It's lonely at the top
Andy Roddick is the future of American tennis on and off the court.
He returns to the U.S. Open as its defending champion and is ranked No. 2 in the world. He'll turn 22 on Monday and already he has achieved pop culture status -- which means Web sites and magazines talk about his hair and his girlfriend, who last year was singer/actress Mandy Moore.
"It's definitely Andre's show until he decides to put it down," Roddick said. "But I've definitely grown comfortable into the role of being that next guy. For tennis to be popular in America, it has to have American stars at the top competing for the big tournaments."
And that's exactly the problem with Roddick's rise. He's all alone.
Three years ago, the talk was of American tennis reloading for another decade of dominance. James Blake turned pro in 1999, Roddick and Mardy Fish made the jump the following year, and Robby Ginepri in 2001. Today, they're among the top 100 players in the world, with Dent and Fish -- who just won the silver medal in Athens -- cracking the top 30.
But the chain of rivalries among Americans that has fueled the growth of interest in tennis in the United States in a continuous cycle over the past three decades is now at risk because Roddick has stood a cut above the rest. Combined, the others have managed to beat Roddick only twice in 19 matches. A likely second-round U.S. Open matchup between Blake and Roddick, who leads the series 7-0, was derailed when Blake pulled out of the tournament on Thursday.
"The interest is a lot higher if the Yankees are playing the Red Sox," Roddick said. "Rivalries run sports. In tennis, the golden years have been defined by Agassi and Pete or McEnroe and Connors, Evert and Navratilova."
What is frustrating to some tennis observers is that they feel Roddick has the personality to thrive in a rivalry.
"The problem with the Agassi-Sampras rivalry was that it wasn't a rivalry, considering that you have two guys that are counting their money on the jet on their way back to the private golf course after a match," said Murphy Jensen, who with his brother Luke, won the 1993 French Open doubles title. "A rivalry is when you got McEnroe calling Lendl a communist and Lendl calling McEnroe an idiot. You need the guts, you need the blood, you need some American guy to come up the ranks and say, 'Andy, you know I got all you want and them some.' And Andy would promote that kind of rivalry, because he really hates to lose."
The American rivalry watch is on the minds of marketing executives on Madison Avenue, who search for the best spokesman to pitch their clients' products. Roddick is by no means suffering in the endorsement marketplace -- he has deals with Reebok, Babolat, Rolex and American Express, which has produced billboards with Roddick's image that say, "Lightning Roddick: His Arm Is Dangerous."
After not signing an extension on his one-year deal with Powerade, Roddick received an offer from an energy drink company, though the drink's association with alcohol was the determining factor in Roddick's not signing with the company. A deal with a company that makes hair products also was not signed since the time commitments were too great for Roddick's schedule, according to his agent Ken Meyerson.
"The consumer doesn't realize that in order for a company like a Reebok, adidas or Nike to fully put their power behind someone, they need a marquee name that is consistently winning in a depth-ridden sport," Meyerson said.
"We believe he can sell product as a lifestyle icon," said Dianne Hays, Reebok's senior director of global tennis. "There just aren't that many athletes that companies want to invest dollars behind. Andy appeals to young women and men of all ages."
But will Roddick's ability to transcend tennis as a cultural icon be hurt if an American anti-Roddick doesn't come along? As Roddick himself points out, American rooting interest isn't what it used to be.
Roddick's coach, Brad Gilbert, who tutored Agassi for eight years, said he believes that Roddick needs to seize the opportunity to dominate whether there is an American rival on the horizon or not.
"The best thing Andy can do is worry about Andy," Gilbert said. "Obviously the more Americans we have at the top, the better it is for American tennis. Especially when you think of the times when Andre and Pete, and Chang and Courier were all battling at the same time. If something like that doesn't happen, it's not like it should fall on Andy's shoulders."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org