There’s no home team in professional tennis. This month’s hero in Indian Wells will be next month’s villain in Monte Carlo. With the exception of the underrated, under-watched doubles competition, even the word “team” is a stretch for a sport where individuality is emphasized among a player’s attributes. Bjorn Borg’s stoicism, John McEnroe’s temperament, Roger Federer’s grace ... these are qualities tennis fans attach to the game’s legends every bit as much as a player’s homeland.
That said, you can forgive fans at The Racquet Club of Memphis this week if they treat Andy Roddick like he has “MEMPHIS” stitched across the cap he wears on court, indoors or out. The top American player on the men’s tour (and seventh-ranked player in the world) will be making his 10th consecutive appearance in Memphis, his eighth straight as the tournament’s top seed. The last American man to win a Grand Slam title — Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open — will be defending his Regions Morgan Keegan title, and aiming to become only the third player to earn three Memphis championships (at age 19, Roddick beat James Blake for the 2002 title).
Despite having been the top-ranked American player six of the last seven years — Blake finished two spots ahead of him in 2006 — Roddick hasn’t quite attained the status enjoyed by the likes of Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, or Andre Agassi. This has much to do, of course, with Roddick’s prime coinciding with those of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Since Roddick won that U.S. Open (his solitary Grand Slam title), 25 Grand Slam events have been played ... and 21 of them have been won by Federer or Nadal.
Roddick has been on the cusp of winning his sport’s biggest event three times, only to fall in the Wimbledon finals all three times to — wait for it — Federer. Last year’s match was among the five or 10 greatest the All England Club has ever witnessed, with Federer prevailing, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Consider this: the 39 total games Roddick won are a record for a Grand Slam final, and he didn’t even win the match.
Now, it’s hard to feel sorry for a professional tennis player married to the current Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover girl. (If Brooklyn Decker comes to Memphis, it will actually be two Swimsuit Issue veterans at The Racquet Club, as Maria Sharapova will headline the draw for the Cellular South Cup.) Roddick’s trophy case is stuffed with 28 titles. And he’s earned more than $17 million before his 28th birthday. He’s been ranked in the year-end Top 10 every year since 2002 (including number-one in 2003, the last year someone other than Federer or Nadal held the top spot). And as far as Memphis is concerned — Federer and Nadal have yet to play here — Roddick is the finest player of this generation. He’s the home team.
RMK tournament director Peter Lebedevs coached Roddick when the Nebraska native was just 12 years old and already armed with a killer serve. “With Andy having become a top-10 player, it’s pretty much a guarantee every year that we’re going to have a premier event,” says Lebedevs. “He enjoys Memphis. It’s nice knowing you have a player of that caliber who wants to play in our event every year, who wants to stay in the U.S. He’s been successful here, and it means a lot to the tournament. He can go anywhere in the world, and he chooses to come to Memphis.”
As for the legacy Roddick will someday leave, Lebedevs feels sharing his prime with Federer has to be taken into consideration. “He doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves,” says Lebedevs, “for as good as he is. He could be playing in the era with the greatest tennis player who ever lived. If Federer’s not there, there are definitely a few more Grand Slams Andy would have. But look at his commitment. A champion is always looking to improve. And he’s doing things to try and get better.”
Roddick’s title defense begins Wednesday night — with a match against Blake — at The Racquet Club.