by John Furgele
Is Andy Roddick past his peak? The 25 year old American (turns 26 in August) bowed out of Wimbledon in the second round, a shocking result for a player who reached back-to-back Wimbledon finals in 2004 and 2005, losing to King Roger Federer both times.
Tennis is a sport of diminishing returns and for every player there comes a point where the progress stops and the regression begins. Since making the final at the All-England Club in 2005, Roddick’s regression seems to be in full force. After making the U.S. Open final in 2006 (and losing to Federer), Roddick has fallen off dramatically at the Grand Slams, the only four events that really matter to sports fans. In 2007, he was bludgeoned by Federer in the Australian Open semis, and for the rest of the year never made it past a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
After going through several coaches, his 2008 results have further showed his decline. He was knocked out in the third round in Australia; missed the French Open—on a surface he struggles on—with an injury; and now is out after winning only one round in the London suburb. And, at age 25, odds are that his best days may be behind him.
This happens to all fomer champions. Roddick has always been a one-and-a-half trick pony. He has the devastating serve, but he has never been a good net player and because of it, appears to be afraid to serve-and-volley, particularly at Wimbledon, a surface made for serve and volley players. His half-skill is his forehand, but his backhand is so weak that players just pound that side waiting to take advantage of his short returns. Roddick doesn’t make a ton of errors with his backhand, he just doesn’t hit many winners from it. His backhand is a “get it over the net,” type, and players like Federer eat those up.
Roddick reminds me of Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion and three time Grand Slam runner-up. When he was young, Chang chased down every ball, making his opponent hit two to three extra shots per rally. Eventually, Chang could wear one down, outlast him. In 1996, at the age of 24, Chang was ranked number one in the world, but after turning 25, he lost a step, and now, he wasn’t tracking down every ball. As a result, his opponents didn’t have to hit the two to three extra shots and Chang began losing with much more regularity. In fact, Chang’s best Grand Slam result after 1996 was making the semifinals at the 1997 Australian and U.S. Opens. From 1998 through his retirement in 2003, he never made it past the third round in any Grand Slam.
Roddick is on the verge of being passed by the younger and more talented players. Of course, Roddick has had the misfortune of being in the same era as Federer, who dominates tennis much like Tiger Woods dominates golf. But, that happens in most sports. Since winning the United States Open in 2003, Roddick just hasn’t improved. His serve is still a weapon, but his groundies, especially that backhand, haven’t improved. Simply put, Roddick just might not be a threat to win Grand Slam titles any longer.
Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Connors, McEnroe, Borg. All of these players had that moment when they knew that their career, or better yet, their chances to win slams was over. Connors made a valiant run at the 1991 U.S. Open at the age of 38/39, but he played unranked opponents through the quarterfinals, and when he played the young Jim Courier in the semis, he was routed. That was a reprieve for the game’s gutsiest player. As good as the memories were, Connors last Grand Slam win was the 1983 United States Open.
Borg felt that after 1981, when he lost both the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open finals to McEnroe, that his chances to win future Grand Slams was over, and thus, he called it quits. Even though he won the French Open for the fourth straight time in 1981, those final two results did him in.
McEnroe played through 1992, but his last Grand Slam title came in 1984. Becker won the Aussie Open in 1996 at the ripe old age of 28 while Edberg won his last Grand Slam title at age 26. And, there is also the remarkable run that Pete Sampras had, when he won the United States Open in 2002 at the age of 31, but Sampras, right now, is the greatest tennis player of all-time. There are always exceptions.
After losing today, Roddick conducted his press conference and then headed to the showers. It is my guess that today’s shower was a long one, a one of contemplation and thought. As the water poured over his head, he must have been asking himself this one question: is my career as a top five player, a threat to win at Wimbledon, the United States and Australian Opens over? I’m sure the water turned cold before he answered that question, even though he probably knew the answer before he undressed.
Roddick may have another important question to ask and answer. Does he keep playing, ala Chang, knowing that his chances of making a deep run at the Grand Slams is unlikely; or does he set a date in his mind to bow out gracefully? Chang decided to keep playing and though he never made it to the second week of a Grand Slam, his pride and professionalism earned him respect from all involved in tennis. Roddick may choose not to do that. He may choose to pick that date, leave the game, marry fiancee Brooklyn Decker and start a family.
One thing is for sure. That shower he took at the All-England Club today was an extraordinary one.