NEW YORK -- The soon-to-be-concluded career of Andy Roddick requires some statistical creativity. He's not a guy who won one Grand Slam title; he's a guy who won one-and-nine-tenths Grand Slam titles.
Some people might call Roddick a disappointment. Some people are irrational and should not be allowed in public.
Some might have noticed that he won the 2003 U.S. Open at 21 and wondered where the rest of him went. Some can't seem to notice that he went 1-0 in Grand Slam finals against humanity and 0-4 in Grand Slam finals against superhumanity (a.k.a. Roger Federer).
Some malcontents out there might even think that he should have gotten more from his game. I often looked at Roddick’s plodding nature, his limited repertoire and his aching point construction and figured that he got more than he should have.
"I was pretty good for a long time," Roddick said, inaccurately. He was very good for a very long time.
As he announced on Thursday, his 30th birthday, that this U.S. Open would be his last tournament, no one should pity Andy Roddick. Here's a man who earned a marvelous life and lived to hear a Sunday Wimbledon final crowd chant his name -- "Roddick! Roddick! Roddick!" -- in a gathering swell, until finally he stopped staring blankly at the ground, stood up and applauded back.
But it is on that same blustery Sunday, three years ago, where the nine-tenths comes in. That's when the long career with the nine straight seasons ending in the top 10 came within an excruciating inch of taking on profoundly greater meaning. That's when any confusion could have been cleared up, when Roddick could have had a Wimbledon title to bookend his U.S. Open title, and to save us from having to explain his respectability.
Instead, we have to dig out the numbers. The final between Roddick and Federer contained 77 games and 436 points. The fifth set ended 16-14 and required 95 minutes alone. Roddick had 38 service games, a whopper of a number for any day. He held serve the first 37 times, a bewildering number for any two days. He held serve 37 straight times and did not win. He held serve 37 straight times and did not win. He held serve … Sometimes if you repeat the truth enough, you can almost start believing it.
In the second-set tiebreaker, he had four set points for a two-sets-to-love lead. In the 8-8 game in the fifth set, with Federer serving, he had two break points.
"I couldn't control the match at all," Federer said in rarity. Somehow, Roddick's honest fight wound up lending the ultimate evidence of Federer's boundless pluck, his most undervalued trait. And certainly, it provided further evidence that sport reserves the right for agony, that after all the lonely toil of all the years, legacies still can turn on viciously narrow passageways, on millimeters here and there.
A millimeter here or there, one clunky backhand smash from Roddick on a set point, one desperate Federer retrieval that might have dropped wide had Roddick let it, and we wouldn't have to explain so much.
We wouldn't have to remind people of the European wave -- Federer, then Rafael Nadal, then Novak Djokovic -- that started washing over the game just as Roddick won that U.S. Open. We wouldn't have to note how Roddick hammered persistently at his own natural limitations, gave it all his might to become more than a gasp of a serve.
"The game completely changed," said Roddick, who’s scheduled to play 19-year-old Bernard Tomic of Australia in the second round on Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I was able to kind of recognize it. It's funny, because the things I feel like I get criticized for have kept me around a lot more than my contemporaries. Let's say I came up with Marat [Safin] and [Juan Carlos] Ferrero and a couple other guys. Obviously everyone points to Roger, but we can all point to Roger all day. If that's the comparison we're drawing, then we're going to end up with the stories we have had.
"I saw the way the game was going. You have to get stronger and quicker. I don't think there was much room for a plodder who could hit the ball pretty hard."
Despite all those Grand Slams where he didn't seem to have a compass, and for the others when he did meet an elegant Swiss wall, he was believable on Thursday evening when he said, "For 13 or 14 years, I was invested fully, every day." This rang true: "For the moments where it's been hard, I've had 25 positive things that have come from it." And this rang true: "As much as I was disappointed and frustrated at times, I'm not sure that I ever felt sorry for myself or begrudged anybody any of their success."
So we end up with a commendable sort with a great personality who helped giddy up the ride. We end up with what the fellow American James Blake called "the best champion we've had the last 10 years," a European era. We end up with Federer saying, "In my mind, he's a Wimbledon champion as well," even though we're stuck with that nagging nine-tenths, but the worthy nine-tenths that made a crowd chant a name of a man who technically did not win. The least we can do is explain why it belongs in the books.