It's fitting that the greatest match of Andy Roddick's career ended with another player lifting a championship trophy. Like many other athletes through the ages, Roddick's fate always seems to be the bridesmaid to the greatest players of his generation. That makes it difficult to accurately gauge how great his career has been.
Right now, Roddick's label is that he can't win the big one, his 2003 U.S. Open title notwithstanding. It doesn't much matter that Roddick has probably been more consistently excellent than any players other than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal over the course of the decade, nor does it matter that those are two of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Sports can be cruel that way, because winning championships, regardless of competition, is ultimately how greatness is bestowed upon athletes.
Roddick has a couple of aces in the hole, though. One is that he's only 26, and seems to have overcome the mental meltdowns that marked many of his earlier defeats. After Federer's comeback to win the second and third sets on Sunday, Roddick rallied. In the past he's folded in similar situations, which is a sign that increasing maturity may be pointing him toward future titles.
The other thing he's got going for him is a quick wit that makes him stand out from the dour Federer. It doesn't hurt that he's the best American player, obviously, but his affable modesty and good humor in the face of defeat will always have a segment of the audience rooting for him to break through the glass ceiling. It's also served to keep him from suffering too much criticism for always falling short in the biggest moments of his career.
He's similar to Charles Barkley in that way. It's never easy to compare players from individual and team sports, but there are parallels between the two of them. Barkley was unlucky to enter the NBA at a time when titles went to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, but his own luster wasn't much diminished because he had a personality that kept people from writing him off as a player who would never get a ring.
It's an imperfect comparison, especially when you factor in things like Barkley spitting on fans, but it isn't hard to see Barkley and Roddick as players who would have long ago run out of room on their mantles if they'd been born under a different sign. It's also easy to see the way their personalities have kept them from being defined by their failures to win titles. Compare that to Patrick Ewing, Sergio Garcia and Alex Rodriguez, to name three other players whose laudable talents couldn't and haven't kept them from being viewed in a less gracious manner.
Roddick, like most athletes, would likely chafe at being called a lovable loser, but it's than the adjective-less alternative. And it will make victory all the sweeter when and if it finally comes his way.