Thursday, June 26, 2008 Updated: June 27, 6:37 PM ET
Pressure to win too much for Roddick at Wimbledon
By Bonnie D. Ford ESPN.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- You can blast Andy Roddick for not executing on break points. You can dissect his backhand and critique his movement. But the one thing Roddick can't be faulted for is his desire. It's one of his greatest assets and, at times, one of his most glaring vulnerabilities.
Emotion is what soaked into the balls and scuffed up the fuzz Thursday, making them heavier and heavier as Roddick staggered into the fourth set of his match with Serbia's tireless Janko Tipsarevic. "It's like you want something so bad you almost squeeze too tight," Roddick said after his 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 second-round exit, his earliest ever at Wimbledon.
Over the course of a seven-year hunt for his beloved Davis Cup title, Roddick learned to manage his angst and become a consistent winner on any surface in any city. This swath of green remains the one place where his nerves get the better of him, visibly wearing away his chances in the losses here this year and last and exposing his weaknesses like the beaten-down dirt that shows through the grass at the baseline.
The pressure to succeed at the All England Club was too much for Roddick to handle.
Wimbledon represents not one but several white whales Roddick hasn't been able to harpoon, even with a sensational serve that has only improved over the years. It's the trophy he almost won; it's the trophy he's never won. It's the last goal he hasn't checked off the list he famously made when he was 17. And now it is part of an endgame that looms larger every season.
"By no means am I going to complain about anything that I've been blessed with, but it's almost at this point, win another Slam or what?" Roddick said. "Either you win a Slam or what, you're disappointing? You kind of have to deal with that every day. And I think I was trying to press so much, even from practice, just trying to get to a level where I thought I could compete for this title."
Win. Or what? Be consigned to the cutout bin of One-Slam Wonders? Roddick cares perhaps too deeply for his own good what other people think and say and write about him, but the bottom line here is that he's convinced he owes himself more after all he's put into the sport. If that's the way it ends up, if the 2003 U.S. Open championship won mere days after his 21st birthday turns out to be his one glimpse, no outside critic will need to torch Roddick. He'll be standing there with the kerosene and the match and a rolled-up list of missed opportunities to serve as kindling.
Always quick to come up with a visual, Roddick told his brother John and fitness trainer Doug Spreen how he felt moments after the match.
"I said, 'You know, when you've seen the Rolling Stones from the front row, and then all of a sudden you're like, you know, seven or eight rows back and there's a really tall guy in front of you waving his hands and screaming, you can't see much, it's not going to be as good as the other show,'" he said. "That's kind of what you're going to remember.
"That's where my head's at. I want to win another Slam."
Roddick gets a lot of credit for his humorous one-liners in news conferences. Other times his words drip with acid. Last year, after he was ousted in the quarterfinals by Richard Gasquet after being up two sets and a break, Roddick looked hollow, as if he'd scooped out his innards and stomped on them before walking in.
Thursday he hit another note -- a forthright and excruciating one. Roddick usually competes well even if he doesn't play well. He felt he did neither against Tipsarevic. He used the words "choked" and "blanked." There was no sense in equivocating, because everyone, including his opponent, saw it, too. "If you look at the other guy, professional tennis players feel the intensity and see when the other guy is choking," Tipsarevic said. "If you can read that, that's a great bonus and benefit for you."
Roddick finds himself stuck in a very claustrophobic space for an athlete, with enough talent to make a better living than most and too much drive to be content with simply punching in. "I could probably coast and not train and be a top-10 player and kind of have a cushy lifestyle and be set for as long as I need to be set for," said Roddick, notably sunnier since his engagement to model Brooklyn Decker. "I'm happy as I can be away from losing tennis matches. I don't know if that appeals to me. I don't know if I'm satisfied with that."
This September will mark the fifth anniversary of Roddick's U.S. Open win, so unexpected, so welcomed and now subject to interpretation as a blessing or a burden. Roddick puts it firmly in the former category.
"Would I have liked to have struggled, you know, early on and then come through in this moment of glory later on?" he asked, with no edge in his voice. "I don't know. Is that even worth talking about? It's not a realistic situation. You know, we're not Peter Pan, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man or whatever. We're not living in a fantasy world. I'm very proud of what I've accomplished so far in my career. I wouldn't trade it."
Months ago, Roddick announced he would pass on a second Olympics and devote his summer to preparing himself for the Open. In some ways, that makes this July and August no different from any others, but there's an understandable urgency to Roddick's plan. These dog days pass by with the accelerated velocity of dog years for a tennis player in his mid-20s, especially one who's a bloodhound on a trail that won't stay warm forever.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.