Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Bias Case
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Bias Case 02/10/2010 - 3:31 PM

Rn-rf We’ve heard a lot about objectivity in journalism. More specifically, we’ve heard a lot about what a futile, foolish, naïve, and outdated goal it is. Bloggers and talk-show mouths on both sides of the political aisle have beaten it into our heads that beneath the evenhanded veneer, the “mainstream media” is a cesspit of thinly veiled bias and demagoguery (love that word). I get it, I suppose, though I still prefer the primly informative old “MSM”—is it possible to outlaw the use of a set of initials?—to the rancorous self-congratulation of the blogosphere.

The skepticism has even seeped into the seemingly innocent and innocuous world of tennis, where the words of commentators and writers are routinely examined with a jeweler’s eye in search of bias against one player or another. I shouldn’t say “one player of another,” really; as anyone who has visited for more than a few seconds knows, there are only two players that fans care about to this degree: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The fueds between their camps swamp everything else on this website. You might begin a discussion talking about Don Budge’s hair or Frew McMillan's hat, and when you come back 10 minutes later it’s all Roger and Rafa.

Speaking for Pete Bodo and myself, I can say that each of us tries to be as objective as we can in talking about these two players while still conveying the emotion and excitement of watching them. Part of writing about the entire sport of tennis is not writing as a fan of one particular player. Still, neither of us could avoid rattling the cages of Federer’s and Nadal’s fans if we tried. Maybe the strongest testament to how good Federer has been is that his fans now seem to have something invested in his infallibility—he's allowed them to believe in perfection. I once thought of him as the President of Tennis; at this point he may be closing in on Papal status. But I’ve gotten it from both sides. I’ve been asked, by a Federer fan, “When are you going to start doing Nadal’s hair?” After a recent podcast, I was asked, by a Nadal fan, “Why don’t you just come out and admit you’re in love with Roger?”

Which means, I suppose, that I’m doing my job. But after this year’s Aussie Open final, I began to wonder, like the rest of the world’s bloggers and talk-show mouths, whether objectivity was possible, or even whether it was the best way to analyze a tennis match. I’ve admitted before that even though I’m a tennis journalist, I began as a fan and I remain a fan. I would hate to lose that irrational passion, and I would hate to have to write about a sport I didn’t care about. I’ve also admitted that, as far as Federer and Nadal are concerned, I’m a Rafa fan and a Roger admirer, even though I've liked them equally when I've met them one-on-one (I liked Novak Djokovic as well—he was the most outgoingly friendly of the three). 

I tend to root for underdogs and guys who don’t necessarily believe they’re the best there is—guys with doubts. For these reasons, I rooted for Agassi and admired Sampras (though I’ve come around more to Sampras’ style and demeanor watching him in old You Tube clips). For the same reasons, I root more often for Nadal, and find myself remaining neutral about Federer most of the time. As a fan and player of the sport, I find it impossible not to like and appreciate the guy who plays it better than anyone has, but there’s also a lot more excitement to Federer’s matches when he’s challenged than when he’s cruising. Either way, I’ve always given him all due credit for his success.

Still, I was surprised to find myself rooting for Federer in his Melbourne final against Andy Murray. I like Murray, I like his game, I want to see him win a major someday, and as I said, I like upsets. But in the previous round I’d been so impressed by the clinic in fluidity that Federer had put on against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that I couldn’t help but want to see tennis like that, and even root for tennis like that, again. I even found myself briefly believing, the way his fans do, that Federer plays tennis the way it’s supposed to be played, which is an attitude I’ve always found to be beside-the-point in sports. What was interesting was that as the match progressed, I realized that I was seeing Federer in a different light, watching him in a different way, than I ever had before.

In the past, I’d believed that he didn't get nervous—I mean really nervous, gagging nervous. Not having a stake in the outcome, I always just assumed he would win, and that deep down he assumed the same thing, and that most of the time we were right. Now, with Murray keeping the first set tight, I could see that Federer’s nerves do affect his play, especially on his backhand side. I had also believed that Federer’s periodic inconsistency was mostly the product of his trying to take the ball so early off the bounce. Now I could see that confidence played a role here as well; one miss would lead to a frown, which would lead to a worse miss. 

Along those same lines, I’d never read Federer’s emotions particularly well, the way I can most other players'. While his gestures were still minimal in Melbourne, I could make out more uncertainty and frustration in them, as well as more relief when things went well. Again, as a neutral observer, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that Federer thought many of his matches, even his Slam finals, were ever in doubt. I believed that, like Sampras, deep down Federer knew he was better than anyone else, and that it would be proven in the end. I was wrong; it may seem obvious in retrospect, but the man, like all other men, has doubts.

There was a simple reason for my new perceptions: I was feeling Federer’s emotions along with him. I thought about a conversation I had had with Tom Perrotta a few days earlier. We were trying to decide who got jumpier, Federer or Nadal. I said it was obviously Nadal, while Tom thought they both did pretty equally, and that they were both good at finding ways around their nerves. Now it was clear that I only thought Nadal got tight more often because, as a fan, I could see when he was tight and recognize when it affected his play. Nadal’s fans have credited me with being able to see, more than some other observers, that their guy isn’t just a one-dimensional grinder, that beneath the grunts and fist-pumps it’s his tactical sense as much as anything else that wins him matches. And it’s true—I’ve been surprised at the persistence of the idea, even among knowledgeable tennis writers, that Rafa does little more than slug the ball crosscourt and keep it in play for three hours. 

The flipside of this, however, is that I’ve had trouble seeing what Federer does tactically. I’ve written many times that his strategy seemed to consist of rallying patiently with his backhand until he found a chance to hit a winner with his forehand—it all seemed too easy to my detached eyes. In the Aussie final, my fan’s eyes could see that Federer’s tactical genius in this match was really a genius for courage under pressure, for recognizing and seizing moments, for ignoring his nerves and focusing clearly. Unlike Murray, when Federer needed a point, when he seemed in danger of letting the momentum slip away, he became less hesitant. If he’d been rallying passively for a few points, he would suddenly, at 30-all, take his first forehand and barrel in behind it. Or he would carve his crosscourt backhand just a little finer and send Murray just a little farther off the court. Or he would make life simple by playing meat-and-potatoes, serve-forehand tennis. Federer shares this genius of experience and courage with another Slam-winning veteran, Serena Williams. Their 28 combined major titles tell them that all things being equal, nobody is better than they are, so why shouldn’t they take the game to their opponents?

I knew that about Federer at an objective, intellectual level. But I had only rarely recognized that it’s a struggle for him the way it is for everyone else, that he begins with doubts. Struggling along with Federer gave me a deeper appreciation for how consistently he overcomes them. Does this mean that objectivity for a writer isn’t just impossible, but counterproductive? Do fans see the game better because they feel the game more? Is what we call fan bias really just a fuller recognition of the human side of a player? If so, I’ve got a big problem: How do I make myself into a fan of everyone I watch?

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Posted by tennislover 02/19/2010 at 02:24 AM

This one was a pleasure to read, as was the Lendl piece.

Posted by Dheeraj 05/25/2011 at 12:28 PM

Thanks Steve,
Read one of your articles for the first time. Being an avid tennis fan, and more importantly, a devoted admirer of Roger Federer's brilliance on the tennis court, I could relate to this article very deeply. I too, like most people, believed Roger to be invincible; but now, I would be perfectly justified in saying that Roger's recent decline in Grand Slams proves perfectly clearly one point; he too is human.

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