Commentary

One final goodbye for Roddick

Updated: September 5, 2012, 9:20 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Since he announced that this U.S. Open would be his final tournament six days ago, all eyes at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have followed Andy Roddick.

On Wednesday, there were two more -- brown ones -- watching Roddick from Los Angeles. Pete Sampras, a five-time champion and eight-time finalist here, won his last match in the 2002 final over Andre Agassi at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It was a year before he made a formal retirement announcement.

"It was interesting timing for Andy," Sampras said from his home. "I heard about it, and it threw me off. I don't remember anyone announcing it during an event.

"He'd been thinking about it during the summer. Like, 'OK, I don't want to do this anymore after this tournament.' I will say it's added a great element to the event."

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesAndy Roddick closes his career with 32 titles, including one Grand Slam, which he won here in 2003.

Indeed, when the fortnight is over, Roddick's departure likely will be the highlight that lingers in the mind's eye.

On a mostly gray, oppressively humid day, he finally met his match in the fourth round. Juan Martin del Potro defeated him 6-7 (1), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4, setting off a sincere, sustained standing ovation from the crowd.

When it was over, there was no handshake, just a warm embrace at net. Del Potro shook his head and pointed his racket to Roddick.

"Enjoy his last moment," del Potro said in a brief, gracious, on-court statement.

Roddick, who has contained his public emotions throughout his final days, was teary, and his voice quavered.

"For the first time in my career," he began, "I'm not sure what to say. Since I was a kid, I've been coming to this tournament and I felt lucky to be sitting where you are sitting.

"I loved every minute of it. It's been a road. A lot of ups, a lot of downs, a lot of great moments. I know I certainly haven't made it easy for you at times. I love you guys with all my heart."

He went on to thank his parents and his late agent, Ken Meyerson.

And then, with a final wave, he ducked into the tunnel that leads to the locker room.

"I think I went about things the right way," Roddick said in his postmatch news conference. "The umpires might disagree with me. I was consistent, and I don't feel like I left a lot on the table on a daily basis. When I look back, that's probably what I'm proud of."

Roddick, who turned 30 the day of his announcement, was fighting a sore shoulder and, clearly, a torrent of emotions. It was his 825th ATP World Tour match.

He had never lost a fourth-round match here (he was 8-0), but those victories came during the glory days when he was always the higher seed. Make no mistake, in this match, Roddick was clearly an underdog against the dangerous No. 7 seed, who is seven years his junior.

Roddick started swiftly, winning six of seven points in the tiebreaker that was suspended by rain Tuesday. And then he slowly, sadly hemorrhaged as del Potro's heavy forehand landed again and again and again.

In the big points, Roddick took a step backward. He had a break point on the 6-foot-6 Argentine's serve at 2-all in the fourth set, but with a semi-open court, Roddick hit a wobbly forehand long. Still, he persevered, sweat dripping like a faucet from the bill of his cap, huffing and puffing through points, slogging along with that determined, earnest look of his.

Serving at 3-5 in the fourth, Roddick saved a match point and eventually held. He drew a standing ovation. It wouldn't have been appropriate to go out serving -- that weapon, once the best in tennis, was his signature shot.

The last forehand from del Potro drew a late, flailing forehand from Roddick that flew wide.

Darren Cahill was Andre Agassi's coach when he played his last match here in 2006, a third-round loss to No. 112-ranked Benjamin Becker.

"There's no losing for Andy here," said Cahill, now an ESPN analyst. "I feel like it's a celebration of a great career. Hopefully he goes out with some memories that will last him a lifetime."

Six years ago, Agassi gave Cahill his greatest thrill as a player, coach or fan, winning his second-round match against No. 8-seeded Marcos Baghdatis in rousing fashion, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5.

"That match against Baghdatis, I thank Andre for that," Cahill said. "I had goose bumps for four hours, just enjoying the moment. God only knows what Andre was feeling and the memories he has.

"I hope Andy has a lot of that."

Sampras, it should be noted, beat Roddick in the quarterfinals in the midst of the 2002 run. Roddick would win his first -- and only -- Grand Slam singles title the next year on the same court. And to this very day, he remains the last American man to win a major.

"Big match for me," Sampras said. "Got me headed in the right direction."

Perhaps the same was true for Roddick.

"People have gotten behind Andy," Sampras said. "You can see he's playing with the emotion of being a great player. He should be very proud the way he's played.

"He was dealt a tough hand after myself and Andre. They were asking, 'Who's going to be No. 1 for the next five years? And then [Roger] Federer came on the scene. I'm a big proponent of Andy. He did a lot of great things."

He was the leading light of American men's tennis at a time when the rest of the world was starting to catch up.

"You get knocked down," Roddick said. "You know the burden. I understand it. I understand the fact that we come from a place which probably had more success than any other tennis country where there are certain expectations.

"I fell right back on the end of a golden generation, and so that was just the cards that were dealt. Someone who's got however many kids and is working two jobs to buy food -- that's hard. What I had to deal with wasn't hard."

Still, Roddick immediately tried to soften the spotlight on whoever follows him at the top of U.S. tennis.

"Let's not do the 'next,'" he said. "Let's let them have their own personality, and let's let them do their thing and let them grow. I'd love to help any of them. I think they know that the door is open. There is no filling shoes."

Speaking of which, Roddick's red-white-and-blue Babolat shoes are headed to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., for a display in the museum. So, too, are his sweat-drenched shirt, shorts and, yes, underwear and socks.

It is kind of appropriate, actually, that his sweat-soaked gray Under Armour briefs are headed to the Hall of Fame.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.