Sunday's Wimbledon men's final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick nabbed the second highest television ratings for a tennis match since 2000. Only 2008's classic Rafael Nadal-Federer final was seen by more people. And while the entire day seemed like a coronation for Federer, it might have been just as an important day for the match loser, Roddick. The past five years has been rough for American tennis fans. As Pete Sampras relinquished his throne and Andre Agassi faded, American tennis fans were left without a start player to cheer for, for the first time in a long time. In the 70s and 80s we did not always have to love Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but at least these dominant players were ours and they won, a lot.
Roddick came on the tennis scene as Sampras was wrapping up his career. He had everything you need to be a star player: the game, the looks and he is an engaging interviewee. 2003 was Roddick's break-out year as he won the US Open and reached the No 1 ranking in November of that same year. His future looked fantastic, but then he went in reverse. Over the next five years Roddick battled injury and became a good-but-not-great player. He was the best the US had, but he never really seriously challenged Federer for the top spot in the world.
When Roddick beat Andy Murray in the semi-finals to set up Sunday's final versus Federer, to be honest, I did not expect a ton from Roddick. I know that Federer is not the dominator he was two years ago, but common wisdom had him handling Roddick on the way to his 15th grand slam title. What Roddick did do on Sunday is delay the inevitable crowning of Federer by pushing him to five sets, including a 16-14 marathon final set. He had chances. Roddick was up two break points when it was 8-8 in the fifth. Federer scored two quick points to bring it to deuce and two more to hold serve. That was as close as he got.
When Federer ended it, our coverage in America showed a triumphant champ but also showed a dejected, spent Roddick sitting there having to watch the adulation pour over Federer. Then, if you looked close, Roddick looked choked up. He gave everything he had against the man who owns Wimbledon, the man who beat Roddick at Wimbledon in 2004, 2005 and now in 2009. The look on his face to me said 'what else can I do to win here?to beat him?'.
The Wimbledon patrons, to their credit, gave Roddick a huge ovation for his effort and for making this already-special day even more memorable. Roddick may have even topped his performance with his gracious comments to the crowd just moments after the loss. He congratulated Federer, he acknowledged Rod Laver, Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg who were in attendance. Then he mustered a joke to Sampras, whose grand slam record Federer just broke.
"I tried to hold him off for you Pete," he said. Roddick did not hold off Federer. Not many people have. What he did do Sunday is to push one of the all-time greats to the breaking point. He showed that he cared about winning and that he could be dignified in losing. He gave tennis fans worldwide a great show, but, even more so, he gave American sports fans a multitude of reasons to watch and cheer again.