There was a hostage situation Wednesday night inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Roger Federer locked the doors, cut the phone lines and wrestled Andy Roddick's highest-caliber tennis to the ground.
The problem is that there might not be a ransom large enough to free Roddick or any other top player from the rope and duct tape Federer carries in his duffel bag for most of the season.
Roddick's 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-2 quarterfinal elimination at the U.S. Open means that for the first time since 1989, no American man will reach a Grand Slam final during the calendar year.
American men's tennis has suffered far longer droughts, by the way -- no U.S. player advanced to a Slam final from the 1985 Australian Open to the 1989 French Open (won by Michael Chang), in an era dominated by Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.
Roddick couldn't be faulted for his effort, execution and intensity Wednesday. He didn't act like a captive or bow to what many considered inevitable.
"I'm not walking off with any questions in my head this time," a clearly frustrated and hollow-eyed Roddick told reporters after the match. "I'm not walking with my head down. I played my ass off out there tonight. I played the right way. So, you know, it helps, but that doesn't mean I can't be pissed off."
What does it mean to be born into the Age of Federer? Unless you are Rafael Nadal, who guards his piece of dirt with a fierceness even the Swiss maestro can't overcome, it seems to mean you get a sock stuffed down your throat when you try to express yourself on the tennis court.
Federer remarked a few days ago that Roddick has "tried everything" to beat him over the course of their 15 meetings dating back to 2001, of which Federer now has won 14.
Wednesday, Roddick tried landing 71 percent of his first serves for the match and a remarkable 81 percent in the second set. He tried committing zero double faults and just 24 unforced errors over three sets. He tried holding serve and avoiding even a single break point through the first two sets. He tried taking good, calculated chances at the net and hitting as crisp and authoritative a backhand as we've seen from him. He tried wearing black.
Pushing Federer to consecutive tiebreaks was not only an accomplishment but played to Roddick's competitive strength: He entered the match with a 32-9 record in the extra frame this season.
Federer's tuxedo-inspired Nike getup has inspired the nickname "Darth Federer," and there was a certain diabolical quality to his play Wednesday. On the occasions when he could touch Roddick's serve, he returned it absurdly well, and he actually out-aced Roddick 15 to 14. When the speed gun registered one of Federer's serves at 140 mph, it seemed like piling on.
The fact that Roddick's level of play was vastly superior to the last time the two met, when Federer crushed him in the Australian Open semifinals, was scant consolation. It was the kind of night where Roddick would have loved to break the curse, change the channel and rewrite the end to what has become a tiresome story.
Ashe rocked with a sellout crowd that included domestic goddess Martha Stewart, actors Judd Hirsch, Jerry Seinfeld and David Duchovny, retired anchorman Tom Brokaw and one of Roddick's icons, Andre Agassi, who waved from the broadcast booth in the closest thing tennis has to a papal appearance.
"If I feel sorry for myself, I'm a real ass----," Roddick said. "Honestly, I get to play in atmospheres like that. You know, I get a lot of opportunities. I'm very lucky. If I start feeling sorry for myself, I need a serious sense of perspective."
It is easily overlooked, but part of the reason Roddick has so many losses to Federer is that he has put himself in a position to play the world No. 1 in the late rounds of Slams and Masters Series events so many times.
He has some good company in his lousy record. Four current top 10 players -- Fernando Gonzalez, James Blake, Tommy Robredo and Nikolay Davydenko (Federer's semifinal opponent) -- are a combined 0-34 against Federer.
Roddick snapped at a couple of reporters late in his brief postmortem, and even his more civil comments smoldered with resentment at having to face the repetitive questions from the press corps and, no doubt, from himself.
He said he still believes he can beat Federer -- "If I play like that consistently, who knows," he specified -- but every loss is a reason to glance at the big game clock in the sky, and wonder how many more years he has to achieve his goals and how much his career will be judged against what increasingly seems like an unattainable standard. Federer hasn't lost a match here since the round of 16 in 2003, the year Roddick won. Federer is on his way to an even dozen Slam championships.
Roddick recently was asked how it feels to see himself bursting into tears on court during replays of the match point that clinched his title.
"Yeah, there's a lot of emotions," he said. "You know, I don't know how it would be beneficial to talk about it. It's a good moment for me, but at the same time you just want it again."
No one would have blamed him if he had cried for different reasons after this loss. Imagine yourself in his sneakers. Imagine that you, whatever your profession, can't get ahead of the person in the next cubicle, no matter how many extra hours you work or how many new-age remedies you try.
Roddick is keeping any tears to himself in these circumstances. He wasn't a victim Wednesday night. He helped himself as much as he could.
By Bonnie D. Ford
Login to add comments on this post.