Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
Andy Roddick chased the groundstroke halfway around the baseline to meet it. The return was well wide. Roddick changed his racquet to his left hand, and trekked back to the net, head down. At the other end, Juan Martin del Potro pumped his clenched left fist just once in muted celebration, then removed his headband and walked to the net to congratulate his opponent. Del Potro was through to the quarters of the US Open while Roddick, as one ESPN commentator said, was "through to retirement".
Perhaps fittingly, Roddick's defeat also meant the end of American presence in the men's singles this year. John Isner, Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish - all bundled out already for one reason or the other.
Last man standing. To the end.
The match wrapped up, del Potro, who had not even turned pro when Roddick won the title here in 2003, was gracious in acknowledging the importance of the occasion to the home crowd. Clapping on his racquet with his hand, he pointed towards Roddick, apparently in an effort to convey who he thought was the man of the moment, regardless of the result of the match.
Ever since he announced his intention to retire after this Open on his birthday on August 30, Roddick has looked fired up, intent on going as far as he can on his final appearance at Flushing Meadows.
Even at 3-5 in the fourth set, a game away from defeat, sweat was dripping off Roddick's cap as he prowled the baseline, waiting for the return. He eventually saved a matchpoint in the game before winning it to go 4-5, forcing del Potro to serve at least one more time to win the encounter. The crowd was on its feet. Del Potro eventually managed to clinch it on serve, winning 6-7 (1/7) 7-6 (7/4) 6-2 6-4.
Despite winning only one Grand Slam, Roddick was the face of American tennis for over a decade. Following in the footsteps of the 'greatest generation' of American tennis of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, Roddick was 20 when Sampras retired in 2002. He won the US Open the next year, and recorded consecutive top 10 finishes for the next nine years.
"He was the alpha male in our generation, certainly the biggest name by a good distance," said Fish earlier this year. "He handled the burden of the press and the pressure and the expectation for 10 years, and there were some guys to come and go as he stayed there. Doesn't get enough credit for it."
Indeed. Though Roddick failed to win another Grand Slam, he did finish runner-up in three Wimbledon finals and won 32 other titles, including the Davis Cup in 2007. It was the USA's first win in the event in 12 years.
Roddick's most impressive attributes were his self-effacement, and ability to concede that someone could be better than him on a given day. Any man who has lost three Wimbledon finals to the same opponent could be forgiven for harbouring some animosity towards him, but Roddick is not one to hit below the belt. He once threw his racquet at Roger Federer, but that was in sheer admiration after the Swiss had pulled off an incredible winner following an overhead smash from Roddick.
When the two played each other for an exhibition match earlier this year, Roddick called him "the greatest tennis player in history". After winning the encounter however, Roddick quipped with a poker face, "it is clear that I am in Roger's head. He has no idea how to play me," eliciting smiles from everyone in the arena, including Federer.
He took his game seriously, but only the game.