Roddick still reaching for 'moment' (cont.)
By the time I got home Sunday afternoon, I already knew that Roger Federer had beaten Roddick in five sets and that the fifth set was 16-14. But I had recorded it, and I wanted to watch a little bit, since this was the match where Federer broke the Grand Slam record. I wanted to watch some -- instead, I watched all of it. I found it mesmerizing and not all for the reason I expected. Some time early in the first set, I (quite unexpectedly -- I would call myself a Federer fan) found myself connecting with Roddick. It's hard to explain, really. It isn't that I associated my own tennis game with Roddick because I did not. Yes, sure, every so often I see a player and think, "THAT is who I would be if I had real athletic talent."* But Roddick is not that guy -- not even if you multiply my game by a million.
*Former major league second baseman Duane Kuiper, of course, was the player who best represented this feeling for me, but I've also felt that way about ex-NBA guard John Bagley, golfer David Toms and a pitcher like Brian Bannister, which probably best explains why I have written more words about Banny than J.K. Rowling wrote about Harry Potter.
No, the connection came from something else. I think it came from a theme that I find constantly and endlessly fascinating. That is: The theme of ordinary people reaching for their moment. Most of my favorite books, favorite sports moments, favorite movies (and many of the movies that I found myself loving despite myself), revolve around that theme. I unabashedly love the flawed movie The Fabulous Baker Boys -- not entirely because of the mega-crush I had on Michelle Pfeiffer but also because I'm mesmerized by the idea of those talented people who play piano at hotel bars night after night, people who had to settle low but who still hope against hope that something big might still happen. I watch It's a Wonderful Life every year, not for the Christmas feel of it but because I feel so deeply with George Bailey, who just wants to get the heck out and do something but he can't because ... he can't. The original Rocky. The Full Monty. Waking Ned Devine. The Hustler. Especially the Hustler.
One of my favorite sporting events ever is Buster Douglas' upset over Mike Tyson, and not just because I hated Tyson (I don't know that I really DID hate Tyson then) but because Douglas got his one chance, his moment, and in that moment he was greater than anyone ever believed he could be. Another was Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable Russian at the Olympics. This stuff just hits me.
Andy Roddick is not George Bailey. He's not ordinary. He's the No. 6 tennis player in the world. He's a multi-multi-millionaire tennis player married to a swimsuit model. He hops around the world and hosts Saturday Night Live and probably wouldn't even want to win the lottery because of the tax complications.
But here's the thing: He wanted to win Wimbledon. I mean, yes, of course he wanted to Wimbledon, but you could see from the first point on that he WANTED to win Wimbledon, that it was hugely important to him, that it was everything to him. You could surmise from his look and intensity that this was, in fact, what he had been dreaming about since he was a little boy. This was his moment, and few really thought he could win. As soon as the match began -- Roddick facing off against maybe the greatest tennis player ever on his favorite surface -- I felt like it was Roddick staring into the mirror and asking himself that same question that I think most people ask themselves at some point in their lives: "Am I good enough?"
And he was good. He was very, very good. Federer is a beautiful tennis player who hits so many brilliant and impossible-to-reproduce shots that the opponent, at some point, goes, "Oh, geez, what's the point?" I think this is why Rafael Nadal is one of the few players to have success against Federer; he doesn't care about those beautiful shots.
And I think Roddick psyched himself up to not let Federer's splendor blind him on this day. He won the first set by breaking Federer (in rather stunning fashion) and he had Federer on the ropes in the second set. It was, in fact, a shot late in the second set that brought me entirely over to Roddick's side. He was serving at set point, and he charged the net, and Federer was out of position and hit a high shot to Roddick's backhand. It was not an easy volley, certainly not for anyone less than world class. But it was a volley that Roddick could have put away. It was a volley, I imagine, Roddick will see in his mind again.
He missed that volley, of course, Federer won the second and third sets, Roddick showed guts and won the fourth, and then it came down to that massive fifth set with neither player able to break the other's serve. It wasn't especially glamorous tennis -- not like last year's match between Federer and Nadal -- but it was ultra-compelling not (as I expected) because of Federer's chase for his 15th Grand Slam but because of Roddick's desperate chase to beat Federer on Centre Court and be the best in the world on this day.
And the chase became more and more desperate as the games went along. Even though I knew all the while that Roddick would lose at the end, I kept hurting with him, especially in the final games when it was clear that while he might hold off Federer (and he did hold serve TEN STRAIGHT TIMES with the match on the line), he would never actually beat this beast. Federer's last few games were ace after ace after ace; he was in complete control. At some point, the realization had to hit Roddick (like it hit everyone who was watching) that he was only postponing the inevitable. He was not going to win Wimbledon.
That point was the 30th game of the final set. Federer did not hit a single great shot in that game. He simply put the ball in play. And Roddick, who had been so great for so long, made errors and lost the match.
When it ended, Roddick looked like a broken man. And I could feel that pain with him -- couldn't we all? He was damned good. He was probably better than he had ever been in his life. And he wasn't quite good enough. Isn't that the saddest thing about sports? Isn't that the feeling that we all have at that point when we realize that we won't play big league ball, we won't be an NFL starting quarterback, we won't be on the 18th green putting to win the Masters? I remember playing someone on a high school tennis court, losing convincingly and then doing the math: If I wasn't good enough to beat this guy (and I wasn't good enough), and he wasn't even the best player on the team (not even the second best) and our team wasn't that good just in our community (our team wasn't good at all) and Charlotte, N.C., wasn't exactly a tennis mecca and some of the best tennis players nationally weren't even PLAYING high school tennis, they were already out on junior tours or even professionals ... well, wow, I wasn't good enough.
Roddick stared out at the court, and he seemed to be on that aqueduct between crying and bravado, and then he said a few words -- congratulated Federer, thanked the fans, all that. Then Federer, trying to be a gentleman like always, tried to compare Roddick's feelings of loss to his own one year earlier when he had lost to Nadal. Roddick was not having any of it: "Yeah," he said, "but you had already won five times." Federer smiled and repeated the line without a terrible amount of sympathy. There was no way Federer could understand.
But I felt like I did understand. I really like Andy Roddick now. On Sunday at Wimbledon, he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together. Roddick is still 26, and he still has that serve, and he will probably win a lot more money and big championships -- he still might win Wimbledon someday. Then again, he might not. I thought of this conversation I had with a coach once. I asked him if he believed there were lessons to be learned in losing.
"Yeah," he said. "Get better."
And I wish I would asked him then if there were lessons to be learned if you couldn't get better, if you had been your very best and that still was not good enough. I suspect his answer would have been simple: "Yeah," he would have said. "Get used to it. Because that's life."