FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — As a present for his 8th birthday, Andy Roddick got a trip to the 1990 U.S. Open, where he snuck into the players’ lounge to see his idol, Pete Sampras.
The following year, he got a return trip and finagled his way into Arthur Ashe Stadium on a grounds-only pass to watch the aging Jimmy Connors’s storied run to the semifinals.
When it comes to tennis, Roddick has always overachieved, taking the gifts he was handed and figuring out how to get far more out of them.
Wednesday afternoon in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the 30-year-old Roddick finally confronted his limits, falling to a taller, younger and higher-ranked adversary, Juan Martin del Potro, 6-7 (7-1), 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-4. As Roddick announced last week, he called an end to a 13-year career defined by some memorable heroics, a gut-wrenching share of high profile defeats and, through it all, hard work.
Roddick chose the sport’s biggest stage, Arthur Ashe Stadium, to retire from the sport he has loved since childhood. It’s also the stage on which he achieved his greatest triumph, winning the 2003 U.S. Open one week after turning 21.
Roddick wept in disbelief that day. He fought back tears of gratitude on Wednesday, as his wife, Brooklyn Decker, and his parents, Blanche and Jerry, looked on, flanked by an adoring contingent of relatives, coaches, friends and supporters.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve been coming to this tournament and felt lucky just to sit where all of you are sitting today to watch this game and see the champions that have come and gone,” Roddick said with reddened eyes, addressing the crowd during his on-court interview with ESPN. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Roddick came of age amid a glorious era that did him no favors. Sampras, among the sport’s greatest players, won his final major title in 2002. Roger Federer, the Swiss who later eclipsed nearly all of Sampras’s records, won his first major in 2003. The window between offered scant opportunity for the 6-foot-2 Roddick, a brash Nebraskan with a booming serve and blistering forehand, to stake a claim to greatness.
When Roddick won that 2003 U.S. Open, it seemed many more major titles would follow. It also seemed that Roddick would single-handedly restore America to the tennis prominence it held when Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Sampras and Andre Agassi passed on the No. 1 ranking like a birthright.
Roddick’s second major never came. And his time atop the world rankings lasted only three months, ended in February 2004 by Federer.
It was Federer, at every turn, who denied Roddick a second major, defeating him in the 2006 U.S. Open final and three times in Wimbledon’s final — in 2004, 2005 and 2009, when they battled to a 16-14 fifth set in a match considered among the greatest in the sport’s history.
While Roddick wasn’t a supremely gifted athlete, he was dogged. With each major setback, he worked harder to shore up his weaknesses and diversify his tactics. As he matured, and sincerity supplanted his thick sarcasm, he became increasingly easy to cheer because of the way he handled defeat and kept trying — like an average student who must study twice as hard for a B-minus than the gifted one does for straight A’s.
“As much as I was disappointed and frustrated at times,” Roddick said last week, reflecting on his career, “I’m not sure that I ever felt sorry for myself or begrudged anybody any of their success.”
It was fitting at this U.S. Open that Roddick found himself, again, the last American man standing. For more than a decade he has been the face of American tennis, leading the United States to the Davis Cup title in 2007 and finishing among the world’s top 10 for nine years.
But by the eve of this U.S. Open, as he labored against a worn-out shoulder, his ranking slipped to 22nd. Beating the 23-year-old del Potro, the world’s No. 7 player and himself a former U.S. Open champion, was a tall order.
The match got underway Tuesday night, and Roddick came out blazing. But del Potro battled back, and they were deadlocked in a tiebreaker when rain halted the proceedings.
When the action resumed Wednesday, Roddick attacked like a panther after prey, winning six of the first seven points to win the tiebreaker and first set.
The second set featured powerful serves and shot-making by both. Again, a tiebreaker settled it. But del Potro claimed it to level the match at one set each, and Roddick’s vigor and belief seemed to fade in tandem.
It was all del Potro in the third set, with Roddick girding for a fourth-set charge.
“C’mon Andy!” “Let’s go, Andy!” the crowd chanted.
Serving at 3-5, Roddick fought back tears but played on and held, forcing del Potro to serve for the victory. It ended on an errant forehand, a warm embrace from del Potro at the net and a standing ovation from the crowd.
“He has had a tremendous career,” said Roddick’s former coach, Brad Gilbert. “He won one [Grand] Slam. Obviously because of McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, Sampras, Courier, the expectation was a lot more. But he gave it 100 percent. It’s like a baseball player who hits .342. He’s consistently third, but he’s chasing a .385 hitter every season.”