It tends to damn Andy Roddick with faint praise to call him the best male American tennis player of his generation. His own thoroughly solid and occasionally splendid career aside, Roddick has spent nearly a decade as the standard bearer of a mostly ragtag group - at least, in comparison to previous U.S. generations.
During the eight straight years Roddick has posted a year-end Top 10 ranking - which matches Andre Agassi's 1998-2005 streak and John McEnroe's 1978-'85 run - he never has been joined in that group by more than one compatriot. Currently, the highest-ranked American man besides Roddick, at No. 9, is No. 18 John Isner, with Sam Querrey at 19. James Blake had a brief stay in the top 10 in 2006 and 2007.
What energized the previous U.S. tennis era, the frenzied internecine battles among Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang - with an occasional Tim Mayotte, Todd Martin and Brad Gilbert thrown in - has been almost totally absent in Roddick's time. The kingdom has been alternately ruled by Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Rafael Nadal.
"The thing that was so good about the golden generation of American tennis," Roddick said last week during a World Team Tennis appearance at Randalls Island, "was there was somebody else right there. It was almost a jealousy thing" to prove who could be international leader among the U.S. crowd.
From the time he was 19 and first seen as a U.S. Open contender, Roddick was given the role of Next American Tennis Star. "I think I've always accepted that," he said. "I don't think I ran from it." But, part of what has been missing, he said, was the wave of U.S. contemporaries to constantly challenge him for the title. "I think you want some company," he agreed.
Roddick will celebrate his 28th birthday on Aug. 30, simultaneously with the start of the 2010 U.S. Open, a tournament he won in 2003 in what seemed, at the time, to be an assumption of the mantle of Yank authority. In the open era, dating to 1968, only Jimmy Connors (16 straight years) and Pete Sampras (12), among U.S. men, have had a longer unbroken presence in the Top 10 than Roddick.
Among those who didn't last as long in the Top 10 were Courier and Chang, both included in the discussion of American dominance wrought during the Sampras-Agassi years, though Chang never finished the year at No. 1 and Courier did it only once (1992), which Roddick equaled in 2003.
Part of Roddick's problem, of course, is that the 2003 U.S. championship remains his only major title (he has been a Grand Slam runner-up four times, most recently in the stirring 2009 five-set Wimbledon final against Federer), and that single major win is measured against the fairly unmatchable totals of those who had gone before: Connors (8), McEnroe (7), Sampras (14), Agassi (8).
In McEnroe's mind, "there is a concern . . . If there are not a lot of Americans contending, that's not good for tennis."
In his weekly sports commentary for National Public Radio, Frank Deford recently advised during Wimbledon, "If you get the chance to watch Andy Roddick, be sure to gather your children and grandchildren 'round the television, too, so that they can tell their grandchildren: 'Back in 2010, I actually saw the last American tennis champion play.' "