Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Reading the Readers: Truth vs. Modesty Edition
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Reading the Readers: Truth vs. Modesty Edition 07/19/2010 - 3:55 PM

Mc It's not easy to jump into the comments section of this blog after I've put so much—of my thoughts, my opinions, myself—into a post. The first negative one feels like a slap across the head. I don’t mind a harsh critique by email, but in public it can be cringe-worthy. Then, at some point while I'm scrolling, I get used to it. I have to, I guess. The comments generally get more negative as they go on. Still, I’ve got nothing to complain about. The fact that I can write a 2,000-word post about an obscure event from my own tennis past and have at least a few people read the whole thing is incredible.

For such a slow moment in tennis, last week was busy around here. I discovered how busy this morning. I had no idea this round of the Federer-Nadal war lasted as long or got as contentious as it did on “The Extraordinary Age.” I should have known. These fan battles are a blessing and a curse. I’m glad there’s a topic that makes people that passionate, and I’m amazed at the amount of thought and emotion that goes into each side’s arguments. But those arguments eventually end up going in circles. There’s only so much material—H2H, knees, excuses, Slams, Masters, knees, back, knees, Mono—to work with.

Since it’s still slow on court at the moment, I’ll use today to talk about a few of the subjects that cropped up in the comments last week.


From Tari, on "The Extraordinary Age": 

“I’m completely convinced that there are very few truly objective fans of Rafa or Roger. We’re all going to see it through the prism of our fanship.”

Anyone who likes pro tennis to the point where they become fans of certain players—which is everyone here, including myself—is going to have their judgment influenced when it comes to analyzing their favorites and their rivals. Your relationship with that player is probably more emotionally unconditional than it is with anyone else in your life. There’s no jealousy, the way there is with friends. There's no daily negotiating over who does the dishes, the way there is with spouses. Your fave player is a little like an idol, but unless he commits some kind of crime, he can’t let you down the way an idol who's actually part of your life can—losses won’t make you any less devoted. A fan is closer to a parent than anything else. Your favorite player is like your kid; you get nervous for him in the same way, and you forgive what other people see as his flaws, because you’ve watched him so closely for so long that you feel like you understand him better than anyone else. You understand that he’s not really making excuses or feigning modesty or being disingenuous, even if that’s the way it may sound to the rest of the world, to all those people who don't love him the way you do.

And you aren’t necessarily wrong. The insight that fans can have into their favorites was brought home to me while watching the Aussie Open final this year. Click here for the post, called "Bias Case," that I wrote about watching Federer as a fan in that match, and what it taught me. I’ll give you the short version here. 

While I do root for players in matches—I can’t help it, I like tennis too much to give up being a fan—I had rarely rooted for Federer in the past. I typically don’t root against him either. He’s a guy who I admire and respect, and who I like to watch, but he never really seemed like he needed another fan. He had it all under control on his own. But for some reason that I can’t explain, I was pulling for him in the Aussie final against Andy Murray. And suddenly I felt like I understood his game, his mindset, his weaknesses, his strengths better than I ever had. I’d never thought that he got particularly tight in matches, at least to the point where it adversely affected his game. Of course I know everyone gets tight, but I always believed Federer had such a rock-bottom confidence in himself that he could overcome nerves much more easily than others. Not true—I could tell when he was nervous in Melbourne, because, as a fan that day, I was nervous for him, with him. It made me think that if I could make myself into a fan of every player, I’d be a better tennis writer. Weirdly enough, right around the time of that match, Federer’s mother was interviewed about what it’s like to watch her son, and she said something about always being able to tell when he’s nervous. His mom is, among other things, another fan.

The upside is that watching one player that closely and sympathetically can give you insights into him or her that more objective eyes won’t decipher. The downside is that it can make you blind to other players’ virtues and get you to read sinister intentions into their words when they aren’t there. For example, Nadal is not falsely modest, the way his critics and some Federer fans maintain. Rather, he (1) legitimately believes he can and should lose matches, because that’s part of sports; (2) doesn’t want to motivate his opponents with that they call “bulletin board” material in pro football; and (3) is superstitious enough to err on the side of being too worried for a match, rather than overconfident. Hence his reluctance to call himself the “favorite,” even at the French Open. Nadal knows that in reality there are no “favorites.” It’s not a term that has any meaning for a player. There are seedings, and then there are matches to be played and won, and that’s it—anything else is just fan and media chatter and has nothing to do with how he approaches an event. To Nadal, the minute he began to think of himself as the “favorite,” is the minute he would begin to practice as if he were the favorite, and then play as if he were the favorite, and then lose as the favorite.

Likewise, Federer’s critics were wrong to accuse him of playing mind games with Murray before the final of the Aussie Open. Where Nadal goes for modesty, and his detractors see it as false, Federer does the opposite: He reflexively blurts what he considers to be the truth, even if it sounds immodest, and his detractors see it as either arrogance, excuse-making, or a head game. Before that final, Federer said it would be harder for Murray to win his first major against him than it was for Federer to win his first against fellow neophyte Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon in 2003. In other words, he was saying, experience counts for something in these matches. That’s hardly a radical concept, and it couldn’t have been a stunning, will-weakening revelation to Murray.

Taking the good with the bad, the insight with the blindness, being a fan opens one eye wider at the same time that it makes it harder to see out of the other. As a writer who tries to be as objective as possible when it comes to putting my analysis down on paper, I listen to what fans say about their favorites, and take what they say about their rivals with a very large—like Guinness Book of World Records large—grain of salt. 

As the old song goes, "To Know Him is to Love Him." (Though Phil Spector wrote those words, so their validity may be questionable.) When it comes to tennis players, the better phrase may be: To love him is to know him.


From Rodrigo Guidolin, on “The Best of Her Time”: 

“Thanks, Steve, but there is no chance I could ever beat Budge, Tilden, or Gonzalez if we played with their gear. I think you’re overestimating how much athleticism means on the tennis court and underestimating those champions’ talents. Not fair dude.

The rest of your analysis I liked.”

Dude, let me start by saying that I appreciate the last line you added there, about liking the rest of my analysis. Disagreeing with me is fine, but it’s aggravating to read a comment that singles out a tiny aspect of a post and attempts to rip it to shreds without mentioning anything else about the other 99 percent of my argument. So I thank you for doing that, Rodrigo.

Anyway, I’m guessing that you are also the 500th-ranked player in the world. I stated last week that I thought that you could beat Don Budge “like a drum,” even if Budge was playing with modern equipment. I admire your modesty. More important to my argument from that post, I said that I thought Serena would crush Margaret Court and Chris Evert, and beat Navratilova and Graf most of the time.

First, let’s agree that the idea of time-traveling a champion from the past to the present day is absurd. If Margaret Court were 20 years old right now, she would have used different racquets from the beginning of her life, been coached to hit different shots, and trained completely differently. Her name probably wouldn’t even be Margaret. It would be Morgan, or Peyton, or Samantha—or maybe she would have been named after Evonne Goolagong or Steffi Graf, who knows.

Second, if we follow Wertheim’s hypothetical concept of giving those old players modern equipment, the next question is: How long do we allow them to practice with that equipment? For the sake of this parlor game, let’s say that Don Budge kept his 1930s game, but grew up using a modern racquet (an impossibility, but it's just a game). Maybe he would have been able to hang with you, Rodrigo, I don’t know. Maybe I over spoke. I’ve always thought that Rod Laver, if he had played with a current stick from the beginning, would have been able to use his game effectively today, even though he was only 5-foot-8. And in the past I’ve written about the continuity of champions in the Open era: Laver played Connors tight; Connors played Agassi tight; Agassi played Federer tight. Ditto for the women's side: Evert played close matches with Graf, and Graf played close ones with Serena. Within the Open era, there has been evolution in the sport, but there also been an ability by the best players to match their games up with the best from the next generation.

A good example of this is Evert. The soft-hitting Chrissie who won the French Open in 1975 with a wood racquet was not the same player who lost to Graf in the Aussie Open final 13 years later. Evert went down in that match in straights, but, using a graphite mid-size, she had made herself into a much stronger player, a much more modern player, than she was when she first turned pro. 

In the end, it’s probably best just to forget about asking which player of today would “beat” or "crush" which player from the past. There’s a reason why time travel is impossible.


From Northern Boy, on “Playing Ball: In a Dark Time”: 

“I’m curious, Steve, which parts of your story were ‘slightly fictionalized.’”

Everything in it was true, or as close to true as a 20-year-old memory can get, except for “Grimes,” my high school English teacher. And everything he did and said really did happen; it’s just that he was put together from the personalities and body types of two of my English teachers. One was the intimidator, the other was the modern poetry lover. I thought the composite was more entertaining.


I'll see you Wednesday with a preview of the hard court season.

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Posted by Hoi Ha 07/21/2010 at 10:25 AM

@JB - well I agree with you if the oldies have access to modern science in that regard - for sure they would very possibly be competitive - I do hesitate though with Laver because he was only 5'7 in height - I think he would be very vertically challenged in the modern game (like I would be in the pool today where, like tennis, having some height seems to be increasingly necessary).

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/21/2010 at 10:36 AM

Comparing competitive swimming to top-level tennis, as does Hoi Ha, is highly questionable.

If bananas floated and chimps had the correct body types, one could train chimps to be champion swimmers.

The same argument probably fails with respect to chimps and tennis--altho Verdasco came close to proving me wrong at AO 2009. (In defense of chimps, one should also note that no record exists of a chimp ever choking on a banana, which can not be said for Rafa.)

The skill sets necessary for top-level tennis are much more varied than going back and forth in a pool and calculating when best to push hardest without inducing a heart attack.

In fact, tennis skill sets are closer to those of boxing and baseball--sports/activities concerning which experts don't make ludicrous arguments that the greats of the past would be wiped out by the best current practitioners.

Many, if not most boxing experts consider Sugar Ray Robinson--a prizefighter who retired over forty years ago--to be the greatest boxer of all time. Many experts would put Joe Louis in their top ten lists of heavyweights, despite the fact that Joe Louis retired over fifty years ago. Plenty of other similar examples exist.

Likewise, in baseball, experts believe that top players of long-gone eras--such as Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, and Mickey Mantle--would have been All-Stars in today's game.

Furthermore, even with respect to horseracing, a sport whose intellectual demands are much more comparable to swimming, numerous champions from long ago--such as Secretariat and Affirmed--would have been champions in today's top-level races. (One might argue that I am insulting the intellect of these great equine champs by comparing them to swimmers, in light of the fact that Secretariat, et al. were able to engage widespread promiscuity without negative societal repercussions--something that cannot be said of most top swimmers, or even Tiger Woods, for that matter.)

Posted by Jay 07/21/2010 at 10:45 AM


When it comes down to it, I wonder if one of the beautiful things about sports, and the downside of sports commentary is that we can project our own dreams/fantasies/biases, etc. onto the players and teams that we watch. Perhaps, the reason that we are drawn to some and put off by others says more about ourselves than it does about the players.

I know that my favorite tennis players tend to compete, play, look, act and even speak the way that I would want to, if I was in their position. Somehow, even in team sports, I (perhaps "we") try to assign some general personality for the whole team that I can either love or despise (think, "Yankees", "Cowboys", etc.).

Interestingly, the players themselves seem to get along much better than their fans, despite the stare-downs and gamesmanship that occurs during matches.

As a fan long-time fan of tennis, I know that eventually all of my favorites will eventually move on. So, while preferring some, I always keep my eyes open to see who else is coming into their own, and who may become someone that I'll appreciate and follow in the coming years.

I don't much agree with Wertheim, but I give him credit for piquing my interest, about 7 or 8 years ago, in a teenaged, not fully on tour, Rafael Nadal. Wertheim said something like "keep an eye out for this kid", after seeing him compete in a smaller clay court event. Similar comments were made about Federer in his youth, especially after beating Sampras at Wimbledon. If you really love the sport, you have to admire its greatest exponents, even if they are not your favorites, for whatever reason.

Davis Cup, the Olympics and to some degree WTT ask us to think of an individual sport as a team sport. I've been turned off at some Davis Cup matches, because the jingoism often trumps the tennis. Don't get me wrong...I'm a patriot, but if Federal, Nadal or any other foreign player does something extraordinary on the court, despite playing against my team, I want to clap. Thats the way that it used to be, but as the sport's fan base spreads globally--due the the excellence of players from smaller countries, fans seem to be becoming more devoted to individual players than to the sport itself.

Posted by JB (FOOPs unite!) 07/21/2010 at 11:19 AM

@work. @ 9:53

its still the same principle. you can insult someone, or say you don't like them, list the reasons in terms that someone who doesn't agree with you finds objection to, and it still makes NO difference to your ability to respect someone's work.

whether that work be artistic output, running a business or being a champion on the tennis court. there are plenty of incredibly talented, [self-edited] outthere.

my point is the 2 are simply not dependent upon each other. though some people do NOT like a player and do NOT respect a player, the two are not always linked.

Posted by JB (FOOPs unite!) 07/21/2010 at 11:24 AM

Hoi ha - good point about laver being 5'7" that would / could be a problem for him.

Though thinking of david ferrer - @ 5' 9" he's managed to carve quite a good niche for himself, so Laver could still be a force.

That is definately part of the drawback of generational comparison, the fact that people just seem to be getting bigger!

i die every time i see clothes worn even a hundred years ago in an exhibit - they look like they're made for children!

Posted by lilscot 07/21/2010 at 11:25 AM

JB: 9:15 a.m.

The expression "you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig" was in reference to dressing up an insult with praise, but it's still an insult. There's a difference between "not liking" certain things about someone but still respecting them, and "despising" things about someone but still saying you respect them. It's just my own personal opinion, but I find it very disingenuous to say you respect someone as a great champion and in the same breath go on about how everything else about them basically makes you sick to your stomach.

Again, that's just my own opinion.

Posted by lilscot 07/21/2010 at 11:27 AM

@work: 9:45 a.m.

Thank you. That's exactly what I was trying to say. :)

Posted by lilscot 07/21/2010 at 11:28 AM

@work: 9:45 a.m.

Thank you. That's exactly what I was trying to say. :)

Posted by JB (FOOPs unite!) 07/21/2010 at 11:36 AM

manualsantanfan - i think you missed the point. hoi ha wasn't making a comparison of swimming and tennis as sports per se. (But lovely slap down of swimming as a mindless sport there - i take it you're not a fan.)

the comparison was made in the context of previous generation / new generation being competive, given new racket technology etc. Not any sort of direct comparison of swimming and tennis per se.

Hai Ho's point was its NOT just the tennis racket that has changed, that training and technology are also a factor. Swimming was a example of something they had first hand knowledge of that illustrated that nicely, at least imo.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/21/2010 at 11:42 AM

Hoi Ha speaks of Laver being "vertically challenged in today's game."

And "horizontally"?

Many have made the argument that modern racket/string technology benefits today's larger players more than said technology would have benefitted smaller players like Laver and Rosewall, and that said discrepancy would not translate to the wooden rackets of the 1950s thru late 1970s.

There might be some validity to said argument. And Laver, himself, might buy into it when he said (as noted earlier) that he liked his chances against anybody using wood racket technology (but not mentioning current technology).

Some of my earlier comments about swimmers were somewhat tongue in cheek. I roomed next to some collegiate swimmers one year and would occasionally run into them subsequently. From what I could tell, most of these guys were doing well academically and went off to decent grad/professional schools.

Posted by TheMightyFunk 07/21/2010 at 11:43 AM

"I'll see you Wednesday with a preview of the hard court season" - Is it just me or is anyone else starting to frazzle about starting with the frazzle in a couple of weeks? I hate frazzling. HATE it I tell you! Yet I cannot avoid it. That sick feeling in the stomach when you can only SB watch and it's 30-40 on Fed's serve at 4-5, first set. Time seems to slow down and that SB never changes in spite of innumerable cliks on the refresh button as you ponder, helpless, if the point in time you are dreading has already transpired or is still being played out far from your desparate eyes. You want to step away, yet your eyes are rooted to the monitor. was so "colm" the last few weeks...

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 07/21/2010 at 12:16 PM

"I hate frazzling. HATE it I tell you! Yet I cannot avoid it."

I sympathise with this. :) And no matter what you tell yourself or how irrational you're being, you just can't help it.

Posted by Tuulia 07/21/2010 at 01:13 PM

lilscot: I'm afraid I've never watched Seinfeld, so I'm not sure what exactly you meant there, but I hope we've otherwise understood each other. Eeh, serenity is good, I believe, so... :)
btw, your comment on pigs and lipstick was nicely put.

Posted by Tuulia 07/21/2010 at 01:32 PM

Insulting and respecting pretty much cancel each other out. If you respect a person you don't go around insulting them. Obviously it's not necessary to *like* to respect, but to respect is surely *not to insult*. Or is there a new definition for word "respect" that I've missed and is the old meaning obsolete?

Posted by Tuulia 07/21/2010 at 01:38 PM

TheMightyFunk - nope, note yet. The summer's great, and it's still holiday time! (...holidays from frazzling, that is, not work...)

Posted by Tuulia 07/21/2010 at 01:40 PM

NOT yet

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 07/21/2010 at 02:04 PM

I am not sure "insult" is really fair if people are talking about thooz's post, quoted by Tim above. It was just a personal opinion of Rafa's style and it's one I've heard before; didn't seem all that outlandish to me. I don't see why not liking Rafa's on-court persona means you automatically aren't respecting his game, skills, talent or greatness.

Posted by @work 07/21/2010 at 02:05 PM

"its still the same principle. you can insult someone, or say you don't like them, list the reasons in terms that someone who doesn't agree with you finds objection to, and it still makes NO difference to your ability to respect someone's work"

We're just going to have to disagree on this one. I guess it's probably due to different definitions of 'respect' but no big deal.

Posted by @work 07/21/2010 at 02:09 PM

I'm not sure who you are speaking of but in case it's me since I used the word 'insult' a couple of times, I was specifically referring to Tim who constantly insults Nadal and fans and in my personal opinion there is nothing 'respectful' about that.

Posted by Sherlock 07/21/2010 at 02:17 PM

I think it's fine that someone doesn't like a player yet respects the game. Happens quite a bit, doesn't it? I imagine Connors and Mac caused a few folks to hold those opinions. :)

Did Tim actually say he respects Rafa's game? I missed the post. I guess I would question Tim saying he respects Rafa's game though, considering the years of posts I've read. From backboard to moonball to winning only by opponents' errors, I've never sensed much respect for the game. Maybe he just meant he respects Rafa's results and his champion's mentality? That would make more sense.

Anyway, I'm not losing much sleep over it, as that would give Tim too much satisfaction. Hi, Tim! :)

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 07/21/2010 at 02:41 PM

@work - well, my guess is Tim was in a bit of a hurry and only meant to agree with the first bit, about Nadal's style turning him off. :) He is usually quite upfront about his opinions on Rafa's game, no?

People seemed to be referring to the content of thooz's post, which Tim quoted, as insulting. I really don't think it was.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 07/21/2010 at 02:44 PM

And if Tim did mean to agree with the whole thing, well, hey, I'll take it as a compliment to Rafa and treasure it as a rare thing. ;-)

Posted by JB (FOOPs unite!) 07/21/2010 at 05:13 PM

lol - i think he was respecting him as a champion and what he accomplishes with his game. results are undeniable - though he may hate to watch him.

Keep in mind Tim was greeing with another poster who came out with the original position of not liking rafa's game, demeanor etc but respecting him as a champion.

that was poo - poo'd - that you could dislike someone and still respect them. which i still think is entirely possible, as i just don't see them as being mutually exclusive, while others think they are.

*shrugs* like everything, just a different POV. which melds nicely with a discussion of favourites and how that colours one's perception. at least, imo its interesting. :)

Posted by Tuulia 07/21/2010 at 06:24 PM

"that you could dislike someone and still respect them. which i still think is entirely possible, as i just don't see them as being mutually exclusive, while others think they are"

Did someone say so? Maybe I missed it. Some people (incl. me) felt insults and respect are mutually exclusive. That's not the same thing at all.

Posted by Sherlock 07/21/2010 at 07:46 PM

He he, jb. As usual, you're right on. :)

Posted by jb (chocolate FTW) 07/21/2010 at 08:46 PM

tuulia - respect them as a champion, or respect them as good at their job. sorry - forgot a few words there, as i was continueing a previous thought.

insults are subjective; i can 'insult' a person by saying what i think about the things i dislike about them that may offend other people, but that in of itself has no bearing on how effective they can be at their job, nor does it impede my ability to recognize that effectiveness, nor my abilty to give them credit or respect for that job well done.

i'm surprised it seems such a foriegn concept, that personal dislike and respect for work done can co-exist. There are people i genuinely like, but am appalled at their work ethic. The converse is also true for me.

*yawn* i fear this is bordering on a comtose pony though - so think i'll go focus on muller's attempt to take down isner in his own backyard.

Posted by Moen Pfister 07/25/2010 at 08:11 AM

Do you often have these periods where you feel the need to explain yourself better?

I like it a lot better when you stick to writing about tennis than when you take us on one of your narcissistic balloon rides.

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