For a while there in Memphis, it looked as if 20-year-old Milos Raonic was going to steal the thunder of Andy Roddick. And that's no mean feat, because Roddick has big thunder, and lots of it. Besides, Roddick was already a two-time Memphis champ, having won the event the first time in 2002, when Raonic was -- yikes! -- 11 years old.
Guess what, folks. Andy Roddick is an old dude, even though he's only 28. As it turns out, he and Roger Federer are the only two guys laboring on the ATP Tour who have won at least one singles title in each of the past 11 years. That's not bad company for Roddick to keep, even though Federer has broken Andy's heart numerous times, most notably at Wimbledon.
Life has been full of travails and challenges that made for a serious gut-check for Roddick, and Sunday was no different. For one thing, Roddick was glassy-eyed and under the weather. If you watched the trophy presentation, you saw how often he turned away from the suits to exercise his hacking cough. More important, Roddick was playing for his 30th career title in his 50th final against a man-child who is not only in the midst of a career-establishing run, but whose serve is a weapon comparable to Roddick's own. And that has to be unnerving. Or at the very least, really irritating.
But Roddick managed to keep his cool and pull this one out, despite the sangfroid Raonic demonstrated in fending off three match points in the second-set tiebreaker. Raonic wouldn't give an inch -- until he surrendered the proverbial mile at 5-6 in the third set.
I'm not sure that losing a match can ever be said to be a "good" thing, but falling just short in this one may prove a valuable reality check for the youngster Raonic. He slashed his way to the title in San Jose just last week, after putting together an Australian Open run that put him on our radar. (He lost in the fourth round Down Under, but played the same number of matches [including qualifying] as the eventual champ, Novak Djokovic.)
Raonic's breakout is reminiscent of the way John Isner blasted his way into our consciousness in 2007, knocking guys unconscious with a big serve and a knack for winning tiebreakers and three-set matches. And Isner's debut reminded us of the way we first learned of Roddick, circa 2002, the year he first won Memphis and beat Pete Sampras to take the title in Houston.
All this brings up an interesting point. You can ride a big serve and a strong, aggressive, young heart quite a long way in tennis. More than anyone else, the man who can serve big -- whether he backs it up with the volley or not doesn't even matter -- can take a shortcut from point A to point E or F. It demonstrates the enduring value of the big serve.
Roddick didn't win this tournament thanks to his serve, though. He won it because of everything else he's added to his repertoire, including intangibles like patience (not a noteworthy quality among many big servers), resolve, good instincts and experience. His 30th title was thoroughly earned, and it provided the raw talent, Raonic, with a good glimpse of how much more than a big serve goes into long-term success.