- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- In hindsight, it's clear he had been building toward this, subconsciously dropping little hints as recently as Tuesday. But when Andy Roddick slid behind the microphone Thursday for an abruptly called news conference at the U.S. Open and said he is calling it a career after his tournament run here is through, the announcement landed like a bombshell.
And that didn't change even when Roddick -- for so long the only thing American men's tennis has had to brag about -- tried to soften the shock with some of his usual wisecracking, including a joke about how he'd lost a lot of "man respect" for his longtime trainer, who cried "like a little baby" at the news.
"But if I'm being honest," Roddick said when the laughter subsided, "I would have bet against myself on getting through this without tears today."
Roddick knows a lot of people tend to evaluate his entire career as a trail of tears, in a way.
He has always been trailed by talk that he was a one-Slam wonder. And that's never been fair.
It's true, all right, that Roddick rolled to the 2003 U.S. Open title just a few days after turning 20 and then never pulled off another Grand Slam title run. But there's a far better and more nuanced story to tell about him. It's about a lot more than just how many titles he nailed on the wall. And in a way, in what should have been another big hint this was coming, Roddick actually started framing what his epitaph should say after his opening-round win over Rhyne Williams on Tuesday.
After that match, reporters kept asking Roddick the usual workaday questions such as how he might handicap his second-round showdown Friday against Bernard Tomic of Australia. But Roddick kept drifting into personal reflections and more philosophical directions. What he essentially said was as good and insightful as any other summation that anyone else might say about him.
He suggested that if you really want to chart the arc of how men's tennis has changed in the decade since this tournament launched him to stardom -- or what everyone chasing Roger Federer had to deal with, not just Roddick -- his career could be Exhibit A.
"I saw the way the game was going ... stronger and quicker," Roddick said. "I didn't think there was much room for a plodder who could hit the ball pretty hard."
Roddick was far better than that. And yet, the recognition that he needed to change his game from being a big-serving baseline bludgeoner was a shrewd discernment for a young player like him, especially one who had already tasted early success and even held the No. 1 ranking for a time.
But then, here's another thing that distinguished Roddick: He didn't settle for just reinventing himself once. He doggedly kept at it again and again. And there's no shame at all in the fact that no matter how admirably Roddick worked at it -- dropping weight, changing coaches, improving his foot speed and volleys so he could rely less on his 135 mph serves or sledgehammer forehands -- first Federer, then Rafael Nadal, then Novak Djokovic all came along and surpassed Roddick anyway.
And still Roddick never called off the chase. Not until Thursday.
He was asked the natural question -- why now, just a day after he turned 30? He confessed that even as he was winning his opening match Tuesday afternoon, a thought came barreling through his head that had cropped up at other times and other tournaments this year. He said that as he was on the court, he looked around and couldn't see himself being back here in a year, doing the same thing. He couldn't imagine weathering another year of battling injuries to his back, shoulder and legs, like he has the past two summers.
"And I just knew," Roddick said, "because I've never wanted to do anything halfway."
Federer will always be Roddick's great white whale, the colossus who always seemed to be in Roddick's way when he was on the doorstep of an achievement that would match or top that '03 U.S. Open win. Three times in the past decade, Roddick roared to the Wimbledon final, and all three times, he found Federer waiting for him. But the '09 Wimbledon epic that the two of them played will be the match that gets mentioned first. It was a five-set thriller that went to 16-14 in the final set before Federer won. At times it felt more like a survival test or some brutal exploration of two athletes' souls than a tennis match. Neither of them would give in.
Roddick won the first set and got to quadruple set point in their second-set tiebreaker, only to see Federer roar back to steal it, helped by a wind-blown ball Roddick was unsure would land out of bounds. And then he didn't get a clean lick on it.
Roddick would later admit that a missed chance to seize a 2-0 set lead haunted him throughout the match -- afterward, he weakly joked he would have had to be a "cyborg" for it not to have -- and yet Roddick didn't quit. He and Federer split the next two sets, too. By the time they were dragging each other through the fifth -- which took a marathon 95 minutes all by itself to complete -- Federer hadn't managed to break Roddick's serve once until the 30th game Roddick served.
Even that happened thanks only to a forehand Roddick mis-hit.
All told, the two of them played for 4 hours and 18 minutes before Federer escaped with a 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 16-14 win, and the 77 games they played made it the longest Grand Slam final ever. The victory also was Federer's 15th career Grand Slam title and pushed him past Roddick's fellow American, Pete Sampras, for the all-time lead by one. And yet, for a while immediately after the match, the Centre Court crowd chanted only Roddick's name, knowing Roddick's tortured history against Federer, especially at Wimbledon.
Roddick knows people still feel sorry for him that he came along at the exact same time as the greatest male player of all time.
But that isn't how Roddick prefers to look at it.
"I know people will view it as a career, the last little while, of some hard knocks," Roddick said Thursday. "But I got to play.
"I got to play before crowds, play in Wimbledon finals, be the guy on a Davis Cup team for awhile. Those are opportunities not a lot of people get. So as much as I was disappointed and frustrated at times, I'm not sure that I ever felt sorry for myself or begrudged anybody any of their success.
"You know, I was pretty good for a long time."
But again, he's been more than just that.
Roddick pretty much was American men's tennis in the decade since his 2003 Open win. And he shouldered the burden without complaint, even if it admittedly wasn't always easy at times. He's been both admirably serious about his craft and hysterically funny, deeply patriotic when the U.S. Davis Cup team called, and yet generous and respectful toward his fellow players no matter where they came from. It was telling near the end of Thursday's news conference when an Aussie in the crowd invited him to go out for a beer. ("See me later," Roddick cracked.)
Roddick has always come across as the sort of guy who would be fun to know, and it was true from the moment he showed up as the sharp-witted, cannonball-serving, hot-shot kid who was liable to scream out loud at himself, even in a cathedral such as Wimbledon, "YOU'RE CHO-KING!" The man won 31 titles, and charmed far more friends and stadium crowds and media-room cynics.
And anyone who wants to make an accurate measure of the man has to include all of the above.
Not just those Slams he coulda, shoulda, didn't win.
"I wouldn't change a thing," Roddick said.
Of course, Roddick went on to remind everyone he has at least one more match to play Friday night, under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium against young Tomic. Winning it won't be easy for Roddick, and it's not just because Tomic is supposed to be one of tennis's Next Big Things, same as Roddick was once upon a time.
Roddick admitted that emotionally, "I have no idea what to expect. ... I could come out and play great, or it could be the worst thing you've ever seen. ... I'm sure it will be very emotional."
Roddick did allow one sure thing will be the crowd to be with him.
He was asked how it felt to be "the face of American tennis" all these years -- meaning the standardbearer who had the challenge of not only trying to hurdle Federer but of following a countryman as great as Sampras -- and Roddick quickly answered, "It's been a pleasure."
But that was typical Roddick, underselling himself again.
The pleasure was ours.
To call Andy Roddick a one-Slam wonder is to ignore his dogged chase of Federer.