NEW YORK – He was the kid who grew into a man, the guy with the big serve who never gave in or rarely gave out. Andy Roddick beat them all through the years except Father Time. And so for American tennis, it is now game, set and matchless.
On his 30th birthday, Thursday, Roddick announced he would retire after this U.S. Open. After he plays one more match, Friday night against Bernard Tomic of Australia. Or if he wins, and who wouldn’t hope he wins, a match or three after that.
It was a surprise. Mary Jo Fernandez of ESPN, the one-time tennis star, began to cry when she heard.
It wasn’t a surprise. Roddick’s body had begun to fail him, one injury after another. If he couldn’t play and practice the way Andy Roddick believed he must, well, he wasn’t going to stumble through, a forlorn has-been.
“I don’t know,’’ he explained, “that I’m healthy enough or committed enough go through another year. I’ve always wanted to – in a perfect world – finish at this event.’’
At the Open, where as an 8-year-old he snuck into the players’ locker room. Where as a 21-year-old he was the champion, the last American male to win a Grand Slam. Where now, without a tear – something he said he would have bet against – he steps away.
New York, the Big Apple, where stars are born, where the lights are bright, where the crowd is boisterous. Where the fourth Slam of the year, after the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, turns into a huge party of rock music, deli sandwiches and big forehands.
It was Pete Sampras, then Andre Agassi and after they stood aside it was Andy Roddick, the headliner if only once the champion.
The inevitability for any athlete in any sport is that he and she cannot go on forever. Sometimes the decision is made for them. Lou Gehrig, “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,’’ was stricken with ALS and had to quit. Sometimes the player must choose. Roddick has chosen.
“With the way my body feels,’’ said Roddick, who did win his first-round match Tuesday, “the way I feel I’m able to compete, I don’t know that it’s good enough. I don’t know I’ve ever been someone who’s interested in existing on tour.’’
He had considered a reduced schedule, but that never would be Roddick’s way. He reminded he’s never done anything halfway, and for the first time in his career he was worried about “putting everything’’ into his tennis.
“I don’t know that I want to disrespect the game by coasting home,’’ said Roddick.
Not that any champion ever would. In 1951, the late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon supposedly asked a limping Joe DiMaggio, struggling through his final season, why he ran so hard after fly balls, and DiMaggio said, “There may be some kid who never saw me play before.’’
DiMaggio didn’t want to sully a reputation. Andy Roddick will never sully his.
Roddick loved a challenge, whether debating sportswriters or facing Roger Federer. He could argue against the best. He could match shots against the best. He could handle losing. He never could handle a lack of effort.
It wasn’t the age that got him, 30. “A number is a number,’’ Roddick said. “It was the wear and tear and miles. It’s a matter of how I feel. These guys have gotten really good, really good. I’m not sure with my compromised health I can do what I want right now.’’
The thought of departing took residence after his third-round loss at Wimbledon in late June. Andy bowed and waved as he walked off, and Thursday he said, “I couldn’t imagine myself being there in another year.’’
After this tournament, he won’t be anywhere, except home in Austin or running his foundation. He’ll pick up a racquet. “I still love the innocent parts of the game,’’ was Roddick’s comment. “I love hitting tennis balls. I love seeing the young guys do well.’’
Roddick did well, but with only that one Slam and four trips to other finals, one here at the Open, three at Wimbledon – and all against Federer – some think he might have done better. Roddick remains content.
“I don’t know that I would change much,’’ he said. “Obviously I think everybody would want to win a match or two more. Had I won a match or two more, we’d be looking back at something a little bit different. But that’s kind of who I am and how I’ve been able to learn.
“At the end of the day, I know people view it as a career of some hard knocks. But I got to play. I got to play in a crowd, play in Wimbledon finals, be the guy on a Davis Cup team for a while. These are opportunities not a lot of people get. And as much as I was disappointed and frustrated at times, I’m not sure I ever felt sorry for myself or begrudged anybody any of their success.’’
What we feel for Andy Roddick is appreciation. He’ll be missed. Greatly.