Editor’s note: So I was slated to do a story on Andy Roddick last summer because he was going to appear at the now-defunct Indy Tennis Championships and interviewed numerous people, like his brother, his mom, Sam Querrey, Robby Ginepri, Patrick McEnroe and even Johnny Mac. And I was on a quick conference call with Roddick himself. Anyways, he bailed out because of injury and I never got to write the story. UNTIL NOW. A year later, and about 2,000 words longer, we get this…
As a rule, tennis doesn’t reward those who take their time. The sport caters to the fleet-footed and swift-minded. It goes without saying that a player can’t think at length about whether he hit his groundstroke deep enough to put his opponent at a disadvantage and thus should rush the net.
A player must react. A player must decide. A player must be ready to change in a match – be it a change of position, strategy or mental state.
This rule of tennis, of course, applies everywhere throughout the sport and not just in the basics of play.
Yes, transformations are rapid. Metamorphoses seem to occur overnight if not quicker. Sam Stosur was barely a top 50 player a year ago. She’s now a contender in Grand Slams. Robin Soderling was dubiously known as one of the ATP’s best indoor court players. He’s now seen by many as the best player behind Federer and Nadal.
Yet as rapidly as players’ fortunes rise and fall on the courts, their reputations change faster. Andre Agassi was a rebellious prodigy whose shallow persona prevented his play from reaching its ultimate depth. Then he was a wise philanthropist, a man who made use of his talent to reach out to others.
Federer was a talented headcase. Then he was the undisputed king of tennis. Then he was washed up. Then he was back on his throne, the billowy white jacket with a gold 15 emblazoned the lower corner at last year’s Wimbledon illustrating that.
Federer slipped on that jacket after a match against Andy Roddick that lasted 30 games into the fifth set. It was in those five sets, in those 30 games that a transformation, rapid even by tennis’ standards, occurred.
When it was over, Roddick was the bruised and battered hero. He was vulnerable. He was wounded.
And we saw that.
One day we felt iffy about Roddick, the next day we admired him.
This is about that transformation. This is about the origins. This is about a man who was misunderstood for so long.
This is about him, and it’s about us.
Why didn’t we feel passionate about Roddick from the beginning? Why did we have to change?
What took us so long to like Andy Roddick?
The rule was no basketball. And that was an order straight from Roddick’s coach, Tarik Benhabiles. He coached one of the top juniors in the country, and he didn’t want to see him get injured playing something that wouldn’t improve his tennis.
This wasn’t a typical rule for a tennis prodigy. Can you imagine a young Ivan Lendl even considering picking up a basketball?
But Roddick was never like the others. A tennis life for an ordinary kid began, where else, the Midwest. There, in Omaha, Roddick joined a class of 7-year-olds at Westroads Racquet Club. He was 3 1/2.
Blanche Roddick, his mother, knew he would fail. She only enrolled him because the class would shut down for good if another student didn’t join. So she signed him up.
“If you want to get rid of him,” Blanche would tell the instructor, “go ahead.”
Nobody got rid of Roddick. Even if he wasn’t better than the rest of the class, they couldn’t have. He would stand in front of the club’s rebound wall and pound the yellow ball endlessly, not budging for anyone.
Years went by and Roddick improved and he hit a growth spurt and soon he was one of the better young Americans and then one of the best young players in the world. He still wore a hole-covered Nebraska Cornhuskers hat when he played. He still spent his formative years in the Midwest. He still played basketball.
And when his family finally did move to Florida to further his tennis career, Benhabiles began working with him the way a typical coach would work with a tennis prodigy.
And one of his rules was no basketball.
So one night Roddick told Blanche he planned to see some friends, left the house and came back late. Blanche scanned the paper the next day and stumbled upon the box score from the Boca Prep basketball game. There, printed among the Boca players who scored, she found an interesting name. It was Andy Roddick.
Robby Ginepri knows a Roddick none of us know, the one without the Mach 3 serve and baggy Lacoste polo.
“He was a grinder,” Ginepri says.
Roddick had to be a grinder. He was small, almost comically small until midway through his high school career. The wall measurements were posted in the Roddick’s house in Austin, and Blanche can’t remember his exact height by his early teens, but…
“He couldn’t have been more than five feet,” she says.
This meant that Roddick came up with deceptive ways to win points. This meant that he put himself in better condition. This meant that he outworked his opponents so that he still finished near the top of the 14-and-unders despite standing smaller than all but one of the top 128 in the rankings.
But he did grow, and he grew into, well, Patrick McEnroe tells it through this story.
Tennis has taken McEnroe all over the world and then back to those places again, every year, as a commentator and a Davis Cup coach. Yet he vividly remembers Basel.
It was 2001. He was a freshly-minted Davis Cup coach and high on his list of priorities was finding a spot for a teenager who had not only turned professional but rose higher than any young player ever had. That player was, of course, Roddick.
McEnroe invited him to Basel for a match against Switzerland and held a practice for the entire team on the day they arrived. Todd Martin was there, so too were Justin Gimelstob and Jon-Michael-Gambill, and jet lag threw off everyone’s timing.
Roddick stepped on the court and began rifling 140 mph serves like he was in a Grand Slam match. McEnroe turned to Martin. He saw energy, and he still saw that grind-it-out mentality.
“I’ve seen that side in Andy many times in distant lands,” McEnroe says, “and it’s something few people have.”
“Andy Roddick can’t find the remote either.”
L. Jon Wertheim used that sentence to begin an SI story on Roddick shortly after he won the 2003 U.S. Open. You get it, right? In a tennis world where top players like Marcelo Rios ran over their trainers in SUV’s and punched Roman taxi drivers, Roddick never missed a Nebraska football game and played poker with Mardy Fish and James Blake.
He may have dated Mandy Moore and earned millions of dollars, but he was one of us. Roddick was the everyman.
Of course, he was one of us back then because he just won the U.S. Open. In September of 2003 the future of American tennis established himself as the present.
He had a world-record cannon serve. He had a sense of humor, too. He’d poke fun at media members during otherwise boring press conferences.
But he wasn’t Pete or Andre.
A few years later, we discovered that. He lost in the first rounds of Grand Slams, and when he did reach the semifinals or finals, we knew he didn’t have a chance. And he didn’t. By 2008, Roddick had never won that second, third, fourth or fifth Grand Slam like we expected.
His serve no longer struck awe. He was called one-dimensional, lazy. His outbursts to the media weren’t hilarious but instead moody and aloof.
He still advanced deep into the draws of most Grand Slams. He planted himself in the top 10, finishing eighth or higher for the year-end rankings every year since 2002. He helped several people escape a hotel fire in Rome. He started the Andy Roddick Foundation, a charity unmatched by anyone in tennis except for Agassi. Through it he started tennis academies in poor areas and sent tons of kids, including a young Jozy Altidore, to school at Boca Prep.
“Where would be without him?” McEnroe asks.
Where would we be without him? Did we even notice that we had him? Everything Roddick did seemed to spur feelings of apathy, or worse.
I remember the fall of 2008. Roddick played an early round match at the U.S. Open against Ernests Gulbis. Gulbis was a rising star, a young Latvian riding a summer hot streak. I remember watching the beginning of the match at a friend’s house and mentioning to the group you wanted Gulbis to win.
They shrugged their shoulders.
They felt the same way.
There’s another layer to McEnroe’s story about Basel. The U.S. lost that Davis Cup match to Switzerland, and the main reason why McEnroe remembers, was because of a young man named Roger Federer.
That same man was wearing white on championship Sunday at Wimbledon last year and staring across the net at Roddick like he had so many times before. Roddick was 2-18 against Federer in his career.
Then the match started, and Roddick won the first set, and he had the second set won if he just made that volley. But he didn’t. He did come back to win another set though, and it went to the fifth, then it went to the 22nd game, then the 24th, then the 28th and Roddick still hadn’t been broken.
Yet no matter what we may have thought there was no way he was going to win. Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras had come to England to watch. This was about the coronation of Roger Federer. A dreamer serving aces on fumes wasn’t about to change that.
And Roddick didn’t. He did get broken. He did have to watch Federer put on that white jacket with a golden 15 emblazoned on the side and hear him apologize for the defeat.
Later, night fell on Wimbledon and McEnroe rushed over to Roddick’s rented townhouse to see if he’d be able to play in the Davis Cup event the next weekend.
Roddick was there with his wife, Brooklyn Decker, his trainer, Doug Spreen, and coach, Larry Stefanki. He was gutted. He was defeated.
McEnroe couldn’t do much to change that, but he felt he needed to say something.
“I know this isn’t going to make you feel any better,” McEnroe said, “but you’ve earned more fans with this loss than you did with any of your wins.”
The next week Roddick traveled to New York so a doctor could check on his hip. People stopped him on the streets, more than ever had before. They all gave him words of encouragement.
“I couldn’t go a block without people telling me how much they enjoyed the match,” he says.
Perhaps Joe Posnanski captured the zeitgeist best by writing “he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together.”
It was true. Roddick had played with the guts of the grinder Ginepri knows, with the rebelliousness and joy of the kid who snuck out for a basketball game, with the energy McEnroe has seen thousands of times away from the TV cameras.
Really, he played the way he’s always played: the way we had previously never noticed.
Roddick didn’t change. We did. That quickly, how it always is in tennis, we converted.
We couldn’t get enough of Andy Roddick.
The draws are out for this summer’s Wimbledon. Roddick is ranked fifth and is placed in Novak Djokovic’s quarter. TV reports, blogs and news stories will bring up last year thousands of times over the next few days. They’ll show the English crowd chanting Roddick’s name as he vainly tried to win in the fifth set.
Then on Monday, the matches will begin. Flashbacks to last year will stop. Roddick will have to defeat six opponents, possibly Djokovic and Federer, just to get back to the Final.
It won’t be easy. He lost to Dudi Sela at a Wimbledon tune up last week. He played well on the hard courts in the spring but has slogged through injuries and inconsistencies the last two months.
Many wonder if Roddick has been able to recover from last year’s Wimbledon. The match that marked his mid-career resurrection and endeared him to us could have caused permanent damage to his game.
To be able to advance deep into the draw, he’ll have to forget about it. He’ll have to forget that he did everything he could against Federer for five hours and still couldn’t win.
As for us, we’ll remember. We’ll watch him hit bullet serves on the pristine grass and remember.
Our views of Roddick changed suddenly in one afternoon, and now we can take our time admiring his career.