Crying on center court is something of a novelty in men’s tennis, but when Andy Roddick lost his final professional match last week at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was at least the second time he’s been on the brink of tears. The first was nine years ago, when he won his first and only Grand Slam on the same court.
Two weeks ago, on his 30th birthday, Roddick announced that this tournament would be his last. The 22nd-ranked tennis star warned fans that it would be an emotional goodbye. “I don’t want people to think I’m a little unstable—or more unstable,” he said.
Roddick’s retirement came as no surprise to women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King, whose storied career includes 12 Grand Slam singles titles and bragging rights in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match. A close friend of Roddick’s—she says he’s a down-to-earth guy who “drinks more beer than champagne”; he named his bulldog after her—King tells Newsweek that Roddick has looked miserable on court for the past two years. That’s what injuries and age do to you. “You lose a lot more. You hate to lose. Especially if you’ve been No. 1.”
Superstar athletes have two options when they sense their careers have entered a final act: assess their talent in the off season and then retire, or, like Roddick, launch a farewell tour mid-tournament. Andre Agassi, fighting injuries and a dipping ranking, used the 2006 U.S. Open to say goodbye. Pete Sampras battled his way back to a Grand Slam win after a two-year drought, then walked off the court.
Sports psychologists say the decision to retire, racquet in hand, can be an advantage. “It can be very liberating because it’s out there,” says Jonathan F. Katz, who has worked with the New York Rangers. “You just let it rip. You know it’s going to end.”
Roddick embraced the imminent end of his career, says Angus Mugford, head of mental conditioning at the IMG Academy, with its famed Bollettieri tennis program. “There’s almost nothing to lose,” he says. “When you back a competitor like that into a corner, it allows them to play some of the best tennis of their life.”
And that’s what Roddick did. He brought the “kitchen sink,” as he often said, and blazed into the fourth round of the tournament before getting dispatched by 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martín del Potro.
After the players embraced over the net, del Potro pointed his racquet at Roddick and told the audience to “enjoy his last moment.” Roddick, in his farewell speech, choked back tears as he told the applauding crowd that’s he’s “loved every minute of it.”