- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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WIMBLEDON, England -- He did not announce 2012 as his final year, as Kim Clijsters did, and in fact spent the past several weeks fending off with defiance the suggestion that he was ready to retire and begin the second act of his professional life. Still, when Andy Roddick blew kisses to the crowd at Centre Court after losing to David Ferrer in the third round of Wimbledon, he did so with such emotion, it sure looked as though he believed he would never come back.
Few players, judged by the ultimate, often myopic measures of winning major championships and nothing else, will be as curiously difficult to assess during his time as Roddick.
First, there is his place against his peers.
Roddick beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2003 U.S. Open, and then -- like all the rest of the very, very good and potentially great players -- was swallowed whole first by Roger Federer and later by the Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic tsunami. Yet Roddick does not exactly deserve that most denigrating of terms: a "one-Slam wonder."
He ranked in the top 10 for nine straight years, won one major and made five finals and 10 semifinals. Roddick took home five Masters 1000 titles and made the final in four others and will be remembered for two terrific Wimbledon finals in 2004 and 2009 against Federer, the latter being one of the great matches in history. Overall, Roddick lost to Federer in four Grand Slam finals.
During Roddick's news conference after his loss to Ferrer, he was typically feisty, chastising journalists for attempting to read his body language as he left the court. But he was not definitive about his next move -- proof that trying to understand how Roddick feels is not an exercise in amateur psychology. It appears that he simply does not know the answer, which is appropriate. Take, for example, these exchanges after his loss to Ferrer:
Q. Are people reading too much into the kiss to the fans as you walked off court?
Roddick: Yeah. That's just another way of going about it. I understand that journalistic ploy and that's what you're supposed to do and stuff. I certainly appreciate the softball questions in between, but, again, I don't have an answer for you. I'm not going to be able to give you much else.
Q. So, while it's never easy to see good things in a loss, it sounds like you're saying there's some things you learned positively about your game and where it's at in the last week or so.
Roddick: I don't know about learned. I just got back to the point where I'm playing relevant tennis. You know, it's not going out there, and I don't feel like I was fighting myself. I felt like I was fighting my opponent today. It sounds like a simple thing, but it's a different point.
I felt like I was out of that for a little while. I feel healthy and good. There are probably less questions as far as my game goes than there were 10 or 12 days ago.
It's clear that Roddick has plenty of tennis left in him. The questions are, rather, what level of tennis he can produce and whether he is comfortable with it, and how he defines being relevant. If his definition of relevant is being able to win a Grand Slam tournament, he would have a difficult time convincing himself that his game can support that expectation. Since his five-set Wimbledon epic against Federer in 2009, Roddick has reached the quarters only twice: the Australian Open in 2010 and last year's U.S. Open.
Roddick's game -- huge serve, huge forehand -- has become the template for the men's game. Where in 2003, Roddick's weapons were at the top of the game, today he does not rank in the category of John Isner, Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ivo Karlovic or Federer. His forehand is not the feared weapon in the class of Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal, Djokovic or Tomas Berdych.
If his expectation is to win Masters 1000 events, where the top players play but the format is best-of-three-sets instead of best-of-five, Roddick's chances improve. In 2009 he reached the quarters in the Paris indoors, and in 2010 he made the Indian Wells final, won Miami, made the semifinal in Cincinnati and reached the quarters in Paris.
If, however, Roddick's definition of relevance is to play tennis at a generally high level without the uncertainty of injuries, only he knows how his body feels. Ferrer is 30, and Federer will turn 31 during the Olympics. But neither has suffered the injury troubles of Roddick, whose 2011 was dismal thanks primarily to injury.
Then there is Roddick's place in the waning American pantheon.
Roddick is the last American to win a Grand Slam singles title, and if we look over his shoulder -- the five highest-ranked Americans are Isner, Mardy Fish, Roddick, Ryan Harrison, Donald Young -- the prospects for another title are not promising any time soon.
Since the 1960s, one era of American champion has been replaced by another. From Jimmy Connors to John McEnroe to Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to Roddick, who is, for now, the last in the string. He might even receive a night match in Arthur Ashe Stadium during the U.S. Open.
Even when he is ranked outside the top 25, Roddick is the last, most recent American who carries star cachet. But perhaps, he may have to carry that torch a little longer. Perhaps.