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Monday, July 21, 2008
Roddick's big gamble

It's always a pleasure talking with or listening to Andy Roddick; he's got that Nebraska boy's penchant for common sense combined with a quick, sharp mind and a streak of compulsive honesty. In a tangential comment made during a conference call the other day, he said of Rafael Nadal's résumé: "I don't think anybody doubts that Nadal's probably had a better career than a lot of people who have been No. 1, myself included."

That's vintage Roddick; he has a way with words and he's a flexible-minded realist. That's also as good an explanation as you can get for why he's choosing to skip the Olympic Games in Beijing in mid-August. As he explained: "I'll be a huge fan watching [the Games] from home. [My decision] had to do more with at the end of my career I want to have been making runs in Slams. … I didn't feel like a trip to Beijing, followed by playing a first-round match five days later at the U.S. Open, was the best preparation for Flushing."

I understand why Roddick took that decision. I've covered the Olympic Games and fully appreciate the logistical peculiarities that differentiate it from other sporting events. Roddick knows about them firsthand, too, from the Athens Games: "You have to put in all the extracurriculars. … It's not like you're taking a car five minutes to the courts. You know, there are huge amounts of traffic and security and buses and there is a lot that goes into it."

True enough. And if Andy's heart is in Flushing, not Beijing, more power to him. But I think he's putting too many eggs in one basket, and subjecting himself to a lot of pressure with his plans. Granted, within tennis, it's all about the majors, rather than Olympic gold. And you have to give Andy props for showing his true colors as a tennis player, loyal to the game's unique culture. But the winners of Olympic gold also join a unique and more universal club.

There are a few powerful counter-arguments to Roddick's decision, starting with the implication in his own words, when he said: "Every time I've played well at the Open, I've played well in the lead-up events. I don't see how playing well all summer and trying to win events can hurt your preparation for the U.S. Open."

So there's the "momentum" argument, suggesting that Andy -- whose relatively fresh for the summer after a nagging shoulder injury -- ought to play more rather than fewer matches. And let's face it, taxing as the Olympic Games might be, the other top players will be competing in Beijing. So it isn't as if Roddick would be surrendering a powerful advantage by taking part in the Games -- if anything, he's trying to set himself up with an advantage by not participating. And that's bound to create pressure for him to perform in New York.

And there's something else: Roddick's enthusiastic support for Davis Cup, and his record in the event, demonstrates that he loves playing for his country -- if he doesn't love it above all else, it's only because there is no nations-based open tournament. Oh, wait. There's the … Olympic Games.

Given that the Beijing Games will be on a surface suitable to Roddick's game (U.S. Open-style Decoturf) and that Olympic tennis tends to be a free-for-all that makes the top players edgy and vulnerable to upset, it's easy to see how Roddick could develop a hot hand and pound his way through the draw to take the gold.

All in, Roddick is taking a big gamble, even if his heart is in the right place -- firmly rooted in New York, not Beijing.