My earliest memory watching tennis is of the 1999 Wimbledon final, which pitted my childhood idol Pete Sampras against his longtime rival Andre Agassi.
It is also my earliest sporting memory: Despite being Canadian, I didn’t watch the 1999 Stanley Cup finals in which Brett Hull’s controversial foot-in-the-crease goal gave the Dallas Stars their first cup.
Super Bowl XXXIII, contested that year, meant little to me. I now know it was John Elway’s last hurrah, becoming the oldest player ever to be named Super Bowl MVP, but I couldn’t tell you the color of the Broncos’ jerseys, whether there was rain or shine or even the final score.
As a first-generation North American, I was brought up playing — and, by association, following — less traditional Western pastimes. I never played lawn bowling or cricket, but my weekend mornings were spent on the tennis court and my afternoons on the soccer field.
I would have to look online to tell you that Brad Richards began his NHL career in 2000. But I could recall off the top of my head that Andy Roddick began his professional tennis career that same year, before truly placing himself amongst the tennis elite in 2003.
As a young tennis player growing up, I wanted to be Andy Roddick. He was brash, confident and fearless — a typical American combo — and he hit the ball harder than anybody in history.
Many still see Roddick as a bad boy, in the mold of a John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, but one without the Grand Slam titles to back up his bravado. But in a sport in which Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer-esque politeness is the norm rather than the exception, anybody that wears his heart on his sleeve is made to look like a detriment rather than a credit to the game.
But that’s not the way I see it. It was refreshing as a 14-year-old to hear Roddick respond to an idiotic question about how he felt following a tough Australian Open semifinal loss with, “It was miserable. It sucked. It was terrible. Otherwise, it was fine.”
It showed us that he wasn’t a robot. It showed us that he wasn’t just able to accept the loss and move on. It showed us that he cared.
As a tennis player and, more generally, as a competitor, I had felt that same helplessness many times. I know I wasn’t the only one who loved that Roddick wasn’t afraid to convey his emotion out loud. In many ways, I grew up with Andy. I may not have known him personally, but he was the first athlete I followed from the day he began his pro career, and when I stepped onto the court, I wanted to be like him.
I’m not going to tell you that Roddick was unlucky to compete during the age of the greatest elite talent in tennis history, because ultimately, little about his legacy has to do with how much he won or whom he beat to get there.
It may sound childish to say, but Roddick’s lasting influence is that he was the coolest tennis player in a period of cliche, civility and monotony. He didn’t care who he was playing; he would simply hit them off the court.
These days, Roddick seems like an afterthought in tennis. Despite the influence he has had on tennis in the United States — as its de facto number one for years, in the contributions he has given to the community and in his mentoring of young, up-and-coming American players — critics seem willing to move on without even saying goodbye.
I won’t claim that I’ve continued to cheer for Roddick recently the way I did in my youth. The fact is, tennis’s elite four of Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Nadal are four of the best of all time, and if you don’t cheer for one of them, you get left behind in tennis circles.
But when Roddick lost in the third round of Wimbledon this summer to David Ferrer, he looked around the stadium and slowly exited as if he were soaking in the atmosphere for what might be the last time. The Olympics came and went, and sure enough, it was on his 30th birthday that Roddick announced that this U.S. Open would mark the end of his career.
There were those who romanticized the end in their minds, wondering if Andy might go out the way Pete did exactly a decade earlier; by winning it all. But those who know tennis knew that Roddick never really had a chance. The game had passed him by.
For one final tournament, however, it was nice to have a reason to follow the American, to cheer after every ace, to sigh after every backhand error and to smile at every glimpse of the dominating power that made him so exciting.
He was the first athlete I followed, and seeing him walk off that court felt as if a journey of my own was coming to an end. Andy Roddick’s contribution to the sport was never going to be decided by the number of titles he won; inspiring a generation of young tennis players should be enough to make one deserving of a proper goodbye.
Arik Parnass is a sophomore in the College. CANDID CANADIAN appears every Tuesday.