Break Point

Why Andy Roddick Had to Quit Tennis

Why the fading star’s retirement was the right move—and why we’ll miss him on the circuit.

Elsa / Getty Images

Andy Roddick’s career has been all about timing. For nearly 15 years, it’s been about perfecting his jaw-dropping serve, hitting it at just the right point of his toss for sickening speed. Or nailing a whizzing forehand exactly at the right moment to leave his opponent dumbfounded across the net.

But Thursday at the U.S. Open in New York, the timing for Roddick wasn’t about his tennis, but more about his body, his mentality, his drive, his motivation and—above everything else—his career. He announced he’ll retire at the end of the tournament.

It came as a shock to many in the tennis world. A well-known tennis writer had written on Twitter that an impromptu press conference would be held to celebrate Roddick’s 30th birthday, which was also Thursday, and that there would perhaps be cake and singing.

There was no cake, however, and no song. And for Roddick, there will be no swan song, no tour of the world’s tennis hotspots for a long farewell. One of the most accomplished players over the last decade instead chose to tell his farewell tale at a single tournament and leave it at that.

“I think I wanted a chance to say goodbye,” Roddick told reporters Thursday of his decision. “If I do run into some emotions tomorrow or in four days or however long, I don't want people to think I'm a little unstable, or more unstable. That's why I came to this decision.”

For Roddick, that decision was exactly the right way to go about such an exit. Long a man of entertainment, of pomp and personality and flare and fire on the court, he left the melodramatic to the wayside with such a move, instead choosing to be the elder statesman that he has become in American tennis, letting new names like Jack Sock, Ryan Harrison, and John Isner take the stars-and-stripes torch from here.

The 30-year-old’s results this year had mapped the story for his exit long in advance. For years a familiar face in the latter stages of tournaments, he lost in the second round of the Australian Open, the first round of the French Open, the third round of Wimbledon and the second round of the Olympics. Just last week, the former No. 1 lost in straight sets in the third round of a small tournament in North Carolina—to a player named Steve Darcis, ranked No. 81 in the world.

As such, Roddick’s ranking has taken a hit this year, dropping as low as 30 and settling on No. 22 before the U.S. Open. He was, for eight straight years, a consistent top 10 player, winning some 32 titles and making another 20 finals.

His most memorable of those matches for American sports fans was perhaps his 2003 U.S. Open, when, as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, he won his first and only Grand Slam, saving match points in the semifinals and clutching his hat with disbelief as the New York crowd exploded with celebration. He’s the last American man to win a major.

Roddick was the golden boy coming on the heels of America’s golden generation. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier had picked up slam after slam, seemingly having their choice of majors from all four of the big tournaments for years.

Some expected the same from Andy, who vaulted to No. 1 after his U.S. Open win, but then saw the rise of a new greatest generation in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Again, it was timing. But in this instance, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for Andy.

What has been a good thing is Roddick and his consistent dedication to the game. Tennis fans watched as he stayed a perennial power player, dated Mandy Moore, went through a bratty stage, changed clothing sponsors, found new coaches, lost 20 pounds, revived his backhand slice, married a model and—through it all—played some scintillating tennis.

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Beyond the 2003 Open, it was the 2009 Wimbledon final, his last legitimate shot to win a major, that was the most scintillating of them all. He engaged in an epic battle with Federer on the storied Centre Court, taking arguably the greatest player of all time to 16-14 in the fifth set and was later reduced to tears at his rental home nearby, a realization that his time really had passed, his golden opportunity just not meant to be.

In tennis, like music, there are one-hit wonders. Roddick is not one of those. Sure, he only has the single Open to his name, but his staying power puts an asterisk next to that. As recently as this March he shocked Federer in the third round of a big-time tourament in Miami, conjuring up some vintage Andy, circa 2003. The next day, however, he lost in two sets to a lower-ranked player. It was another sign that he should be done. Another voice in his ear telling him his time had come.

What Roddick could have done (and many tennis players have done before him) was let himself play as long as his body allowed. He could have hobbled toward 40th in the rankings and then closer to 60th, toiling away with the dream, the hope, that one day he could claim glory once again. It is a path that many take, but one that didn't suit the proud Austin, Texas, native. Becoming a dogged Everyman just isn't Andy's style.

"I've always, for whatever my faults have been, felt like I've never done anything halfway," Roddick said in the press conference. "I don't know that I want to disrespect the game by coasting home. I had plans to play a smaller schedule next year. But the more I thought about it, I think you either got to be all in or not. You know, that's more kind of the way I've chosen to do things."

Roddick, a retiree in waiting, isn’t quite done. He’ll play Australian upstart Bernard Tomic in a night match at Arthur Ashe stadium on Friday night. The atmosphere is meant to be electric, as the battle could be Roddick’s final here—the final of his career. But should he produce one more night of magic at the Open, he’ll survive one more day, one more time. And though it’s the perfect time for him to end his career, we wouldn’t mind seeing him play on and play on, all the way until next Sunday.