By Matt Cronin
CINCINNATI -- Nine years ago, Andy Roddick won the US Open and seized the No. 1 ranking from the man he beat in the final, Juan Carlos Ferrero. It was the beginning of a very good career for the man by way of Nebraska, Texas and Florida, and since the retirement of Andre Agassi in 2006, he has been the standard bearer of U.S. men's tennis at the tournament.
Some other years have been fruitful, like in 2006, when he reached the final again, but others have been below his level, like in 2004, when he was unable to defend his title and lost to Joachim Johansson in the quarters, or in 2005, when Gilles Muller shocked him in the first round.
But he’s always fought hard, taken it seriously and loves the tournament. So much so that last year he came into the event having missed five weeks of the hard-court summer due to an abdominal tear and still managed to take out current world No. 5 David Ferrer in the fourth round before he went down to Rafael Nadal in the quarters.
"I have always felt comfortable there," said Roddick at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. "I know some people don't. It's a different event. I say every event is almost like a microcosm where it's played. New York is loud. It's in your face. It's an event. It’s not only just a tennis event, it's an event in itself. So some people don't like it, but I tend to like it."
What Roddick has not liked about his last two seasons is how many injuries he’s suffered.
The 29-year-old had another bout with pain in Cincinnati on Tuesday, when he felt back spasms in his loss to Jeremy Chardy in the first round. Roddick has been playing fairly well over the past month and half, winning Eastbourne and the Emirate US Open Series title in Atlanta, playing Ferrer tough in a loss at Wimbledon, but recently going down to Novak Djokovic during the Olympics.
He’s been encouraged by his play, and if he can get a couple of good matches in next week in Winston-Salem, he might be a force to be reckoned with in New York.
"The last six weeks I have had four tournaments, and two wins and losses to two top-five players in the others," he said. "So I feel a lot better about where my game is at now. Today was one of those things. What are you going to do about it? But as far as confidence level and where I'm at, there's no comparison now compared to the beginning of the year."
Like a number of other veteran players who have sustained injuries, Roddick is in a tough spot. He likes to have match play under his belt, but what he doesn't want to do is go to the tournament in Winston-Salem, wrench his back or hurt his shoulder again and then come into the US Open at way under 100 percent. He’s been dealing with the decision for much of this year.
While Roddick comes across as a tough guy, he does wear his emotions on his sleeve, and being unable to put up his best on a consistent basis has affected him.
"It's frustrating," he said. "This year has been a test. The last thing I like doing is being out there, knowing I'm compromised. I feel like that's been a lot of my matches this year. Certainly not fun, but I didn't complain too much about the 10 years I had of clean health. I've got to try to keep it in a little bit of perspective, which is hard in the moment. But over the long haul of a career, my body has been pretty good to me."
Four Europeans have ruled the ATP tour for much of the past seven years. Since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open, the trio of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have won 29 of the last 30 Grand Slams, as well as the last two gold medals in singles (Murray just won the gold in London, and Nadal won gold at 2008 Beijing), with the sole exception being the 2009 US Open, which was won by Juan Martin del Potro.
Roddick and del Potro are the last two men outside of tennis’ so-called Big 4 to have won in New York, with Federer winning it five times, Nadal once (in 2012) and Djokovic last year.
So Roddick realizes that even if he comes in on fire, he has big challenges ahead. He’s had a 75-percent success rate of reaching the final eight in his 12 appearances in New York, but he knows that if he doesn't focus hard on every match that he’s no lock to reach the second week.
If he can get his serve cranking, play the type of cagey tennis he is capable of, and move inside the court when he gets a look at a short ball, he’ll be very dangerous playing at home. Ferrer found that out in 2011, and some other notable players may discover the same in 2012.
"You deal with what's in front of you," he said. "I don't think I ever said definitive for sure, 100 percent, I'm going to be in the second week. I don't know that I've ever gone in thinking the first week is a waste of my time; put me in the second week. I'd like to get there, and I definitely feel like the last probably two months have been the best tennis I have played this year. I have been in the quarters eight times. I feel like I can do it."