NEW YORK -- It was here that Andy Roddick made his first appearance at a Grand Slam, attending the 1990 U.S. Open as a ninth birthday present.
"I snuck into the players' lounge without a credential," he recalled. "I saw Pete [Sampras]. He was playing video games. I'm pretty sure I beat him at like 'Mortal Kombat' or something. That was fun."
It is here that he will play his last Grand Slam, having announced his upcoming retirement on his 30th birthday Wednesday.
True to form, he has snuck into the second week. Despite winning only one match on U.S. hard courts since the Olympics, Roddick has notched three victories at Flushing Meadows and now takes on Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round for what could be his last professional match. The 2009 champion will be the most daunting challenge yet; he's beginning to look at last like he's finding the form and confidence he had before undergoing wrist surgery in 2010.
Roddick's latest attempt to extend his career by another couple of days will hinge on the big serving and aggression he showed last week. There's now no reason to hold anything back, and his 130-plus mph serves in the second round against Bernard Tomic did not go unnoticed, especially by him.
"I haven't hit these numbers in two years, what I've gotten in the last two matches," Roddick said after the match.
But though it's helping his score line, the rocket deliveries aren't doing anything for the state of his shoulder, and Roddick did appear to fade a little physically during the later parts of his third-round match against Fabio Fognini. Del Potro, meanwhile, is struggling with his knee.
Roddick's biggest weapon, however, may prove to be the crowd. There has been a special intensity from the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium for this last push from the man who has been the leader of American men's tennis for the past 10 years, and the support will only be louder for what is likely to be the feature night match Tuesday.
The mild-mannered del Potro has experienced the electric atmosphere of this stadium before, but he does not like being the bad guy and will have to maintain his focus to avoid getting tangled in the hordes of Roddick fans. This seemed to affect the teenaged Tomic so badly that he was barely present for the third and final set.
For Roddick, however, this last hurrah has been about opening up, laughing, smiling on the grand stage and casting his eyes up and up across the mountainous rows of stands that are pulsating with expectant spectators and drinking it all in.
"I took a look around and I didn't even feel bad about it," Roddick said. "When they're doing the dancing and stuff on the switch-overs I was just watching.
"When it's what you do, it's what you're going to do the next week and a month from now, you kind of are so consumed by what's going on in the next five minutes that you don't really notice stuff. There are no guarantees for me now, so I was trying to notice stuff."
Nothing is routine anymore -- the next warm-up, the next walkout, the next whatever, could be the last one. "Each match is almost like it's another memory," he said.
There have certainly been plenty of those, for him and for us. That five-set battle and meltdown in the quarterfinals against Lleyton Hewitt in 2001, suggesting there was so far to go yet so much to come. There he was in 2002, wearing a visor and high-fiving spectators. The next year, the visor was gone and he was holding the trophy in his hands. There was the mojo campaign in 2005, best forgotten after a first-round exit. Another final, rather unexpected, in 2006. The summer of love in 2009.
Roddick caught a glimpse of a montage of images like that before going out for his first could-be-last match Thursday, and he admitted to getting emotional. He's getting used to that feeling.
"I thought inside our world it would be something, but I don't know that I expected all of this and the crowd to react the way it has," he said.
"You're kind of smiling, humming, whistling, walking around, and you feel pretty good about it. All of a sudden you have to say goodbye to something. It's like this gut-check moment. It's these extreme emotions from five minutes to the next five minutes."
It is here that he has grown up another year each time, his birthday always falling during the event.
It is here that he snuck in that lone Grand Slam victory, wriggling through a two-set deficit against David Nalbandian in the semifinals and, yes, getting a little help from organizers to avoid the scheduling backups that plagued the other contenders. But he had nothing left to prove on hard courts that summer, going 27-1 and completing a clean sweep of the two Masters events and the U.S. Open.
Conversely, there were other Slams in which the cards fell against him -- the 2004 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, interrupted by rain when he was in control, and then a five-set nail-biter there in 2009 when Federer somehow avoided going two sets down with a reflex forehand flick and Roddick just missed a volley on his second set point.
He was here for Sampras' final run to the title, Andre Agassi's emotional third-round exit and even for Jimmy Connors' semifinal run in 1991 as part of another childhood trip. "We only had grounds passes, but I got into the stadium every day somehow," Roddick said.
Well, he would.
Now it's his turn to script a farewell. "I think I wanted a chance to say goodbye," Roddick said when explaining his decision to make the announcement during the tournament.
He couldn't exactly predict how and when. "I don't know. I've never done this before," Roddick said. But it's no surprise that he's managed to set the stage for a memorable exit. He's always known his way about this place.