick played incredible, maybe even a little better than Roger, but Federer was still able to pull it out in the end, exemplifying a true test of greatness. But while Roddick may not have won the match, he certainly accomplished something else.

I was extremely impressed with Roddick. I felt as if I had seen the man grow up in that one day, blossoming right before my very eyes. It was like watching Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. I was amazed at how he stood up to Federer, and I loved that he stuck with him through that final set. And while that Wimbledon loss may have become the defining point of his career thus far, I’m optimistic that it won’t stay that way for long. At only 26, Roddick is young enough and talented enough to turn things around and put himself up among the Roger’s and Rafael’s of today’s tennis universe. It just feels like there are a few Grand Slam titles waiting for him in his future.

In “Your Bright Baby Blues”, Jackson Browne sang: “No matter where I am, I can’t help but thinking I’m just a day away, from where I want to be.” I think this line fits Roddick and his career perfectly, because regardless of what he has done - or in the case of the Wimbledon final, how well he has played - he always seems to come up short. He always seems just a small step or two away from those moments of greatness. Hopefully that will change for him, and I kind of think of it will. But either way, that one match proved to me that Roddick was more than just a pretty face. He truly is a good tennis player, and one that can actually hang with the best in the world. It might not be the same as winning, but he bought himself a pass from my criticism for the foreseeable future. In that one match, the boy grew some onions, and I cannot think of anything negative to say about that. He matured, he competed, and he lived up to the hype. Andy Roddick became a man.

He’s a mimbo no more.

Thanks for reading