James Lawton: Roddick can take comfort that he is not far behind the greatest sportsmen of all
Tuesday 07 July 2009
Andre Agassi recalls that when he won Wimbledon in 1992, beating Goran Ivanisevic in a final which crackled like gunfire, he entered a state of almost surreal ecstasy.
He filled the private jet flying him home to Las Vegas with newspapers, devouring over and over again accounts of how he had stepped into sports history. For weeks, even months, the reality of his triumph would sweep over him, in the middle of a conversation, deep into a night's sleep.
Inevitably, this image of Agassi as a Las Vegan whose pockets bulged with silver dollars only heightened the poignancy yesterday when you considered his compatriot Andy Roddick homeward bound for Austin, Texas.
What did Roddick have in his pocket? His face said it was a bundle of regrets; not silver dollars but a plugged nickel. Yet there is another picture that might, over the next few weeks, encourage him to put aside the pain that came with defeat by the greatest tennis player of all time at the Centre Court on Sunday evening.
It is of Agassi's victim Ivanisevic, stripping down to his underpants on a terrace above the main square of his hometown of Split in Croatia after coming home from victory over Pat Rafter in the final of 2001, his first success in four attempts and one launched on the basis of a wild card and a ranking outside of the top 100.
Ivanisevic was 29 and by his own admission, Roddick may note in his current bleak mood, a little bit crazy.
The point that is probably most relevant to Roddick's situation is that the Croat was considered far more of a past number than the American was when he went in with Roger Federer at the weekend.
Though Roddick was widely seen as a diminished force when, at the age of 26, he stopped Andy Murray in the semi-final on Friday and then dredged from Federer some of the last of his champion's resolve in the longest fifth set in Wimbledon final history, it is a belief that demands serious revision. No doubt it will be given such treatment by a plainly inspiring coach Larry Stefanaki, the man who has coolly reset new horizons, and fitness demands, on a player he believed was too good, too driven, to slip away from the heights of his game.
In fact, the more you think about it the more Roddick's journey home should be a matter for authentic celebration. He didn't win Wimbledon, he doesn't have that to put alongside his US Open title of 2003, but in one shining respect he stands shoulder to shoulder with Federer.
As the six-time champion did a year earlier, Roddick carried us to the very heart of all that is best in sport by explaining that there is beguiling if not precisely charted country beyond the boundaries of winning and losing. It is where the winners and the losers merge into a single beautiful effort.
Rafael Nadal and Federer did it sublimely in 2008. On Sunday there may not have been quite so many dazzling grace notes, but the spirit and the meaning of what we were seeing was just as substantial and just as uplifting.
No doubt Roddick was beyond such persuasion when he held back his emotion and made that small joke about trying to preserve Sampras's share of the all-time record in Grand Slam titles. There would probably not have been too much point at that time in telling him that he had turned what so many experts and past champions had seen as a routine chore for Federer into an ordeal that demanded every last scrap of his powers.
When Federer said he knew how he felt, Roddick rasped, "yeah, but you already won it five times."
Now the great man had the big gold trophy in his hands for a sixth time, and what did Roddick have? It was something that, understandably enough at that raw moment, didn't seem to him to be so much. He had the respect of the entire sports world, including Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the ultimate competitors whose expression at times was so rapt and anguished he might have been revisiting his Manchester United's recent Champions' League final in Rome.
Roddick produced one of those performances which for a little while seem to make the world stand still – he forced Federer to ransack all of his resources to produce the moment of triumph.
Federer's victory speech was typically understated. Had it been less so he might have been inclined to toss in a phrase that was no doubt lurking in the mind of many who had seen not so much a superb tennis performance but something that Federer had represented so many times. It was the deepest understanding of what it is that goes into being one of the greatest champions of all sports and all times – and the unsaid phrase was "Over to you, Tiger."
It is just a quirk of sports history that if the world's best golfer restates his supremacy at Turnberry in the British Open this month, he too will move on to Federer's mark of 15 major titles – and just three short of Jack Nicklaus's record.
There is a wonderful symmetry here and it was maybe inevitable that Federer and Woods should become friends as well as rivals for the mythic title of the world's greatest working sportsman. When they look at each other's performance they surely see something of a mirror image. Not, perhaps, in some of the nuances of their natures. Woods is not so placid, not so composed. He is more a slugger, more abrasive, more visibly charged with the obsession to win, but scrape either surface and there is no doubt that behind is the core of an ultimate champion.
Wimbledon and Turnberry, Federer and Woods, in the same month and the same sweep of history is surely a gift from the gods. But then so was Andy Roddick, his fight, his spirit, his astonishing ability to go beyond the vast respect Federer has created for himself and become in so many eyes the hero of an unforgettable day.
Ivanisevic created such emotion eight years ago, even though one of his victims was Tim Henman in a rain-bedraggled match that so many saw not as a defeat for the British favourite but a terrible conspiracy of fate. The Croat rode through in a way that Roddick must do now if he is ever to see what happened on Sunday not as a cruelty but an inspiration.
The Texan might profitably seek out some of the sayings of the man who felt three times the pain he experienced when Federer finally broke his serve for the first time. At the very least it might just lighten his mood.
"My trouble," Ivanisevic once reflected, "is that in every match I play against five opponents: the umpire, the crowd, the ball boys, the court and myself. No, I wouldn't want to go to a sports psychiatrist because when you are finished you come out even crazier than when you go in. In every game I am three players, Good Goran, Bad Goran and Crazy Goran. The good thing is that they can all hit aces. I still break racquets but now I do it in a positive way."
Interestingly, when Federer prepared to face Nadal in his fifth final, having lost a set to the ferocious young left-hander in 2006, he sought out the help of Ivansevic. They worked together on the practice court the day before the final and Federer declared, "I'm glad I did it. It was very helpful."
Partly, no doubt, it was because Ivanisevic is also a left-hander – and maybe also because there was something about him that was both intriguing and a little wild.
Roddick might also ponder another piece of the philosophy of the man who achieved, after severe discouragement, the moment Federer has claimed for a sixth time.
Ivanisevic said, "I think it is interesting, I have three movies in one match, horror, comedy and drama. It's fun. I enjoy it. If I could choose, I would be the same again, just me – and liking who I am."
If the most recent evidence suggests that Andy Roddick doesn't like who he is, or at least where he is, he might indeed just borrow that last thought from the Crazy Croat who got there in the end. If he is in any doubt, he should also note that the sports world has never liked him – or respected him – as much as it does today.
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