Roddick endures another tough loss

NEW YORK -- In our memory, Andy Roddick will always be serving from behind this summer, bearing down to save his competitive life, scrambling to the top of a ladder only to have it teeter, sway and fall backward.

So it was during the epic fifth set of his agonizing loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon finals, and so it was during the last two sets of Roddick's U.S. Open third-round match against John Isner on Saturday. But the resemblance between the two defeats ends there.

Wimbledon's bitter aftertaste turned sweeter when Roddick finally received long-overdue recognition for his consistency in the top echelon of the men's game and his determination to continue improving in his late 20's. Roddick would much rather win than be perceived as gallant at this point in his career, but the reaction was still gratifying, and energizing.

Saturday's match, a scheduled daytime drama that spilled well into prime time, was something else altogether. This was a kid brother -- one of a few Roddick has adopted in tennis, spending time with them off the circuit and during Davis Cup weeks -- beating up on him. That pecking order has followed birth order for a long time. The last American to beat Roddick in New York was Pete Sampras in 2002.

"It's different,'' said the fifth-seeded Roddick, who also absorbed his first-ever loss to No. 22 Sam Querrey in Cincinnati last month. "You know, it hasn't happened to me [in a Grand Slam]. I'm happy for him. I'm mad that obviously it came at my expense. I promise you, there was no it's not something I really thought about while I was out there. But it is what it is. These guys get older.''

Older, wiser, fitter. The 55th-ranked Isner, who had a bout of mononucleosis this year, has nonetheless improved his strength and speed and is swinging freely again after a stretch last season where he was in a self-described "rut.'' He was dragging a bit in the fifth set, and as Roddick said, Isner might have been at a clearer disadvantage if the rules had dictated that the two men play on rather than loading up their respective bazookas for a decisive tiebreaker.

But Isner, who had lost to Roddick in two previous meetings, kept the points short and the geometry on his side. When he wasn't bashing aces (38), he was driving Roddick back, back, back on the court and in time. The space behind the baseline used to be Roddick's comfort zone; he has worked long and hard to wean himself from lingering there. It's been ages since a player sent him to that place where you don't pass Go, and forget about collecting the $200.

Roddick had his serve broken only once, yet suffered his earliest exit from a Grand Slam this year in the event where many thought he had the best chance. Viewed through a certain telescope, the planets were aligned just right: A tired and perhaps satiated Federer; Rafael Nadal coming back from injury; Andy Murray still unproven in a Slam final; Novak Djokovic with indifferent results in majors this season.

But that kind of astrology doesn't have much to do with flesh-and-blood matches.

"I mean, I don't know [if] I've come to a tournament with as much confidence, into a Slam, as I did with this tournament, and leaving earlier than I want to,'' Roddick said.

"The times I've lost early, it's been a little dicey coming in. You know, it's just the way tennis is. The fact that I was able to make a quarterfinal last year and I was playing just terrible, didn't make it past the third round this year, that's just the way it is sometimes. That's the thing with sports: There's not always a good reason for it.''

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.