Roddick farewell tour not over yet

NEW YORK -- In sports, as in life, everyone has a different exit strategy.

Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders left the NFL abruptly, within reach of the all-time rushing record. In July 1999, he faxed a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, saying he was shutting it down with four years left on a lucrative contract.

Cal Ripken Jr., on the other hand, went for the long goodbye. The Baltimore Orioles' iron-man shortstop announced in June 2001 that it would be his last season. For the next three months, he was feted by teams around the league, receiving various plaques and trophies, a number of paintings, generous gifts to his foundation, a seat from Chicago's old Comiskey Park, a pair of cowboy boots, a year's supply of Florida stone crabs and a parade in Disneyland.

Some athletes enjoy it so much, they retire twice.

Kim Clijsters came back after her first departure as a mother and won three more majors before announcing, with more than ample lead time, that the 2012 season would be her last. Her last match was a loss in mixed doubles with Bob Bryan on Saturday; she celebrated on the Tennis Channel set with a few glasses of champagne. Pete Sampras never played after winning the 2002 U.S. Open, but it wasn't until nearly a year later that he actually acknowledged his retirement -- when the USTA asked him to return to New York for a formal ceremony.

Andy Roddick, who turned 30 three days ago, sort of split the middle.

He had been leaning toward a retirement decision but didn't divulge it until before his second-round match. His victory lap, then, will last as long as his viability in the draw.

That final match could well come Tuesday, when Roddick faces No. 7 seed Juan Martin del Potro in a fourth-round match, but Roddick seems determined to enjoy his final days. After all these years, he actually served and volleyed.

There were times when his 7-5, 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-4 victory over Fabio Fognini in Arthur Ashe Stadium felt like a three-hour, festive Sunday picnic. Nine years after he won his first and only Grand Slam singles title here, the crowd embraced Roddick, almost tenderly.

And, when the outcome was more or less certain, in the second-set tiebreaker, Roddick finally gave in and played the feisty role of 39-year-old Jimmy Connors on his unlikely run to the 1991 semifinals.

After a forehand pass emphatically ended a 20-stroke rally, Roddick extended both his arms in exaggerated exultation. The crowd roared. After a winning forehand volley, Roddick ran around the court wagging his index finger -- a direct homage to Connors, who once coached him. It was as nice a present as Connors could hope for on the day of his 60th birthday.

"I'm normally good about being able to kind of put thoughts and, you know, I am able to articulate it," Roddick said. "But this whole process, I'm not trying to overthink it.

"I'm enjoying it. I'm trying to be I guess as simplistic as possible. I'm trying to enjoy the process. And when I get out there, trying to compete also."

There were times, too, when Roddick tightened perceptibly -- perhaps letting the circumstances seep into his game -- hitting halting forehands way too deep. He won't get away with that against del Potro.

Every time the subject of his departure comes up, Roddick mentions that he is in uncharted territory.

"This process is new to me," he said after blasting Bernard Tomic off the court in the second round. "I don't have a lot of the answers. I had no idea what was going to happen out there honestly, even before the match.

"I've played a lot of matches. That was a different kind of nerves than I've had before. That was surprising for me."

He is, as he said in his retirement announcement news conference, rolling with it. Roddick, in his on-court presentation, has always been a study in grim concentration. But after hitting a surprising drop volley against Tomic, he actually smiled.

"I just realized it was probably a shot I never hit before," Roddick said. "I kind of went after it a little bit. I kind of had a little of the fun stuff that you see other guys do. I was excited about that."

After years of warily regarding Lleyton Hewitt as a rival, Roddick now reports that they are friends.

"We'll text back and forth after matches and stuff," Roddick said.

He's leaving the game because the day-to-day wear and tear on his body and soul isn't worth the diminishing returns. At Wimbledon, before he came clean, he talked about wanting to play "relevant" tennis. By his standards, a No. 22 ranking and a minor title in Atlanta don't measure up to the sustained excellence he achieved from 2002 to 2010, when he was a fixture in the top 10.

When he had finally beaten Fognini -- appropriately, an unreturnable serve delivered him -- Roddick smiled. And then he laughed as he saw his wife, Brooklyn Decker, coach Larry Stefanki and trainer Doug Spreen standing and applauding. He waved to his parents and sat down and looked around at the teeming stadium.

At one point, he looked emotional and bowed his head, as if in reflection.

It may be a coincidence, but this is Roddick's deepest run in a major this year. Everyone wants to leave a good final impression, and Roddick is no different. He knows he's only days away from playing as much golf as he wants.

Although Roddick has never lost a round-of-16 match (he's 8-0), the encounter with del Potro will not be a walkover.

Like Roddick, the 23-year-old Argentine won his only major here, in 2009 in a virtuoso finals performance against Roger Federer. A serious wrist injury sidelined him for eight months in 2010. Only recently has he begun to approach that sterling form.

"I love playing in this place," Roddick told the crowd in his on-court interview. "I love all of you. I'm having a blast."

And so, for at least another 48 hours, the Andy Roddick semi-short-and-sweet goodbye continues.