Roddick hoping decision to skip Beijing Olympics pays dividends
Ostensibly, Andy Roddick, the current face of the U.S. Davis Cup team, would be the first to punch a ticket for the summer Olympics. However, the American's decision to eschew Beijing and focus on the U.S. Open has raised some eyebrows.
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It has been an Olympic lovefest here at the Pacific Life Open.
Day after day, the greatest tennis players in the world -- from Roger Federer to Maria Sharapova to James Blake -- have talked in a tone approaching awe about the pomp and circumstance that awaits them this summer half a world away in Beijing, China.
Andy Roddick, historically an upstanding, patriotic guy, is the lone wolf. He says he would prefer to brave the stifling mid-August heat and humidity in Washington, D.C.
"When kind of working out my schedule," Roddick explained on Friday, "it's kind of down to the decision, do you go there and deal with everything that goes along with it? It's pretty hectic. Or, is winning the U.S. Open, or trying to put together a run there, the priority?
"This time, I decided that that was the priority."
Roddick, of course, wants to win the second Grand Slam of his career and, with all of the activity focused on China -- the 64-player draw plays out the same week as Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic, ending Aug. 17, a week before the U.S. Open begins -- circumstances would seem to be working in his favor.
"Switching time zones for two weeks, and then come back and have four days, and then you're starting the U.S. Open?" Roddick said. "I don't know if that was the best preparation."
Todd Martin, who currently plays on the senior Outback Champions Series, said it was a rational decision.
"It's a good strategic move," he said Friday from an event in Naples, Fla. "Ninety percent of his most dangerous competitors are going to be more at risk after all that traveling."
In November, Roddick anchored the United States' first Davis Cup championship in a dozen years. He won the 2003 U.S. Open, and despite three appearances in Grand Slam finals since, he has been unable to break through.
Marion Bartoli of France is the only other top-10 player who has officially ruled out the Olympics, although No. 1 Justin Henin has made some pre-emptive comments about the pollution in Beijing.
Tennis, of course, is different from most other sports at the Olympics. While they all have their own world championships, the Olympics -- because of the intense feelings of nationalism the Games inspire -- remain the culmination of an athlete's life, whether he or she is a gymnast, a marathoner or an ice skater. Because tennis came to the Olympics so late (1988, in Seoul, South Korea), the Grand Slams remain more important in a career sense.
For most tennis players, however, the opportunity to experience the Olympics is one they don't feel they can pass up. On Friday, Novak Djokovic said the Olympics was his top priority.
"One of the tops, for sure," he said. "I mean, come on, Olympics. You get to play Grand Slams every year. Olympics you get to play one time in four years -- and who knows what will happen in four years for us?"So I will not risk that, and I'll be very honored and privileged to participate in such an event, an event with the most tradition in sport."
"I just picture all these athletes running around, and all these venues," she said. "I can't even picture the opening ceremonies. I mean, getting all those athletes in one big place -- it's all very surreal.
"It's something that I've been looking forward to for a very long time. Ever since I was young and saw the parades on TV [as a 9-year-old in Florida], I was waiting until, like, two or three in the morning until Russia came up because it was always later in the alphabet, and that was the only time I could stay up late. Remembering that, and to actually believe that I'm going to be one of those athletes in a few months is incredible."
Blake, too, said he is excited.
"I wanted to play in 2004, but I got injured," he said. "It will be an absolute thrill to represent my country. I've done it many times in Davis Cup and it gives me goose bumps every time I do that. I know it doesn't carry the same weight in tennis that it does in other sports. But part of the joy is going over there and seeing other sports where this is bigger than the Super Bowl."
Blake, who reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open in 2005 and 2006, said he understands Roddick's rationale. But he added that even if playing in China compromised his chances in New York on some level, "I wouldn't mind because this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me."
Roddick has already had that opportunity. In 2004, he lost in the third round in Athens, Greece.
"Some guys really don't care that much," he said at the time. "I cared a lot. It's not the biggest thing in our sport, but it's the biggest thing in sports."
Federer will be playing in his third Olympic Games in Beijing.
"I had two great experiences, but I completely understand Andy's choice, I think, and everybody should," Federer said. "I'm a bit surprised in a way. I still think he would have a great chance to get a medal or win, even. But it's his choice. The U.S. Open, for him, seems to be the biggest thing for him to focus on.
"But maybe in 50 years' time, top guys playing there, it [will] also become one of the big tournaments to win. For me, it is already, but maybe some players and some fans need more convincing that the Olympics is big for tennis."
Martin, who won exactly two games in his only match at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, still calls the experience one of the best of his life. He said the fit, from the beginning, has been an awkward one.
"Frankly, the Olympics and tennis just haven't figured it out yet," Martin said. "In my opinion, it should be a team event, with guys truly competing for their country. Give a point for every win and crown a champion. Until they do that, you're going to have guys who will shoot for the biggest prize in our sport -- not the gold medal."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.