Andy Plays it Forward
Tennis star and Austin resident Andy Roddick is building a lasting legacy through the Andy Roddick Foundation / By Steve Uhler / Photos by Kris Luck
It’s 96 degrees in the shade in Austin a scant three weeks leading up to the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in London, and Andy Roddick is as cool as a cucumber martini. If he’s got any worries about competing, they’re not showing. Today is a rare day at home for the tennis legend, but it’s no day off. He’s spending this part of it on his open-air backyard patio, brainstorming with select members of his staff for the Andy Roddick Foundation, now in the midst of a major makeover.
Still boyish in a bright-red T-shirt with the inevitable Lacoste logo emblazoned across the chest, khaki shorts and sandals, Roddick appears affable and at ease, his trademark testiness apparently on holiday. Signaling time for a break, his wife, Brooklyn, brings out a replenishment of bottled water and an impressively garnished plate of fresh fruit. Billy Jean, a pugnacious boxer named after Billy Jean King, trots lazily out of the main house, casually sniffing a visitor and going from person to person for ear scratches. The table talk eventually touches on Roddick’s upcoming trip to the Olympics.
“In tennis, most of the time we have a very selfish existence,” Roddick says, twisting open another Ozarka. “You’re there playing for your own points, your own prize money, your own kind of feast-or-famine results. At the Olympics, tennis is a very small part of a much bigger event. You’re playing to try and bring a medal back to the USA, so it’s a different dynamic. It’s humbling. Everyone grows up watching the Olympics, and to be a part of it is something you don’t ever imagine.”
He begins peeling a perfectly ripened banana.
“I was in Athens in ’04 and didn’t get a medal there, so I’m excited about the opportunity,” he says. “They’re playing it at Wimbledon on the grass courts, which is a venue I’ve had some success at. I like playing on grass a lot.”
Someone at the table cautions about that last sentence— it could be taken out of context and misconstrued in the media. Roddick laughs.
“That’s all right,” he says as he smiles nonchalantly. “I’m used to that. It wouldn’t be a new scenario for me.”
The conversation soon switches back to the purpose of the meeting: the establishment of a new headquarters in East Austin for the Andy Roddick Foundation and the upcoming fundraising gala with John Legend at the Moody Theater. It will be the seventh-annual soiree benefiting the charity. The event will also serve to usher in a major new phase for the organization.
Started in 2000 and originally overseen by his parents in Southern Florida, the Andy Roddick Foundation was created as a modest family enterprise to assist underserved kids.
“We focused on kids’ charities at that point just because I felt I could relate to them,” Roddick says. “I was 17, so I wasn’t that much past childhood myself. At that point, I still had everything in front of me as well.”
From the beginning of his tennis career, despite a grueling agenda and unremitting attention from the media, Roddick has always made time to combine his passion for the game with helping disadvantaged children, appearing at events, coaching kids, raising money for uniforms. The seed for what would become the Andy Roddick Foundation was planted with a chance remark from Roddick’s boyhood hero and guru, Andre Agassi.
“Andre Agassi was my mentor when I was 17 years old,” Roddick recalls. “He was my childhood idol. Basically, he would use me as a practice partner. We developed a pretty good relationship. We were on a plane one time going who knows where for me to help him train. I was really quiet around Andre. He finally said, ‘You have any questions? You’ve got 25 minutes to ask away.’ And the floodgates opened. I asked a million things: ‘What’s it like to win a Grand Slam?’ ‘What’s it like to play the Australian Open?’ ‘What’s it like to make out with Brooke Shields?’—all those good things. I got to the point where I asked him what his biggest regret was and, out of all the things he could have said, he said he didn’t start his foundation early enough. This is coming from one of the great philanthropic leaders in sports. That struck home with me. And he started when he was 24 or 25, so it wasn’t like he was way on.
“So I kind of hung on to that idea. I went home and talked to my mom and dad, asked them what they thought we could do. We wanted to affect the places where I lived. At first it was South Florida. We had our first event that year, a tennis clinic for kids in a parking lot somewhere, raised about $20,000 or so and just started building and building.”
By the time he moved back to Austin in 2004, Roddick had become a high-profile international celebrity, as well as the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world. As the foundation grew along with his visibility, Roddick found himself increasingly motivated to make it a more pro-active charity.
“What was appealing to me was the opportunity to kind of alter someone’s future, as opposed to mending things up on the backside,” he says. He also wanted to move the organization a little closer to his physical home.
“My parents helped for a long time; they lived in South Florida and they were catalysts for the first 10 years of this foundation. But at a certain point, they want to enjoy their retirement,” Roddick explains.
Following the unprecedented success of last year’s annual fundraising gala in Austin with longtime supporter and headliner Elton John, Roddick also realized he’d need a professional staff to help implement his vision for expansion. He immediately thought of Wall Street whiz kid and boyhood bud Jeff Lau, another man who accomplished a great deal at a very young age.
“He’s my oldest friend,” Roddick says. “When I was listing some of the things I wanted, it included someone with a local knowledge of Austin, with an education background that people would instantly respect, someone I trusted. I thought, ‘Well, geez, one of my best friends fits all those criteria. Trouble is, he’s a big man on Wall Street so it’s going to be a tough sell to convince this guy to take a pay cut to come here and work on what is essentially a startup now that we’d decided to alter the course.’ But we got him to do it. His love of this place kind of shows you where his heart is at.”
“I grew up here,” Lau says, “but I hadn’t been in Austin in 14 years. I was at West Point in New York, I was in Iraq, I was in business school in Harvard, then I was on Wall Street for three years in New York City. But to come back here and just assume I know what the needs of the community are, to just say, ‘Viola! We’ve arrived and this is what you need,’ would be presumptuous and a flat-out poor way of going about business.”
With Lau onboard as CEO, things began humming. The Andy Roddick Foundation secured an impressive five-acre home base on a beautiful site adjacent to the existing KIPP Campus in East Austin, a spot that will encompass an impressive 10,000-square-foot tennis and learning center overlooking a state-of-the-art eight-court tennis facility.
“Once we get this up and running and I’m tailing down my tennis career, I plan to be out there as much as possible,” Roddick says.
But for the moment, it’s a game of hurry up and wait, dealing with government bureaucracy, obtaining permits, all the sturm and drang inherent in restructuring a not-for-profit enterprise. Still, all bets are on a smooth transition process. This is, after all, Andy Roddick, a man whose name is synonymous with an uncanny ability to overcome obstacles. To his millions of fans, the back story is familiar:
Born in 1982 in Omaha, NE, young Andrew Stephen Roddick inherited his older brothers’ passion for tennis, along with his parents’ unwavering support and work ethic. After moving to Austin with his family at 4 y ears old, the budding tennis phenomenon made a second home of the old Caswell Tennis Center on Shoal Creek, endlessly practicing, developing a blindingly fast serve and near-obsessive determination to succeed on the courts.
The rest followed in a whirlwind of activity, which is still in spin. The memory conjures a collage of images: The then 17-year-old’s dazzling showing at the 1999 Australian Open, his 2003 US Open victory and subsequent ranking as the No. 1 tennis player in the world, his fiery (and entertaining) tantrums on court, his storybook marriage to model and actress Brooklyn Decker in 2009. A notable legacy, all achieved by a former child prodigy (some might say l’enfant terrible) not yet 30 years old.
Along with his seemingly boundless athletic skills, Roddick also gained a reputation as a volatile competitor with a mercurial personality. His contentious encounters with officials on the courts and sparring with the press have become fodder for endless viral videos and YouTube clips.
“He’s always been up-front,” Lau observes. “If he has an opinion, he calls it for what it is, good or bad, even if it’s sometimes to his own detriment.”
With dizzying speed rivaling his own 150-mile-perhour tennis serves, Roddick soon ascended to bona fide international multi-media superstar status with all the requisite creds: hosting SNL, appearing in TV ads and films, and winning the mandatory World’s Sexiest Athlete title from People magazine. His social network is gargantuan. With more than a million Twitter followers hanging on his every tweet, he’s notorious for his quirky posts (“Titanic in theaters again? Ship sinks. You’re welcome. Saved you 10 dollars.”) and spontaneous interactions with fans. Dividing his time between his tennis career, overseeing his foundation, countless celebrity appearances and accumulating enough frequent flyer miles to circumnavigate the galaxy, Andy Roddick maintains a hectic schedule that is, by any measure, insane.
“I don’t think about it because what’s insane for someone else is normal for me,” he points out.
The compulsively active celebrity even finds time to co-host a weekly radio talk show with pal and broadcast personality Bobby Bones.
The radio thing’s great,” Roddick says. “It’s no different from most Saturday afternoons when Bobby and I are just hanging out. We tend to talk about sports a lot, and people seem to like it.”
“Andy’s really a sweet guy—when he isn’t competing,” Bones observes. “However, when you compete against him in anything—in my case, mostly golf—he turns in to the dick you see on TV. But I’m the same way, and I think that’s why we became such good friends.”
Roddick’s occasional forays in to TV and movies have sparked rumors that he’ll pursue a career in broadcasting, a proposition he’s quick to squelch.
“I don’t know how much of that I’d like to do right away,” he says. “The thing about radio is it’s flexible, but TV’s different. You have to be somewhere at a certain time and place. For the last 12 years, I’ve had to be somewhere at a certain time and place. I’m not sure I’d want to bridge my career of traveling in to another career where I’d have to travel all the time.”
So much for the color commentary and post-match analysis from the broadcast booth. How about acting?
“I did SNL a few years ago,” he shrugs. “I don’t know that it’s my thing, that I’d be any good at it. I’m not the most artistic person in the world. I think it’s presumptuous to think that just because you’re good at one thing, you could be good at all things. It’s a pretty serious profession. I know that from watching Brook. I’m not sure I have that in my repertoire.”
Even amidst the Olympics hoopla, media speculation on Roddick’s pending post-playing career dogs him like an insatiable puppy.
“It’s tough sometimes,” he admits. “You just take it day by day. I ran in to it at Wimbledon where I’m not sure the length of time I’m going to spend with tennis as my main job. It’s tough for me to articulate to someone else. It’s hard to deal in absolutes when I’m not sure.” In spite of being the subject of such intense public scrutiny, Roddick has a reputation as being a notably stable, down-to-earth individual.
“It’s odd how grounded Andy is, considering his meteoric rise at such a young age,” Bones comments. “He’s very caring. He’s also extremely loyal. That goes for his friends, family and especially his foundation. He’s dedicated a big part of his life to giving a lot of kids chances they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Most of his charitable work is done with no fanfare. That really personifies the guy.”
Jeff Lau is guiding a visitor through the spacious two-story building that will be the new headquarters of the Andy Roddick Foundation, and his enthusiasm is palpable. A couple of workers are applying a base coat to the walls, and the air is thick with the smell of fresh paint and possibilities.
“This will be the computer lab,” Lau says, gesturing to a large room with plenty of sunshine coming through the windows. “Over there will be a suite of administrative offices, right above the classrooms.”
Stepping to the window, he points to the field of grass across the access road. “And there,” he says, “is where we’ll put the tennis courts.”
“We want to foster an environment where they’re empowered and given the tools and resources they need to become their best self, give them opportunity to learn the attributes of working hard, determination and focus of values,” he elaborates. “You can’t always engineer the environments these kids will be in for the rest of their lives, but what you can do is give them a compass.”
With the guidance of Roddick, Lau and staff member Marcia Williams, the project is actively soliciting input from a consortium of community members: assorted judges, commissioners, city council members and KIPP.
“I have to say that Andy’s vision of using the sport of tennis to help young people grow in to healthy adults was very appealing to me,” says Williams, a longtime community activist. “What the foundation is bringing to Central Texas is going to be amazing. Working together to provide for the youth of our communities, the community itself will be rewarded.”
The operating philosophy behind the newly restructured Andy Roddick Foundation is also partly inspired by Andre Agassi’s template.
“Andre does great work with his school,” Roddick says. “He preps kids not only for college, but for life. Things like introducing yourself to someone, looking them in the eye, shaking their hand firmly, having a grown-up conversation. Little things go a long way. Things like that are real important for me to implement, using tennis as a bridge to life skills as well.”
For the zillionth time, Roddick is asked what he sees down the road in his future, a query that often triggers a dismissive and snappy retort. But this time, his answer is considered and thoughtful.
“I fully plan on being out there trying to teach the kids how to play,” he says. “I don’t want to be a figurehead, a name on the side of a building. I want people to be able to see the name and face, and differentiate between the guy they see giving smart-ass answers in a press conference and the guy who’s out here every day. I just want to be Andy out here.”
“As far as the future goes, I’m sitting here not knowing how much longer I’m going to play,” he continues, cagey and candid in the same breath. “A lot of times, especially with celebrity-driven charities, they’re successful as long as the person is still culturally relevant. So one of my concerns was how do we build a bridge to something permanent that has a lasting impact so that even when I’m done, we can still effect changes?”
He takes another swig of water, surveying the horizon and considering the possibilities.
“Selfishly, my ultimate goal would be to be 45 years old and have the kids we’re helping have no clue of any career I had before this facility,” he says. For a brief moment, Andy Roddick seems contemplative and serene, almost wistful.
“Just to be the guy who’s out there helping and coaching,” Roddick says. “That’d be nice.”
ATX Man in Motion: Jeff Lau
From childhood competitors to best buds to business partners, the lifelong friendship between Jeff Lau and Andy Roddick has had a long and unlikely evolution.
“We actually met at a local junior tennis tournament,” Lau remembers. “Andy is about two years younger than me. As an 8-year-old, he had a one-handed backhand, strangely, which is absurd because you’re never strong enough as an 8-year-old to have a one-handed backhand, but he did it and he beat me. His mother had suggested we get together with some frequency to compete, the idea being that we’d push each other. So we did that for several years before he ended up going to Florida to take the next step in tennis. But even when he did that, we still kept in touch. I flew out to Florida during summers to help him train.”
For the record, both state that Lau never won a single match against his best friend.
The two former competitors pursued separate careers, Lau graduating from West Point and going on to serve a tour of duty in Iraq. Returning stateside in 2007, he attended Harvard Business School before moving on to a successful career on Wall Street as a mergers-and-acquisitions investment banker.
“It gave me a certain amount of business savvy in how markets work and evaluating how businesses are run efficiently,” Lau says. “Just observing those practices, you can’t help but take away some best methods to apply to the foundation.”
“I’d be lying if I said I thought the 15-year-old smart-ass that I knew would end up being one of the top guys at West Point, serving in Iraq, going through Harvard Business School and Wall Street,” Roddick recalls. “I never imagined that we’d embark on a project like this, but I’d be hard-pressed to try to think of something better for two childhood friends to try to accomplish.”
Lau takes his stewardship responsibilities for the foundation very seriously.
“People say to me, ‘It’s exciting about what you’re doing,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, potential is not the same as results.’ And I’m very much focused on the results. There’s a lot of reasons to be jaded about charities, but we’re not one of them. I tell my team members, ‘Listen, if one day the New York Times decided to do an exposé on us, I want to be able to sleep well that night.’ ”
John Legend to headline the seventh-annual Andy Roddick Foundation Gala
The Andy Roddick Foundation will host its seventh-annual fundraising gala and concert Sept. 21 at the W Hotel. The event, hosted by Roddick, includes a special meet-and-greet cocktail hour at the W, dinner and a celebrity auction, climaxed by the evening’s much-anticipated highlight: a concert performance by John Legend at the Moody Theater, followed by a VIP after party. Legend, a nine-time Grammy Award winner, is also known to millions of viewers as one of the judges of the popular ABC series Duets.
Underscoring the expansion of the Andy Roddick Foundation, this year’s concert will be a change of pace from previous shows. For the first time ever, the public can purchase concert-only tickets, which allow for greater access to the event. Concert-only tickets cost $49 to $129.
“It’ll be great,” an enthusiastic Roddick says. “It falls in line with what we’re trying to accomplish. We want to make it a broader foundation, a little more accessible. It’s not just for people who can afford to pay a few thousand dollars for a table. It’s a great opportunity to put on a little bit of a different event than what we had before.”
Headliner Legend and Roddick are longtime friends and mutual supporters.
“His fiancee, Chrissie, and my wife are really good friends,” Roddick says. “He actually came just to attend and support our last couple of events, just sitting there enjoying himself. I didn’t want to ask him too early, but then Chrissie said it was almost to the point he was getting offended that I didn’t ask him to play.
“I’m really happy to extend the invitation to this year’s gala and concert to all John Legend’s fans, which can now see him in concert while also supporting a great cause. This gala and concert has become a fun, annual event to show support for kids, not only in Austin, but also across the country.”
For more information, call the Andy Roddick Foundation directly at 512.298.1960 or visit arfoundation.org.