Friday, November 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Andy Roddick waits for the next American men's tennis star

Andy Roddick visited the Pavilion at Villanova University on Monday to play World TeamTennis with the Austin Aces against the Philadelphia Freedoms. (C.F. Sanchez/Staff Photographer)
Andy Roddick visited the Pavilion at Villanova University on Monday to play World TeamTennis with the Austin Aces against the Philadelphia Freedoms. (C.F. Sanchez/Staff Photographer)

The last American man to win a grand slam tennis singles title paid a visit to the Pavilion at Villanova on Monday night. 

If you didn't hear about it, or if you didn't care, you likely aren't alone.

The lack of buzz around Andy Roddick's arrival in town says a lot about the state of American men's tennis. Although the sport's global stars - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray - are household names, the Americans on the ATP tour circuit are not.

Can you name the top American in the ATP rankings? Or how many Americans are in the top 100? Did you know that there's a Canadian ranked higher than all of them?

More coverage
 
WATCH: Latest sports videos
 
BUY: Philly sports gear
 
DISCUSS: Join our sports forums

Probably not.

(The pop quiz answers: John Isner at No. 12, six total, and Milos Raonic.)

It's been 11 years since Roddick won the U.S. Open. The Nebraska native's triumph at Flushing Meadows bookended a year in which Andre Agassi won the Australian Open, continuing a streak of 15 straight years in which an American won at least one slam.

That drought is nearly triple the length of the only other multi-year gap in the professional era of men's tennis, from 1985 to 1989.

Now 31 years old, Roddick has long since abandoned his pursuit of another title. He retired two years ago during the 2012 U.S. Open, taking one last lap in the spotlight before bowing out in the fourth round. Now his forays on the court are limited to World TeamTennis, as a player for the Austin Aces and part-owner in the league.

That's what brought him to the Main Line on Monday, as he played for the Aces against the Philadelphia Freedoms.

"I didn't know that there would be this many opportunities for a has-been tennis player, but it's been exciting all the same," Roddick quipped. "I had a very selfish nine or 10 months where I didn't do a whole lot, but you can't control timing and opportunity. I've said yes to a lot of things - it's been stimulating and a lot of fun."

Roddick admitted that getting back on court and playing against current ATP and WTA pros hasn't always been too easy.

"It would be presumptuous to think that you'd go out there and beat guys who were playing at Wimbledon a week ago, but I've held my own," he said. "It's certainly not easy, but I really enjoy it - it's a great way to stay competitive and kind of feed that need, but in a smaller sample size."

It wasn't so easy for Roddick to decide to take an ownership stake in WTT either. But after a few conversations with league founder and tennis legend Billie Jean King, Roddick was convinced. He bought an equity stake in the league in May of 2013, and helped bring a team to his current hometown of Austin, Texas.

"I don't think when you're in the midst of your career you think along those lines. Frankly, you're a little more short-sighted when you're in the middle of a professional sports career," Roddick admitted. "It was a great opportunity for me to stay involved in the game in some way, and frankly learn from someone who has been pretty important in tennis and away from tennis for a long time."

As mainstream America's interest in tennis has dwindled, the desperation of the sport's remaining hard core to find an American champion has increased. Roddick, who has always been a great talker, is very much in the hard core. And he has a bully pulpit at his disposal, given his studio work with Fox Sports 1's "Fox Sports Live."

So when Roddick was asked the inevitable question about the future of American men's tennis future, it was no surprise that he had an eloquent answer ready.

"In this country, it's an uphill battle not to be a disappointment," Roddick said. "I think you have to develop thick skin. I think you have to trust in the process, which is hard to preach to a young kid."

There are signs that a new generation of cavalry may be starting to make a charge toward the big stage. Leading the way are 22-year-old Louisiana native Ryan Harrison and 21-year-old Nebraskan Jack Sock.

It's just a coincidence that Sock also hails from Roddick's home state, but it's no surprise that both have worn the title of heir to Roddick's throne. They're the hot prospects on merit, but there aren't many alternatives.

"I came along at the end of Andre [Agassi] and Pete [Sampras], and people were desperate for that next guy, so you kind of attach yourself to someone," Roddick said. "All of these guys are going to experience that with a good result. They just need to realize it's fleeting. The only way it stays is long-term [success], so don't buy into it right away."

Perhaps the hottest tennis prospects on the planet right now is 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe, a child of immigrants from Sierra Leone who lives in College Park, Md. Tiafoe won the prestigious Orange Bowl juniors tournament last December, achieving the feat at a younger age than Roger Federer, John McInroe or Bjorn Borg.

Roddick isn't willing to anoint any of them as the heir apparent just yet.

"I could sit here and predict all day guys that will be top 50 in the world," Roddick said. "What separates those guys and top five is something I'm not as good at predicting, but they all certainly have an immense amount of upside."

Roddick has good reason to be skeptical. The hype machine has too often been fired up prematurely in recent years, only to see the bright lights burn out.

For a time in the 2000s, Chicago native Donald Young was the "it" player. He rose to No. 39 in the rankings in 2011, reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Within a year, though, he had fallen to No. 202. Now 24 years old, Young is up to No. 73 in the rankings. But he still has just one ATP title in his career.

Sam Querrey, a 26-year-old San Francisco native, has shouldered an even greater burden of expectations. After turning pro in 2006, he made the Round of 16 at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010. A year later, he got up to No. 17 in the rankings. But Querrey hasn't gotten past the round of 32 in any slam since 2010, and the last of his seven ATP singles titles came in 2012.

Although Roddick is quick to acknowledge that "the lineage in tennis for this country is stronger than anywhere else," he doesn't make as much of the U.S.' title drought as others do.

"France is considered a great tennis nation, and they haven't won [a men's slam] since [Yannick] Noah in '83 [at the French Open]," Roddick said. "It's not nuts for this period of time to have passed, and it's not crazy for a strong tennis nation to have a valley. We're lucky not to have had many of them since the open era of tennis began."

Of course, Roddick wants the drought to end. And he has a bit of advice for those trying to end it - but only a bit.

"A lot of times there's almost too much advice going on - there's your coach, there's federations, there's this, there's that," Roddick said. "You need to have a consistent group that you trust and when you get to 70 or 80 in the world and people start talking about you, don't view that as having made it yet… There's a lot more out there, and there's no substitute for just working hard."

At least now Roddick doesn't have to shoulder the burden himself. He's enjoying "retired" life, with just enough time in the spotlight thanks to his TV work. Among his Fox colleagues is a name plenty familiar to Philadelphia sports fans: former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

"I'm not going to sit there and argue with Donovan about what offense the Eagles should be running," Roddick joked. Nonetheless, he has found plenty of common ground with his on-air brethren.

"The best part about my job," Roddick said, "is watching football with football guys, or watching baseball with baseball guys, and just learning by watching them."

Roddick and McNabb have this much in common: They both reached historic heights in their careers, and are waiting for successors to achieve the same feats.

Eagles fans can look with hope to second-year quarterback Nick Foles. But American tennis fans are still searching for the heir to Roddick's throne, and it may be a while before they find him.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected