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It was a delicious irony Tuesday night at the ATP Tournament, known for the last few years as the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters. Fans cheered “Go (ROD-ick!),” but they weren’t talking about the spoiled, under-performing American Andy, they were cheering for a hard-working journeyman from the Czech Republic who actually did show up to play, Radek Stepanek, who nearly defeated Russia’s Igor Andreev in three thrilling tiebreak sets, finally losing 7-6, 6-7, 7-6.
Andy Roddick is not only blowing off the Olympics, he becomes the latest high profile player to bow out early from the tournament stop in Cincinnati, something that fans and media have been whispering about for years. Big players losing to unknowns or cancelling matches with injuries that are miraculously healed in a week or two at the next event or the U.S. Open. As Patrick McEnroe explained to me in an interview last summer, the tour players are expected/required to show up in Cincinnati, so it's easier to show up and loser or claim an injury than to blow off the tournament all together.
More than a few players have either under-performed or quit claiming "injuries," so they could then head to New York early and prepare for the much bigger U.S. Open. For years, I've always hoped our tournament could somehow switch dates so as not to be too close to the U.S. Open's date. This year, we got our wish – they moved it up a week because of the Olympics. But today, two of the biggest matches never happened because Roddick and last week's finalist in Toronto Nicolas Kiefer. The German faced a re-match with France's Gilles Simon, a guy he just beat in the semi-finals of Toronto, to set up his appearance in the final against Rafael Nadal. (Nadal easily beat Kiefer 6-3, 6-2).
But today, we learned that Kiefer was withdrawing, claiming he had an injured foot.
Roddick's "injury" was even more suspect. From the transcripts of his press conference, it sounds like he's basically saying he woke up with a crick in his neck that didn't go away – despite massages and all kinds of attention that cry baby athletes usually get. In his "eloquent" goodbye, he said, "I feel like this is some sort of kind of fluke thing. It's terrible."
What's terrible is that he was the only main draw for the night session and that some fans no doubt went away feeling cheated.
The good news is that once again, my favorite tournament in the world lived up to its usual exciting early rounds by the nail-biter between the other Radek and Andreev. While the Radek from the Czech Republic is also going home, at least he knows he gave it his all – instead of heading out of Cincinnati with an injury that Roddick had trouble even explaining in his press conference.
I walked away with new admiration for Radek Stepanek – his return of serve and aggressive volley play were more impressive than the Roddick I've seen of late.
As for Andy, the tournament will go on without him – and expect more thrilling matches from the players who are ready to give their all here in Cincinnati.