Roddick’s loss yesterday to Nicolas Mahut hurt. It hurt a lot. Granted, clay is his worst surface, as it is for all the American men for reasons I can’t completely fathom. So while it wasn’t entirely a surprise for Andy to lose in the first round of the French Open, it had a particular ghastliness, a dampening thud. The first round?
So many losses. It’s nearly as hard to witness as it must be to go through. During the Mahut match, John McEnroe and Ted Robinson did their best to eulogize Roddick, speaking, as many have, of his respectable career record, his winning at least one tournament per year. McEnroe always goes out of his way to be sympathetic and supportive of Andy. He respects his countryman’s heart while he’s never been able to admire his actual tennis.
These things are as hard for me to write as the whole day has been for Roddick fans. I feel like a traitor. Fans always try to see things in the best possible light for their player/team – “He’ll be fine when it’s time for grass” is the optimistic line today. But I don’t think he will. And it makes me miserable. Watching him get through the endgame of his career is like watching a fighter take a literally endless beating. He’s become a punching bag, a lightning rod for defeat.
A therapist once said to me, “You go after things in a way that ensures you won’t get them.” First, what a great tendency. But 2nd, is Andy like that too? Why would he choose the clay court season to re-emerge onto the tennis scene after a shaky start to 2012 and many injuries? Clay is certain to defeat him; he goes into the grass season without one win to buoy him. “That’s going to erode his already fragile confidence,” the always clear-eyed McEnroe said.
Some people on the web are suggesting Roddick’s head isn’t in the game anymore, but I didn’t see any loss of intensity in him yesterday. So … how can you try your hardest, yet come up with only losses, time after time? What’s going on there? Is it that the effort is somehow wrongly directed? The German health philosopher Moshe Feldenkrais wrote:
Many people fail to recognize the true cause of their inability or failure. The cause is very often not lack of ability, but improper use of self.
And he quotes Rousseau:
Ne rein pouvoir faire a force de trop le desirer (While he desired strongly, he could achieve nothing).
Roddick himself has said, “Sometimes you want it too much.” He continues to talk like an athlete about his play; about today’s match against Mahut, he said he couldn’t move well on the clay, that his first step was totally off. He showed his fine, self-deprecating sense of humor in his press conference. He does everything right in his assessment of his losses, but there is the harsh, hammering fact of their relentlessness that he seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge.
Not long ago, I read the Jon Wertheim passage about Andy’s father, Jerry, watching his son play. It’s worth reproducing:
I'm watching Andy Roddick play John Isner during the middle weekend of the U.S. Open. I turn around and see a vaguely familiar face. Eventually I realize that it's Jerry Roddick. He's sitting in the stands, far from the players' box, where television cameras are unlikely to find him. Some context here: In his previous Grand Slam, Andy Roddick reached the Wimbledon final and, of course, lost heartbreakingly to Federer in the fifth set. As the match progresses, Jerry Roddick is a statue. His facial expression doesn't change. There's no outward emotion. No cheering and scowls over unforced errors or bad line calls. The match goes to a fifth set. Then a tiebreaker. Isner dials in his serves and -- just like that -- Roddick is eliminated from another Grand Slam in a five-setter, a few points making all the difference. You can only imagine what it must be like watching your son lose like this yet again. But, as thousands of fans go nuts, Jerry Roddick grimaces a tiny bit, shakes his head as if to say, win-some, lose-some, and leaves his seat and walks onto the concourse unnoticed, his head buried in a baseball cap but held high. In a sport (culture at large?) that doesn't always do restraint and dignity real well, I was struck by this.
Andy referred to his father after a particularly brutal beating by Federer at the 2006 Australian Open – he said his father didn’t raise him to run away. And in Wertheim’s description of Jerry Roddick’s attitude while watching his son, you can feel a lifetime of lessons: No one owes you anything; no one respects a quitter; if you fail, try again. You feel like Roddick internalized these lessons and is still slugging it out with these words in his ears. But at what point are hard work and determination not enough? At what point are they maybe even getting in your way? Christopher Clarey of the New York Times reported on Twitter yesterday that Andy did his press conference with a clenched jaw – and everything seems clenched about him these days. He’s all effort – with so little result. His strengths are choked by his desire. This is a murderous equation; there’s no justice in it.