Tennis

Roddick retires step shy of greatness

Horrow: Is Roddick leaving big money on the table?
Horrow: Is Roddick leaving big money on the table?
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Andy Roddick is healthy, rich, smart, 30 years old and married to Brooklyn Decker. He spent his career traveling the world and doing what he wanted to do. He never got into much trouble.

When a guy creates a life that you would love for your son, it’s hard to see failure.

But in the end, Roddick was more name than game. He announced Thursday that he’ll retire after the U.S. Open. And for all he accomplished, and all he did for American tennis as its only mainstream, pop-culture male player, it’s hard not to think:

He should have done more. He could have done more. This is Roddick’s legacy. His tennis legacy, that is. In normal human terms, he hit it big. In tennis champion terms, he was disappointing.

Roddick missed out on a chance to be part of the greatest era of men’s tennis, and to include the U.S. in it. In 2003, when he was 21 years old, Roddick won the U.S. Open. He finished the year ranked No. 1. Roger Federer was No. 2.

But Roddick would never win another major. Federer passed him, and then Rafael Nadal, and now Novak Djokovic, leaving Roddick behind.

Tennis fans know that they are watching a special moment in their sport’s history. Three of the best players ever are here at the same time. And some people say that Roddick just came along at the wrong moment in history.

But that wasn’t it at all. He was here at the perfect time to build a legacy, to grow a sport in the U.S. He just was too stubborn to adapt his game, to develop a backhand, a net game and a strategy to go with his amazing serve.

By the time he finally did it, he nearly beat Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2009, losing 16-14 in the fifth set. Remember? When Roddick got home, he found that Americans fell for him that day. He had changed his diet, fixed his game. It looked like a new beginning for Roddick.

It turned out to be his last chance.

“For 13 or 14 years, I was invested fully, every day,’’ he said Thursday. “I’ve seen a lot of people throughout that time be invested for a year, kind of tap out for a year, come back. I’ve been pretty good about keeping my nose to the grindstone. I feel like I won a lot of matches from hard work and persistence.’’

He did. All true.

In the 2003 Australian Open quarterfinals, Roddick beat Younes El Aynaoui 21-19 in the fifth set. He just kept fighting for five hours. If you know tennis, you know how personal a long match like that can be with two people facing each other, all alone. The emotion spills out of them, and everyone watching can feel it. It was classic Roddick.

So was this, though: The first time I saw him play in person was in the 2002 U.S. Open quarterfinals against Pete Sampras. It was supposed to be one of those great torch-passing moments. Roddick already was better than Sampras, who was fading.

But Sampras, who would go on to win the tournament, crushed Roddick, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. I remember thinking that Roddick must be the dumbest tennis player ever. He would not alter his game. No matter how badly he was getting beaten, he just kept doing the same things over and over.

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Roddick followed America’s greatest tennis generation, of Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang. And no other men’s player from Roddick’s generation ever made much of a mark.

It was all left to him, and he stayed in the top 10 for a decade. He anchored the U.S. Davis Cup team for years. He spent time with young American players, practicing with them, offering advice.

He belongs in the Hall of Fame.

But Roddick fell short of greatness, reaching very goodness instead. If only he had won just one of those three Wimbledon finals over Federer.

“He’s had an amazing career,’’ Federer said Thursday. “Some expected better; some expected worse . . . He was in those Wimbledon finals. He could have gotten the title. That’s what I said when I beat him in `09. He deserves this title as well. In my mind, he is a Wimbledon champion as well.’’

It’s a nice thing to say. But Roddick is not a Wimbledon champ.

A few years ago, at a bar near Wimbledon, I happened to run into Roddick’s brother, John. We started watching England play World Cup soccer on the TVs, and talked about Andy’s legacy.

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  • Andy Roddick is best summed up as ...
    • Hall of Famer
    • Underachiever

That legacy needs to include 2009, when Israeli player Shahar Peer wasn’t allowed to play in Dubai because she’s a Jew. The women’s tour amazingly played anyway. The next week for the men’s event, Roddick pulled out, citing the tournament’s treatment of Peer. John said Andy had thrown away his biggest guaranteed paycheck of the year.

On the court, John said, Andy is seen by half the people as overachiever and half as an underachiever. Andy would joke that people thought of him as both.

Yes, some people think Roddick was an under-talented player who got as far as he could. To me, he underachieved. You can’t win a major at 21, and then never win again.

The burden was always high on Roddick, and he loved it. The aches and pains are adding up now, and Roddick was losing his desire to fight through them. It happens.

Federer said that Roddick did the best he could, and what more can you ask? Roddick did so much. But no, you could have asked for more. That last step to greatness was there to be taken.

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