Commentary

Pursuit of happiness for Americans

Originally Published: March 15, 2011
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Speaking of his native land, the novelist Henry James once said, "It's a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe."

No matter that James died nearly 100 years ago, surely his quote would resonate with America's two most successful tennis players of the post-Andre Agassi era, Andy Roddick and James Blake.

[+] EnlargeJames Blake
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJames Blake took a precipitous fall in the rankings, but don't take his work ethic for granted.

Sunday afternoon Roddick and Blake played each other at the BNP Paribas Open. Each has been a finalist here: Roddick a year ago; Blake in 2006, the year Blake reached a career-high ranking of No. 4 in the world. While Roddick remains in the top 10, Blake needed a wild card to get into the tournament this year.

Once on the court, though, rankings gave way to the raw business of competition. This was particularly true given the dozens of times these two have practiced together, most notably as Davis Cup teammates. "Spending so many weeks early on we were the only two U.S. guys who were at tournaments," Roddick said, "so naturally, I guess kind of gravitated toward each other. And then being on the team together for so long, you know, [Blake] is one of my favorite people. He's someone I always cheer for." Except, of course, when he's across the net.

Roddick's 6-3 7-5 victory occurred in revealing fashion. If you view each player's game in meteorological terms, Roddick's playing style is a mix of sustained and oppressive baseline humidity interspersed with moments of heavy rain in the form of his serve and forceful forehand. Blake, the epitome of the dangerous opponent, is a window-shattering electrical storm, punctuated by the occasional gust of wind and unpredictable periods of drought. A laser-sharp backhand for a down-the-line winner took Blake to a 3-0 second set lead. With Blake serving at 3-1, 30-30, Roddick rolled a backhand crosscourt passing shot that resembled an adroit miniature golf stroke. At 5-5 deuce, Blake netted a forehand and on the next point shanked another long. Roddick served out the match as though he was double-parked.

If in one sense this was just another day at the office, on a broader level it was a chance to regard two tennis players -- who happen to be American. Here is where the complexity enters the picture. America's history of tennis excellence has been a blessing and a curse for Roddick and Blake. So much of the great tennis that proceeded Roddick and Blake was the very factor that inspired them to play the game as children.

At the age of 9, Roddick took a trip to the U.S. Open, an impish, wide-eyed boy sneaking into the player's lounge the same year his future coach Jimmy Connors made his requiem run to the semis. Roughly around the same time, Blake participated in a program in Harlem and drew strength from another American tennis icon, Arthur Ashe. From Connors and Ashe, to more recent affinities with Agassi, various exhibitions with John McEnroe, to the recent presence of new Davis Cup captain Jim Courier, Roddick and Blake are well aware that they are legatees of a longstanding tradition. And along the way, the American economy has also made them wealthy beyond their dreams.

The curse is the burden of expectation -- an external, market-projected notion that in large part has nothing to do with the day-in, day-out process of trying to improve, compete and even win in a sport in which superb players emerge from more countries -- and build their games in more parts of the world -- than any other on the planet.

But for Blake and Roddick, life as an American in a Europe-dominated era is a challenge. Said Blake, "I would love anyone that's ever called me an underachiever to come do my workouts for a week. Come with me and see what I do, see what kind of effort I put in. … People have different skill sets. I can't go out and serve 140 like Andy. I can't go out and defend like Rafa does. … If you play high-risk tennis for a long time and it's your best game, then it's playing the percentages in the long run." As Blake addressed his history of effort, his many injuries and physical progress -- at age 15 he was a 5-foot-3 85-pounder -- it was vividly clear how much the spotlight of public scrutiny has become something he wish didn't exist.

Having to frequently address questions of his own résumé for several years now, Roddick chimed in on Blake's behalf, in the process elliptically projecting his own desired evaluation criteria. Said Roddick, "It's easier and more obvious to talk about what someone hasn't done as opposed to appreciate how hard it is to get to [No.] 4 in the world. You know, it's not an easy thing. … [Blake] wasn't a junior tennis prodigy. He went to Harvard, for God's sake, and came and was No. 4 in the world in tennis. If someone's gonna, I guess, look down upon that, they'd be very, very good at whatever it is they do."

Steve Stefanki, the older brother of Roddick's coach Larry Stefanki, once said something that Roddick and Blake would emphatically agree with: "Outcome is passive. Process is active." That is a tricky notion to hold in mind in the world of sports. In many ways, after all, the likes of Roddick, Blake and their racket-wielding peers are engaged in a craft where outcome -- or to use another term, performance -- define them in a way that's crystal-clear. This is so much of the appeal of sports: the batting average, the win-loss record and, in tennis, the rankings and results tally.

Said Blake, "You know, all the stories you hear about Michael Jordan and those guys that are throwing controllers at video games and Ping-Pong paddles, I'm not as high profile as any of them, but I'm just as competitive. I'll be up all night trying to win the same way."

So yes, at one level, Roddick and Blake live for the outcome -- for the kind of victories each craves that would continue to give their résumés all the glitter of the Americans who have come before them. And yet, it's the process each speaks to when defining himself, the time he has put in on the practice court, in the gym and in the cauldron of competition. That seminal American document, the Declaration of Independence, declares that man is endowed with "certain unalienable rights," including "the pursuit of happiness." Not the attainment. Just the pursuit.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.