In the beginning -- before the beginning of his fruitful 13-year career as a top tennis professional -- a grade school lad named Andy Roddick would hit countless balls against a rebound net in his Texas garage, pretending big things.
"I would spend hours out there," Roddick once recalled. "My mom would ask, 'What did you do today?'
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"I'd say, 'I beat Lendl, Becker, Edberg. They didn't put up much of a fight. Pete and Andre were a little tough, but I took them out, no problem.' "
Friday night, as the world keeps turning, a 30-year-old Roddick -- no make-believe necessary -- played his 53rd match in the U.S. Open, under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium in what he called "the most electric atmosphere in our sport."
It turned out not to be Roddick's farewell. Not even close. He walloped 19-year-old Australian Bernard Tomic, a fourth-year pro not yet born when Roddick was daydreaming his conquests of tennis greats. But with Thursday's announcement that this Open, his 13th in the main draw, is his last hurrah, Roddick brought to the proceedings a this-is-your-life atmosphere to go with his thorough second-round 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 win.
"I didn't feel relaxed at all," he said, though his play didn't reflect that. "Not even a little bit."
He walked past a TV monitor shortly before the match. "When they did one of those slow-motion things [on his career], I assume set to an '80s ballad, so I had to get away from that," he said.
Once on the court, though, wearing all white with stars-and-stripes shoes, he went about boxing Tomic's ears and squashing his spirit in a manner reminiscent of his best days in a career of 610 victories in 822 matches. Roddick served 13 aces and went to the net 33 times, winning 23 points there. With 25-year-old Italian Fabio Fognini, ranked 59th, awaiting him in the third round, Roddick's play indicated he could postpone his exit yet again.
On the warm, gusty evening, he once again was fiddling with his cap, yanking at his shirt, pounding his bludgeoning serve that stayed consistently in the mid-130s, reaching 139 mph.
All these years along, here again was the kid who, at 8, sneaked into the Open's player lounge to gawk at the world's tennis stars; the young pup whose 2003 Open title, at 21, seemed to mark him as heir to American tennis giants Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi; the face of U.S. men's tennis for almost a decade; the perennial major tournament contender never quite able to break the spell of dominance by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Though the last of his three near-misses at Wimbledon in 2009, a five-set final loss to Federer, seemed to summarize Roddick's not-quite-realized destiny to rule the sport, Federer judged that Roddick can be "happy with what he achieved, because he almost achieved everything he wanted."
Meanwhile, the ending is not yet written.