Roddick admits he could be terrible to be around during tournaments, hyper-focused as he was. “And Wimbledon was when Andy’s nerves and the general tension was at its highest,” says Decker, “because that was that one that he really wanted.” But 2009 felt different. The mood was more relaxed. Roddick had hired John McEnroe’s former coach, Larry Stefanki, who helped him drop weight and improve his footwork. “I remember Brook and Larry just laughing every night over a glass of wine,” says Roddick. “It was a great vibe.”
The night before the final against Federer, Stefanki gave Roddick a pep talk in the backyard of their rental house. “You’ve got to allow yourself to free up and play. It’s not time to play careful. I know you’ve had your challenges. You don’t have to be better than him every day. You’re playing well enough to beat him.” As Roddick listened, he thought, He’s not giving the Gipper speech. He actually believes what he’s saying.
“It was so thrilling,” Decker says of her husband’s performance that day. “Because he was playing so beautifully.” Beautiful is a word more often associated with Federer’s game than Roddick’s, but he indeed played with a surpassing grace, holding serve the entire match, right up until the very last game. Federer once again prevailed, winning the fifth set 16-14 and thereby breaking Pete Sampras’s record of 14 grand slam titles. As the two men sat waiting for the trophy ceremony to start, the crowd chanted “Roger! Roger! Roger!” Once that died down, they did something unexpected, especially for the typically restrained Brits. “Roddick! Roddick! Roddick!”
Hat turned backward, the anguish plainly visible on his face, he stood up and raised his hand.
In his on-court interview, Roddick congratulated Federer, joked to Sampras, who was sitting in the Royal Box, about failing to “hold him off,” saluted the other former champions in attendance, and expressed his hope that one day his name would join theirs as a Wimbledon champion. He was, in that instant, a model of sportsmanship, the gesture among the most impressive things Roddick has ever done on a tennis court.
When I tell him this, he quickly dismisses the compliment: “It’s not about me in that moment. Pete doesn’t go anywhere. He doesn’t leave his living room. And he made the trip. You gotta have a little respect for history.”
Still, he was distraught. “I don’t think that people got the true sense of how much his heart was ripped out that day,” says trainer Doug Spreen, who’d joined Roddick’s team full-time after the 2003 U.S. Open. “He was back in the shower for twenty minutes, just sitting there with water running down him.” Spreen was sitting in the locker room when Federer took a seat next to him. “He said, ‘I feel really bad for you guys, and I feel really bad for Andy. I hope he gets this one time.’ I think Roger realized on that day that it wasn’t right to have a big celebration, and his words when he sat down next to me were…” Spreen pauses, crying. “He didn’t need to do that, and it was heartfelt.”
By the time Roddick emerged from the locker room, the All-England Club was nearly empty. Decker was in tears waiting for her husband. “He said, ‘Let’s go home,’” she recalls. ‘“We’ll talk about it when we get home.’ He was the one who was calming me down.”
Stephen Little picked up pizzas and beers and was back at the house with the rest of the team—including his son Paul, Spreen, and Stefanki—when Roddick and Decker arrived. “He looked exhausted,” says Paul Little. “But the first thing he said to us was sorry.” He then went to Stephen Little, who was crying, and gave him a big hug. Little cries again as he recalls the embrace. “It’s not a thing that grown men do,” he says.