Saturday, December 22, 2012

Untimely Appearances

Between his first and second matches of the 2012 US Open, Andy Roddick called a press conference.  Impromptu press conferences are fairly rare in the tennis world; some thought he may be dropping out of the tournament, some thought he just wanted to get some more air-time next to his wife (the ultimate “I don’t care what you say about my career, I married hotter than you did/ever will” move), and some foresaw what actually happened: a retirement announcement.  This couldn’t be said to be a major shock – everyone not named Andy Roddick believed he was past his prime, attempting to compete in a game becoming ever more dominated by wildly athletic, conditioned, punishing 20-somethings.  Some thought he had another year or two of quality competition in him if he wanted it.

The truth is, Andy Roddick has always trained extremely hard, and always competed even harder.  When he first began training with the major US players, Agassi was amazed at the power and commitment of the young teenager.  You could never watch an Andy Roddick match, against anyone, and say at the end, “You know, it really looked like Andy folded in that final set.”  For a man who went 2-19 against the greatest player history has seen (thus far), that statement is perhaps a greater legacy than any set of numbers or accomplishments he achieved on the court.

Yet despite his commitment, enthusiasm, energy, athleticism, and love for the game, Andy Roddick retires having only won a single major. 


In 2003. When he was 21.

At the time, most thought it was the beginning of something special.  Americans saw the successor to Sampras.  The rest of the world saw a level of power in a serve-forehand combination that was unprecedented.  Sampras won the 2002 US Open. In 2003, Roddick broke through and claimed his first major, also in New York.  He was starting early; how many could he win?

The competition at the top wasn’t great.  The previous couple of years saw a variety of champions emerge.  Lleyton Hewitt won a couple; Agassi, while old, was playing at the highest levels of competition for the second time in his career. Marat Safin was, well, who knows what Marat Safin really was.  Some guy named Roger Federer had also broken through and won his first major earlier that same year.

And then, Federer’s grace was unleashed.  He strung together improbable and remarkable runs of championships at the US Open and Wimbledon.  Though the Australian Open gave him a bit more trouble, he claimed a few championships there just for good measure.  Only the French evaded him – in the early years due to his inexperience on clay, and later because some other dude named Nadal set up his kingdom around Roland Garros.

To say this was unfortunate for Roddick is an understatement.  In the course of a few short months, he went from a phenomenal situation (standing atop the tennis world with the US Open victory and the #1 world ranking in a men’s tennis arena that wasn’t rife with particularly stellar competition following Sampras’ retirement and the closing of the 90s) to constantly having to beat a seemingly unstoppable force.  Everyone loved watching Federer; there was no “team Fed or team Roddick” like there is a “team Nadal”.  There was only “he graces the tennis court with his every move”.  How are you supposed to compete with someone who can even command the attention, respect, and support of a New York crowd that is supposed to be pro-American?

For this reason, I’d contend that Andy Roddick’s career had the most unfortunate timing of any professional athlete in the past three decades. (Not the least lucky athlete for sure – he had a great career playing a game he loved and avoided any substantial injuries; just the athlete with the least lucky career timing.)  At the close of 2003, with Sampras gone and no other powerhouses to speak of, Roddick seemed assure of 4, 5, 9, who knows how many majors?  Instead, he had less than 18 months before the departure of one “greatest of all time” and the dominance of the next.

In the spirit of debate and comparison, here are two other players who could also attempt to claim this title of most unfortunate career timing, if such a title is something worth claiming.  (Other tennis players are off the table.  Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray are all in their mid-20s and will have plenty of years post-Federer, and Hewitt is the only other person who really fell around Roddick’s time-frame, but he was already older, won two majors, and wasn’t the kind of dynamic, dominating player that Roddick could have been kind of was).

Sergio Garcia

The setting: the PGA Championship, August, 1999, at a golf course just outside of Chicago, IL. Fending off competition from a host of wily veterans, two rising stars of the golf world go head to head for 4 rounds in one of the most thrilling battles in recent memory. Tiger Woods, 23 at the time, would eventually prevail and win his second major championship, but the bigger story from the week was the challenge from a 19-year-old Spaniard who never backed down and nearly pulled off an incredible upset (and did pull off one of the greatest shots in major championship history). Anybody watching that week thought these two players would have many memorable battles for years to come.

Needless to say, that rivalry never materialized. We all know Tiger’s side of the story: 14 major titles, including a run of 4 consecutive majors from 2000-2001, ten PGA Tour Player of the Year awards, nine money titles and two FedEx Cup titles in the ten years after that victory. For Garcia? Not so much. After fairly lackluster major performances in 2000 and 2001, he would finish in the top 10 in all four majors in 2002 but was unable to pull out a victory, shooting final rounds of 75 (+3), 74 (+4), and 69 (a solid -2, but worse than all but two members of the top 13) to miss out each time (he fired a solid 68 in the PGA final round, but was never in contention and finished 11 strokes behind Rich Beem and 10 behind Tiger). His series of major close calls came to a frustrating head at the 2007 British Open, where he led by 3 to start the day and 1 going to the 18th, but was unable to make par and lost to Padraig Harrington in a playoff. Harrington would also catch him on the back nine at the 2008 PGA, and Garcia put himself out of contention by dunking his second in the water at the par-4 16th.

Garcia is now 32 and is nearly the unquestioned holder of the dubious “best active player never to win a major” distinction. In my mind, two factors have prevented him from breaking through. The first one is obvious: there was a pretty good player who won most of the majors during Sergio’s prime. The second factor (not usually present for Roddick) was a fairly poor mental game causing him to blow clear chances at majors in ’02, ’07 and ’08. While this is not a factor of “unfortunate timing,” one has to think Tiger’s presence had something to do with Garcia’s inability to close, much like Roddick struggled against the best player in the world. When you know in your heart that your opponent is better than you, it can be difficult to overcome. Garcia still has a chance to win a major (32 can fall well within the prime years for many golfers), but if he doesn’t, you can chalk it up to his unfortunate career overlap with one of the best golfers of all time.

Hakeem Olajuwon

Unlike either of the prior two guys, Olajuwon is almost certainly one of the 20 greatest players ever in his sport. A 12-time All-Star, 6-time All-NBA First Team, 2-time champion, MVP, and first ballot Hall of Famer, he has secured his legacy in the history of the NBA. Yet still, looking back on his career, you cannot help but think he was the victim of some truly terrible timing when it came to defining how he will be remembered.

Olajuwon played from 1984 to 2002 (fairly remarkable longevity for a big man), and was realistically an impact player from 1984 to 1997, never averaging less than 20 points and only once falling short of 10 rebounds a game. During that time, he played for some really good Rockets teams, obviously featuring him as the best player, but also including Ralph Sampson, Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith, and Sleepy Floyd, among others. During those 13 seasons, the Rockets only missed the playoffs once, and won more than 50 games 5 times. Yet despite having one of the best players in the game and a more than ample supporting cast (most of the time), they only won two titles.

At first glance, it seems like those Rockets teams must have missed out on some title opportunities. But consider the league champions during that 14-year stretch (including the ’97-’98 season not included above):

Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy)
Celtics (Bird, Parish, McHale)
Lakers x2 (Magic, Kareem)
Pistons x2 (Thomas, Laimbeer, Dumars, Adrian Dantley, Rodman)
Bulls x3 (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman)
Rockets x2
Bulls x3 (Jordan, Pippen, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc)

Wow. Those are some pretty stacked teams and pretty legendary players Hakeem was up against during the prime of his career. Every single one of those teams had a top-15 all time player and multiple all-stars as complimentary pieces! Usually, those teams win titles. Hakeem was also against the greatest player ever (also drafted in 1984) and caught the prime of the careers of both Magic and Bird. Yes he only won two titles, but how many of those titles were even up for grabs? You could argue that he was lucky to even win two titles because of Jordan’s first retirement, and could theoretically have gone his whole career with zero titles but still be a top-10 all time player.

Had Hakeem’s 13-year run come 10 years earlier, the only dominant teams he would have faced for the first 10 years would have been a few years of Celtics teams, a few years of Lakers teams, and the ’76-’77 Trail Blazers – he could easily have ended up with 5 titles or more. Had he come 10 years later, there would have been stiff competition from the Bulls and the Shaqobe Lakers, but you still get the 2-year non-Jordan run and plenty more reasonable title shots. Then maybe we would talk about Hakeem in the same breath as Russell and Wilt, and not just Barkley and Robinson.

This piece was done in cooperation with Jack Peterson, which should be obvious from the fact that it includes tennis.

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