Do you think Roddick knows he looks exactly like one of the stupidest actors of all time? Was there a moment, however slight, when he gazed lovingly at the post-Mandy Moore mirror and noticed that he had traversed from classic, all-American good looks into the most depressing kind of parody of the same archetype?
I hope not, just as a desire for basic human dignity leads me to wish that Tim Henman didn’t feel a small frisson of relief at the emergence of Andy Murray. Henman’s increasingly heavy-hearted trudge through the early rounds at Wimbledon, with the weight of a once-proud tennis nation on his shoulders, became almost grotesque by the end. Roddick’s national characteristics won’t allow such maudlin thoughts any visibility, but surely privately he entertains them from time to time?
Not tonight. Tonight he was beaten by a man he accurately called “the greatest ever”, and while he displayed an over-familiar mix of fight and clutch-failure, the extent to which his capitulations were his incandescent opponent’s doing is probably beyond debate. But in the broader scheme Roddick has shouldered the weight of the United States’ expectations since the retirement of Sampras and Agassi; since he won his only (and America’s last) Grand Slam at the US Open in ’03. Privately, he must pray for the whole sham to end.Perhaps the most humiliating element of the sorry saga is contained in the images above. Quite aside from his resemblance to, uh, Stifler, his sponsor is indescripably lame: Lacoste. Lacoste! The Frenchest of all the deviant, bisexual European brands! The greatest American tennis player of his generation has to stare across at a motorik Suisse star clad in royal blue Nike while he takes his bitter medecine.
Beneath the garden variety humiliations of this particular match-up are a few more troubling facts for tennis, once the undisputed heavyweight champ of the one-on-one disciplines (in that brief window between boxing’s slump and golf’s Tigerish rise). Because as perfect as Federer is, and brutishly powerful Nadal, the paucity of English-speaking stars must be worrying the ATP enormously.
Before you start pointing to the aforementioned plucky Scot, who has played superbly these last few months, just take a look at him:
That dude might be many things, he might even win Grand Slams (though personally I can’t quite picture it). But he is not the emblematic, sport-transcending Global Superstar that tennis requires.
Instead the rising tide is European, and particularly Eastern European players (most markedly in women’s tennis, though you can’t help but feel it will wash over all). You cannot fault their skill, dedication or the sacrifices they’ve made. But they are not hugely marketable, particularly to the lucrative US, or other English-speaking audiences (you reach further back than Roddick to find another native English-speaking Slam winner). This is not to try and invoke xenophobia in the slightest, merely to point out that as dry and hard-to-love as Sampras was, at least he was an American. And he was a winner.
The ATP might on the face of things love the beautiful internationalisation of the game of tennis, but in its heart it must be aware that in a sporting marketplace being squeezed dry of sponsorship dollars and increasingly crowded by competing codes and events, they want – they need – a new titan to rise, and at least challenge these pretty European craftsmen. A Connors, a MacEnroe, an Agassi… Someone, anyone to staunch this open wound, and save the sport from the resolutely unglamourous spectre of their most marketable American looking like a goofball burger flipper and being covered in the crinkled crocodile of Lacoste.
PS – This piece would never have been written without the inspirational commentary – and headline writing – of Harry Cundy or the (hopefully happy) birthday of David Shamy.