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To some degree, Andy Roddick framed my U.S. Open experience.
The first year I covered the tournament for USA TODAY was the same year an upstart, cannon-serving kid with tousled hair blasted his way to the championship. It was 2003. He was barely 21, and I was new on the beat.
A few weeks after his victory, I visited Roddick at Brad Gilbert's compound north of San Francisco, where he was training in preparation for the fall Asian swing. Roddick had recently teamed up with former Andre Agassi coach Gilbert (after jettisoning his longtime coach Tarik Benhabiles), one of the catalysts for his sizzling summer run in New York. The two excitable personalities had instantly clicked.
When I showed up, Roddick was practicing on Gilbert's private court with a young Russian living in the area named Dmitry Tursunov. Roddick's girlfriend at the time, the actress-singer Mandy Moore, was holed up in Gilbert's bungalow nearby.
I spent the afternoon there. We hung out. We gabbed. Roddick was rightfully sky high. The live-armed player with the breadstick arms (his words, not mine) strutted around without his shirt on. At one point we piled into Gilbert's Cadillac Escalade and drove to Quizno's for lunch, where Roddick regaled me about the virtues of toasted subs.
Before I departed, he challenged me to a friendly game of pingpong in Gilbert's garage. I'll never forget his words. "I'll hose you," he declared. Roddick was competitive to the core.
We both moved on. I continued to cover tennis. The new golden boy would host Saturday Night Live that fall and eagerly grab the baton from the great American generation of Courier, Sampras and Agassi that preceded him. He would finish the year No. 1, a smidgen ahead of Roger Federer, whose temperament and talent had not yet jelled completely to make him the dominant champion he is today.
Pete Sampras retired in 2003, Agassi in 2006. The 6-2 native of Omaha became the face of American tennis and battled on the biggest stages against the likes of Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, and most memorably, Federer, his longtime foil. Then along came Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who joined with Federer in forming the most domineering trio in men's tennis history.
No more Grand Slam titles would come for Roddick, but he was never out of the conversation, as he liked to say. He put himself in position to win majors, but Federer was usually there to snatch it away — four times, in fact, at Wimbledon in 2004-05 and 2009, and the U.S. Open in 2006.
His last Grand Slam final was the cruelest. Roddick was one high backhand volley away from taking a commanding two-set lead, and ended up losing 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14 after holding serve 37 consecutive times.
He deserved that trophy. Even Federer said so last week. "In my mind, he is a Wimbledon champion as well, a wonderful ambassador for the game," the seven-time All-England Club winner said.
It hurt, but it didn't break him. Roddick was never more popular than after that crushing defeat, which he handled with grace. He soldiered on, winning more of his 32 ATP Tourtitles, finishing in the top 10 for nine consecutive years (a run that ended in 2011), always striving to improve.
Though he was the world's top junior in 2000, the same year he won the U.S. Open boys' title, we forget how far he came, how deeply he dug into his reserves, how much he squeezed out of his abilities. When he showed up for high school in Boca Raton, Fla., in the late 1990s, he was the No. 3 player on a team that included Mardy Fish.
The youngest of three children, Roddick, who turned 30 last Thursday, the day of his retirement announcement, seemed at times a pleaser. But as he grew up — in the limelight, which is never easy — he shed that skin. He became a helper, a leader, a mentor. He added gravitas and perspective to any tournament he entered. He was a go-to player for commentary on any topic large or small, from fantasy sports to the complex labor issues vexing tennis.
Along the way, he never took his place in the game for granted. When he felt he needed to get better, he did everything in his power to do so. He poached trainer Doug Spreen from the ATP so he could make him his own. He turned to different coaches, some unknown such as Dean Goldfine and his older brother John Roddick, and to others more celebrated such as Gilbert, Jimmy Connors and his coach the last four years, Larry Stefanki.
"I've always, for whatever my faults have been, felt like I've never done anything halfway," he said when he announced Thursday that this would be his final tournament. "Probably the first time in my career that I can sit here and say I'm not sure that I can put everything into it physically and emotionally. I don't know that I want to disrespect the game by coasting home."
Through the years, he and I had our moments, most recently in February at a tour stop in San Jose, Calif. Sitting in the locker room, I asked a routine question about whether he believed he could win another major. The interview turned testy, but the message was unmistakable: He didn't think he could necessarily compete at the highest level anymore.
I recognized he was wrestling with his future, and I never imagined the proud player would be content to hang around in the top 30. He needed to challenge for majors. He needed to hose someone.
Roddick was not always nice. His wisecracks could border on cruel. He rarely saw a contradiction he didn't want to expose. He was also sharply insightful and funny. He was smart and inquisitive. He called it like he saw it. You knew where he stood — even if it was up in your face.
I admired his grit. I admired his work ethic. On Thursday, I admired his decision to trust his gut, and call it quits even if his heart wasn't in it. I respect his desire to go out on his own terms. Nobody knows as well as he does how much it takes to play at this level.
If Roddick let anyone down, it was only himself. He left gallons of perspiration on practice courts across numerous continents. He competed gamely and in the clutch, never more so than in Davis Cup, where led the USA to the title in 2007 and went 12-0 in tie-clinching matches — best ever. He showed up.
He saw how transient life can be when his longtime agent, Ken Meyerson, died suddenly of a heart attack last October at 48, leaving behind a wife and two young children. "Maybe," he said when I asked him if Meyerson's death had influenced his thinking. "Ken was certainly a huge, huge part of everything for me. He believed in me from very early on. That certainly wasn't easy for me."
Roddick's announcement understandably initiated a flood of accolades from peers. James Blake said, "I can never repay him for winning me a Davis Cup, for being the anchor on that team, clinching every match that year."
Serena Williams, who loved to tease Roddick for an alleged victory when they were youngsters training at Rick Macci's tennis academy in Florida, sounded despondent.
"It's very incredibly, incredibly, incredibly sad for me to lose a friend on tour that I look forward to seeing every Grand Slam and every shared tournament," she said Thursday, adding that she had discussed retirement with Roddick at the end of last year and hoped he would change his mind.
As he struggled not to lose ground to the top players, Roddick's body didn't cooperate. He was plagued by knee, back, ankle and shoulder injuries during the last two years — more than 800 matches (and 600 wins) take a toll.
Still, there were signs of encouragement in 2012. He beat Federer on hardcourts in Miami. He won tournaments at Eastbourne and Atlanta. But he continued to suffer bodily breakdowns, and he took some demoralizing defeats. Novak Djokovic dismissed him at the Olympics on grass 6-2, 6-1. Roddick lost to lesser lights Jeremy Chardy and Steve Darcis in his last two events before the U.S. Open.
Yes, Roddick won only one major. Some will label him an underachiever. But he did the most with obvious weaknesses (average movement, attackable backhand, suspect volleys and touch) and put together a Hall-of-Fame worthy career.
No one will feel sorry for him, either. He'll be plenty busy when he leaves tennis. He is already doing some radio work. He's married to actress-model Brooklyn Decker (can a family be far off?). He runs a top-flight foundation second only in tennis circles to Andre Agassi's world-class philanthropic venture. These are the building blocks for a legacy that could enhance or even overshadow his accomplishments in tennis.
Undoubtedly, he leaves a major vacuum in the sport, and particularly in American tennis.
"It means I've got to step up now," Ryan Harrison, 20, said the other day.
And he leaves the sport with much to be proud of. Ironically, he also leaves it with a one-match winning streak over his Swiss nemesis. A small victory, but something to build on.