Joella and I wrap up our discussion of Roger Federer today. You can find Part 1 here; Part II here; and Part III here.
By now it's hard for many of us to remember that Federer was once a long-haired enthusiast of heavy metal and pro wrestling, an adolescent who apparently had little patience for schoolwork and drove his sister nuts on a regular basis (he wouldn’t be the first brother to do that, of course). You say that you wish the press kept his early struggles with focus and discipline in mind more, and that would certainly paint a fuller picture of him. But as a member of that press, I can say that I have to stretch to think of Federer as anything other than a well-coiffed winner. He’s enjoyed a decade of minimal catastrophe; no important events missed due to injury, no early-round losses at the majors, a Slam title every year except 2011, 270-some weeks at No. 1, a wife and two daughters, and seemingly no dimunition in his desire to play tennis. That doesn’t lend itself to a narrative of struggle, the way, say Rafa’s on-going war with his knees and periodic lapses in confidence do.
Federer, this year especially, has shown that he can make a stirring comeback, but he’s also come out on the losing end of a few of his high-profile epic battles, including four of the best matches of the last decade (Wimbledon 2008, Rome 2006, and Melbourne 2009 against Nadal; Melbourne semis 2005 against Safin). Narrative-wise, he’s the graceful, effortless winner, not the the warrior or the gritty guy who triumphs over long odds. You’re right that that doesn’t tell his whole story, but narratives are like that; they’re one story. Nadal is known as a ball-bludgeoning warrior, but he doesn’t get enough credit for his tactical intelligence or all-around tennis skill. Maybe Federer has transformed and re-packaged himself a little too well—I hope his ultimate legacy isn’t that RF logo. He might want to consider taking up grunting in his remaining years on tour. Nothing says “warrior” like a good battle yawp.
For me, I look forward to enjoying Federer’s play for many years after he retires. I haven’t been his biggest fan, but I wasn’t Pete Sampras’s either, and now I love to watch Pistol Pete in old clips. I can appreciate how he moved and hit the ball more now that he isn’t dominating the sport, I guess. Federer and his game will never go out of style; it will be a long time before anyone supersedes him as the sport's gold standard.
If we want to think of Federer as an example of something more generally, I'd say he shows what pure enjoyment of something—in this case, his sport, his work, his own game—can bring. Unlike many other past champs, Federer never seems to see tennis as a chore or the tour as a grind, and while he has trouble accepting defeat, I've never seen him become impatient with the obligations that come with his position. I remember, soon after he won his first Wimbledon, hearing him discuss all of the attention that was suddenly focused on him. Many young athletes are freaked out by this. Federer, though, talked about how much satisfaction he got from signing autographs for people. That's pride—the good kind of pride.
Well, it's time to wind down our talk, and I'd like to end with what it can mean to be a Federer fan, at least for me. You ask how I feel about my fellow fans. They run the gamut, of course, like fans of any player, and can be aggressive in support of their man. There is certainly truth to the suggestion that the level of Federer's success had added to the intensity of the emotion. I still remember after the loss to Safin at the 2005 Australian Open, Serena Williams saying she turned off her TV when Fed got down a break in the final set as it was just too painful to watch him lose. It did almost feel like Federer losing a big match at that time was some sort of tragic catastrophe; of course by now, we're all much more used to it and consequently somewhat mellower—I think! There's also Fed's old-school style, so that some do feel he's a bulwark of sorts against a future not to their taste.
I see from the comments that at least one poster is disappointed in a perceived lack of passion in my writing, given that I'm supposedly not a journalist but a devoted fan myself. I think part of it is the dialogue format which doesn't really lend itself to purple prose. But having given my pop-psychology diagnosis of Fed, and discussed some of his failings, I don't want to finish without a bit more of what I like so much about him—things that I haven't mentioned yet.
Beyond Fed's catlike physical grace, I've always been taken with his dramatic and expressive face. It's a pity he thinks he's a bad actor, because with some training he could be a natural for the screen—few professional actors have such a varied range of expression as he does, from cold and glowering to sunny and childlike. Of course there's also "dorky Fed," the off-camera childish goofball most of his fans are quite familiar with and charmed by as am I. And there's his warmth and devotion to his family.
But above all, as a lifetime devotee of this crazy game, probably my favorite thing about Fed is the way he's always spoken of tennis with romantic love. He's called it "the love of my life" (next to family of course) and stated an unexpected early retirement would "break my heart." He's even used sexual terms, as when he recently refered to Wimbledon as a "fetish tournament" for him. The story of how a young boy from Basel running around his parents' tennis club begging everyone and anyone to play with him went on to become one of the eternal icons of the sport, is above all a love story.
Pure love of anything, even a commercial sport, is one of the beautiful things in this world, and there's a desire among those who see it to support it. This encompasses both Roger's known support team and entourage, and his unofficial support team of fans. The relationship between Federer and his fans has always been a two-way street. He knows we're out there, both on the courts and on the Internet, and has spoken of browsing his fan-site after victories. It's a well-organized bunch with long-time traditions like the "Red Envelope" which is filled with well-wishes and presented to Roger at almost every tournament by some designated happy soul. Federer has stated multiple times, and just recently after Wimbledon, that he considers his fans as part of his "team" and is buoyed by their encouragement and support. He has explained that especially in more low-key matches, or less-prestigious events, just knowing we're out there "frazzling" over every shot can give him the drive not to let us down.
I'd like to thank you, Steve, from the bottom of my heart for giving me this opportunity. As Fed would say, those who know me "know how much this means to me." I've never written a Red Envelope message or purchased an RF hat, but this has given me an outlet in my own way, to lend my support to the "team."
Onwards to London!
Are the days of “wide open” women’s draws over for the time being? After this season’s first three majors, won by Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams, easily the three best players in the world in 2012, the answer would appear to be yes. But the Olympics gave us something of a surprise women’s winner the last time around, in the form of perennial Grand Slam bridesmaid Elena Dementieva. In fact, the Games-loving Russians swept the singles medals in Beijing, with Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva picking up the silver and bronze, respectively. Two of those three women aren’t in London, and the one who is, Zvonareva, is a shadow of her former self.
Who’s ready to take their places, and could another country bring home more than one medal? It’s breakdown time for the ladies (see the draw here). Two players, Serena and Sharapova, will be looking to make their career Grand Slams turn golden. This could be their last good chance.
After the French Open and Wimbledon, it’s a little strange to see Azarenka’s name at the top of this draw. Her No. 1 position is a precarious one, though she did rescue her personal sinking ship with a strong performance at Wimbledon. Which, in the end, only served to undermine her ranking again, because even playing well she still couldn’t take a set from Serena.
Vika’s draw won’t hurt her confidence. Begu, Martinez Sanchez, Hercog, Tatishvili, Vogt, Zheng, and Petrova are her potential opponents in the first three rounds—not a bad road to the quarters. If she does make it there, the players most likely to meet her are Wimbledon semifinalist Angelique Kerber or, depending on her energy level from day to day, Venus Williams. I’m thinking Angie-Vika could be a good one. It would be a surprise if it didn’t happen.
First-round matches to watch: Kerber vs. Petra Cetkovska; V. Williams vs. Sara Errani
The best by-product of Serena Williams’ Wimbledon title is that her ranking is finally high enough to keep her from floating—careening—through the draw and setting up bizarre early-round clashes. Serena is up to No. 4 now, which means she gets a quarter of her own. But that hasn’t kept her from a semi-bizarre first-round match, with Jelena Jankovic. The two played a U.S. Open final once upon a time, but it’s Jankovic’s ranking which has slid recently. JJ is down to No. 20, but she still has a 4-4 career record against Serena. And if Williams has been vulnerable at any time over the last few months, it’s been in the first round.
Still, it's gold or nothing for Serena. When she was asked last month if she would be happy with a bronze, she had a one-word response: "Please." (That didn't mean yes.)
Also here: Wozniacki, Li Na, Paszek, Schiavone, Barthel, Wickmayer, Zackopalova
First-round matches to watch: S. Williams vs. Jankovic; Li Na vs. Daniela Hantuchova; Barthel vs. U. Radwanska
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Which Maria Sharapova will we see, the one who rolled through the clay season, or the tentative and inconsistent and seemingly unprepared one who showed up at Wimbledon? You have to think she’s going to be closer to the former. In years past, she’s thrived on Wimbledon grass. But there are obstacles: Sharapova’s second-round opponent might be Lucie Safarova, who beat her in Madrid in 2010. After that, she could get the winner of Lisicki, who beat her at Wimbledon, and Shvedova, who is as dangerous as any non-seed in the draw.
Also here: Sam Stosur—maybe she’ll have more luck on grass when it’s not Wimbledon. Kim Clijsters—just show us more life, even in defeat, than you did against Kerber at Wimbledon, that’s all I ask.
First-round match to watch: Ana Ivanovic vs. Christina McHale. They’ve never played before.
As it is with Azarenka at the top of the draw, it’s also a bit of a surprise to see Agniezska Radwanska camped out at the bottom. But she’s the Wimbledon runner-up and was one set from becoming No. 1 in the world in that final. Still, it hasn’t kept her from receiving a tough first-round draw, against Julia Goerges.
Even tougher, she’s been slotted to face Petra Kvitova, 2011 Wimbledon champ, in the quarters. We know about Kvitova’s mind-warping inconsistency, but she has actually had it under control in the last two majors—she made the semis in Paris and the quarters at Wimbledon, losing to the eventual champion both times. And Kvitova's draw looks, for lack of a better word, doable—Bondarenko, Peng, Hsieh, Cirstea, Pennetta, Pironkova, and Cibulkova are the women who are in her path to the quarters. If she gets there, Kvitova is 3-0 against Radwanska.
First-round matches to watch: Radwanska vs. Goerges; Pironkova vs. Cibulkova
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Azarenka; Kvitova d. Sharapova
Bronze-medal match: Azarenka d. Sharapova
Gold-medal match: S. Williams d. Kvitova
One thing you can say for the men’s draw at the Olympics: It’s different. Refreshingly different. Where the Grand Slams sprawl beyond memory's reach, and the Masters’ draws get flat-out repetitive, the lineup for the Games is simpler and more surprising. There are 64 players rather than 128. There are no byes. But because the players are chosen by country as well as ranking, there are faces you don’t always see floating in between the usual big-name suspects. Until the final, the matches are also two out of three, instead of Wimbledon’s three out of five. That could potentially make things less predictable, though it should be pointed out that playing two of three sets, even on grass, is hardly a new or strange phenomenon for these guys.
Unfortunately, there’s one other difference, and there’s no getting around its negative effect: There’s no Rafael Nadal at the top or bottom or anywhere else. The Top 4, or at least the Top 3, are such a phenomenon at this point that when one is missing, a big event feels unbalanced, like a chair with a leg that's too short.
Here’s a look at how the players who have made it to London may fare when they go for gold. There’s a lot to play for, and a lot of pressure on every game and set. An Olympic medal is something special for any athlete, something revered, something that everyone recognizes as a rare achievement. And, as Rafa said in Beijing, “It’s once every four years, no?”
Roger Federer is the immediate beneficiary of his rival Rafa’s absence. With Nadal out, David Ferrer is bumped up to the fourth seed and scheduled to play Federer in the semifinals. (I guess he’s the short leg in my chair analogy; no offense, Daveed.) Instead of potentially facing Nadal or Murray, who have a collective 26 wins over him, Fed gets Ferru, who has a collective zero.
To start, though, Federer has what you might call an ironic opening to his draw. He begins with Alejandro Falla, who was up two sets to none on him at Wimbledon in 2010; and in his second round, he could play Julien Benneteau, who was in the same position at Wimbledon this year. Of course, Federer is more likely to play Benneteau’s opponent, Mikhail Youzhny, a player he just drubbed for the 15th consecutive time earlier this month.
Also here: Tipsarevic, Isner, Muller, Verdasco, Karlovic
First-round match to watch: Tipsarevic-Nalbandian
The long and the short of it: Isner vs. Olivier Rochus
Sleeper: Gilles Muller
This Olympics is all about David Ferrer so far. Not only does he get promoted to No. 4, he also has a distinctly manageable draw, at least on paper. Pospisil, Kohlschreiber, Stepanek, Davydenko, Tomic, Nishikori, Simon, Kukushkin, Kubot, Dimitrov, Young and Seppi are the names near him. None is a pushover, especially for Ferrer on grass, but none could be described as a draw killer, either.
There is one looming figure in this section, however; that of Juan Martin del Potro. But Ferrer can’t even be unhappy about seeing the Argentine in his neighborhood. He's straight-setted del Potro the last two times they’ve played, including a routine 3, 2, and 3 fourth-rounder at Wimbledon.
First-round match to watch (maybe, hopefully, possibly not): Tomic-Nishikori
Question mark: Kohlschreiber. He could trouble Ferrer in the second round
Sleeper: Dimitrov. I think I gave him the same status at Wimbledon and he ended up retiring. So how about “Sleeper, as long as finishes his matches.”
Donald Young losing streak watch: He’s up to 14, seven short of the ATP record. He’ll try to snap it against Andreas Seppi.
Semifinalist: Del Potro
Andy Murray returns to face the British music again. If he can’t win a major, can he win an Olympic gold? Historically he has had trouble recovering from losses in Grand Slam finals, but at the same time he has shown that, for the most part, he holds up well under the home-court pressure. Murray will have to hold up early; he starts with Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss flag-bearer has four wins over Muzz, and he took him to five sets at Wimbledon in 2009.
Also here is Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist, who has a 4-2 career record against Murray. He’s coming off a shocker of a first-round loss, to Ernests Gulbis, at Wimbledon, but his draw looks good—the highest-ranked player near him is Nicolas Almagro.
Possible third-round match to watch: Murray vs. Richard Gasquet
At the bottom we have Novak Djokovic, bronze medalist in Beijing. Let’s hope he has some new shoes ready for Wimbledon this time—he never seemed to get his feet under him on his way out of Wimbledon a few weeks ago. Looking at his draw, he’ll need to be steadier from the start. Djokovic will likely play Andy Roddick in the second round; Hewitt or Cilic might await in the third; and Tsonga or Raonic are possible quarterfinal match-ups. Tsonga, a semifinalist at Wimbledon who has a 6-6 career record against Djokovic, is someone to watch out for in particular. He likes grass, and the quicker matches at the Olympics could suit his in-and-out attention span better than three of five. But Jo has a tricky start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who is coming off a tournament win in Gstaad, and who gave Nadal trouble at Wimbledon.
Question Mark (demoted from his traditional “dangerous floater” status after his lackluster Wimbledon showing): Milos Raonic
First-round matches to watch: Tsonga vs. Bellucci; David Goffin vs. Juan Monaco
Semifinals: Federer d. del Potro; Djokovic d. Berdych
Bronze-medal match: Berdych d. del Potro
Gold-medal match: Federer d. Djokovic
Here's the third part of my Roger Federer discussion with Joella, a fan from the States. See Part 1 here and Part II here. Or, alternatively, commence scrolling.
At the end of your first post, you wondered how a guy who was heading rapidly down an underachiever's track ended up going in a very different, and better, direction. This, to me, rather than any elegance in his game, is what makes Federer special and raises him above all other players—his ability to make beautiful technique serve a purpose, to realize all of his potential. It seems that once he won his first Wimbledon, any lingering self-doubt about his ability was banished. He always knew he was good, and now he had the proof. Also, there is the constant presence of Mirka, his wife and one-woman support group. Her influence is probably underrated, because she stays out of the media for the most part, and because most sportswriters don't gravitate toward an athlete's family life. But the fact that he had his personal life sorted out very early has helped him stay focused on his tennis. Mirka, no pushover, also helps take care of a lot of Federer's business and allows him to keep his eye on the ball, so to speak.
As a fan who follows Federer closely, more closely than most journalists, I'm sure you feel like he is misrepresented in some ways—I'd be interested in what you thought they were. What bothers me at times is the idea, often voiced by ex-players serving as commentators, that if Federer just played the way he should play, if he was just more aggressive or came to the net more, he would wipe the floor with everyone, as if his opponents have no say in the matter. The intentions are good—I think many ex-pros regard Federer as a sort of Platonic ideal, the player they wished they could be—but the expectations are unrealistic. He's the best, yes, but he's not going to be the best every day, and his opponent may occasionally actually be better. On the other hand, I think the common Federer fan complaint that the press "wrote him off" over the last two years is overrated. I'm sure there were loudmouths or tennis non-experts among us who said he was "done," but anyone with any sense knew that he even before this Wimbledon, Federer's decline had hardly been precipitous.
Speaking of your fellow Federer fans, Joella, do you find them to be, shall we say, rather invested in the man? Fans of all the top players will defend their favorite to the death, and Federer's certainly do that. I think the level of his success, which is unprecedented, has inspired a fandom that is more tenacious than any other player's. He's not just a personal favorite, the way, say, Richard Gasquet or Agnieszka Radwanska or Andy Roddick may be. For many, Federer represents the game itself, and everything that's right and good and true about it. At various times I've praised another player's backhand or serve or smooth strokes, only to have someone retort, "Well, they're not as smooth as Federer's," when I haven't even mentioned Federer in the first place. And the time I dared to compare some aspect of Maria Sharapova's game to Federer's...wow, look out, big mistake.
I confess that I find the "peRFect Roger" and "Shhh Genius at Work" signs to be grating, but mostly I can understand and live with the devotion, because Federer has brought so many people around the world to tennis. I'd say he's the most popular and important player since Bjorn Borg. It will only be when he retires that we realize how important he was. Federer's absence will leave a huge hole in the sport—he's a phenomenon as much as a player at this point. For now, though, his fans don't have to worry; he's not going anywhere soon.
Here's my favorite recent Fed fan story. The teaching pro at my club is a big one. The last time he saw me, he had just read my Wimbledon grades, in which I had given Federer the champion's customary A+.
He came over and asked, "Do you ever give A double pluses? Because that's what Fed should have gotten."
Somehow I knew he was going to say that.
Wow, so much to talk about; where do I start? I’ll begin with your question about the media. No, I’ve never bristled at critiques of Federer’s on-court performance and decision-making and plenty of times I’ve shared them. Fans have high standards and can often be very opinionated about what their favorite should do—for years there were a couple of very passionate fans on Federer’s website who asserted that his game was stagnating and he needed a new coach; preferably Paul Annacone. I think the date of that hire was one of the happiest in those posters’ lives. And as for dire predictions after disappointing performances—that’s par for the course in sports.
On where the media fall short in their Fed coverage, I’m going to agree with “Corrie”, who left the following comment below Part 1 of our series: “In Fed's case I also admire him for his great efforts in curbing a very unruly temperament. This part of his history isn't appreciated enough, I don't think. It was a major transformation from what could have been a terminally volatile character into a very controlled winner.” I think there’s a sense in the writing about Fed, that because of his great talent, everything was easy for him. Other players are often written up with narratives about “overcoming” and “struggle” but rarely Fed. I also hate the phony-philosophy Apollonian v. Dionysian hokum to discuss the rivalry with Nadal. So I’d say that Fed’s passion and also his difficulties are things his fans seem to recognize more than the press.
Speaking of Federer’s difficulties, as I’ve pointed out before many childhood teachers and observers marked him out as a probable underachiever. His first tennis teacher, who immediately recognized his talent, still didn’t expect much as the kid didn’t like to practice and hated working out in the gym. His problems were not just of self-belief, but of discipline, effort and concentration. I know I’m going to get flak for this, but a few years ago I read a book about adults with what’s now called ADHD, and so much of what I was reading reminded me strongly of everything I knew about Federer, more details than I have room to point out in this piece. I’m not trying to diagnose the guy from afar with some sort of “disorder”, but as we all know there’s a long continuum from what we call personality type to what’s now considered pathology. So I just mean that Fed’s personality-type and temperament seems to be the kind associated with this group of people.
Federer’s parents have spoken of his early difficulties with concentration, a point echoed by former coaches. One early coach explained that while there are some kids who you can place at the baseline and ask to hit 100 backhands, this was impossible with Roger who would become frustrated and upset. To coach him effectively constant variation was a necessity for his practice, which I suspect, ironically served him well in the end.
Regarding Mirka’s role, I’ll defer to the opinion of Federer’s mother Lynette, who was recently asked her evaluation of the importance of his wife in her son’s career. Lynette responded that Mirka was not only “very important” in her estimation, but “essential” and that Roger’s success was really the success of Roger and Mirka together, though she was not sure if Mirka quite realized this. A mother generally knows her kid.
Numbers don’t lie, and while Federer’s coaches have come and gone, it’s Mirka who’s been with him through all 17 Slam victories. Moreover, it was only a few months after she came to live with Federer that he had his Wimbledon breakthrough. Regarding what her role has been, besides handling and organizing logistics, Federer has often spoken of her as “pushing” him, to work hard and do his best. I remember Fed once explaining that “she’s not the type of girlfriend who says ‘so how long are you practicing? How long will you be at the gym?’ She says, ‘Roger, you have to go to the gym!’” How many male athletes are flush with enthusiasm to explain they’ve managed to find a woman who will nag them to go to the gym? But that’s obviously something that Fed felt he needed.
Of course credit goes to many people, including obviously Federer himself, for being able to make the most out of what he was given. I can sit here and study the turning wheels, but in the end it was probably Fed’s passionate love of the sport and determined intention to make his dreams a reality that were the biggest keys to his success.
I think it is the transparency of this love that inspires such intense devotion among his fans. I haven’t yet answered your question about the Federer fan-world itself, so maybe we can leave that for our final go-around.
Here's the second part of my chat with Joella, about you-know-who. See Part I here. A third installment is on the way.
Compartmentalizing: That's a definite asset for a tennis player. Federer does seem to pull it off. Maybe that's an upside to having kids for an athlete; there's always something to distract you or make you laugh. Though he also admitted that by the end of last year he needed to take some time away and figure out why he was losing close matches—it got to him.
Thank you for the personal story of your identification with Federer. I know other fans who like tennis players in part because they're much like themselves, though I'm not consistent in that regard. I saw more of myself in Borg than McEnroe, and I was a Borg fan; but I also saw more of myself in Sampras than Agassi, and I was an Agassi fan.
I remember that 2004 Aussie Open as well, because it marked an early aesthetic peak for Federer. He had just passed Roddick for No. 1, and he essentially left everyone behind in that tournament—I got the feeling he was toying with people. That's when we realized he was going to be something special. That was also when some friends and colleagues of mine became truly enamored of Federer and his game. It's strange, as much as I love stylish tennis, and as much as I've liked him when I've met him, I've felt some distance from the Maestro as a fan. I'm just as amazed as anyone else when he does something characteristically brilliant—when he hit that falling backward forehand drop volley to reach set point in the second set of this year's Wimbledon final, I stared straight ahead and said something like, "Oh. My. God." But I never became a devotee of his.
That could be because, by the time he came along, I was already writing about tennis, and couldn't see him purely as a fan anymore. There's been a lot of talk about how objectivity is impossible in journalism in recent years, and it's true, even the most even-handed reporter comes at things from his or her own viewpoint. But any decent sportswriter also tries to see beyond that personal viewpoint, tries to see the good and bad in every player, and tries to express what the player represents to other people. That makes it tougher to become a true fan of any one player, but it makes it easier to stay interested in every player.
Aside from his game and success, the thing that sticks out about Federer, and what I think bothers non-fans, is what you termed his "innocent narcissism." It sometimes seems that, in the world of tennis, the most crucial and debated question of all is: "Is Roger Federer arrogant?" I like what you said about how his pleasure in his own game brings him closer to other spectators—hey, this guy's just like us, he loves Roger Federer! But you're right, he feels pride, justifiably so, in his work.
Let me add a few thoughts along the "innocent narcissism" line:
—Federer's words, perhaps more than any other player I've seen, sound different coming out of his mouth than they do on the page. I've sat in many of his press conferences and thought that what he said sounded honest and reasonable, then read the same words over and thought, "Wow, he really does come off as cocky." Seeing his pressers helps; to me, he doesn't exude arrogance.
—I agree with the innocence part. When Federer says that this or that achievement of his is "incredible" or "amazing," you can feel people rolling their eyes all over the world. But I think he's genuinely amazed by those achievements himself.
—That Twitter's Pseudofed, which is funny, is not doing the real Fed any favors. Now I sense people waiting for Federer to say something in his pressers that sounds like Pseudofed.
—I've always felt that Federer, like Sampras and Serena Williams, believes deep down that if he does what he should on court, no one can beat him. To these players, a loss isn't natural, it's not in the correct order of things. Early on, Federer would say that he couldn't believe he could lose to a player whose technique was so much worse—less "beautiful," as he put it—than his. And I think this is why reporters jumped on him for bringing up an injury after his loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010—"Oh, so I guess Federer doesn't believe he can lose to anyone fair and square"—or claiming that Djokovic was "lucky" to beat him at the Open last year. However it may sound, though, believing you're the best is an extremely useful trait, a champion's trait. It's brought Federer, Serena, and Sampras 45 majors between them.
As a fan of his, Joella, is there anything that does bother you about Federer? I guess it's in the nature of a fan to accept flaws, or at least forget them. For example, I like Novak Djokovic (I'm not saying he's my favorite player, etc, etc,. just that I do like him). When he smashed a hole in his courtside bench in the French Open final, did I like that? Did I think that was just Nole being Nole, doing what he had to do? No, not at all; it was a childish move. But by the end of the match, did I like Djokovic any less? No. I think we instinctively like or dislike a player, and then we try to explain it rationally afterward, but there's really not much that's rational about it.
I agree, it’s not rational, and there is probably little Fed could do to change “like” to “unlike” at this point. Is there anything that bothers me? Hmmm . . . that god-awful Sgt. Pepper outfit?? Sure there are things, but it would be absurd, and well, arrogant of me to sit here in public judgment of all the traits and decisions of a person who owes me nothing. Roger Federer is a professional entertainer, and I clap for him rather than worship him or make demands from him.
As far as how he’s handled his public persona as a role model of sorts for young sports fans, there is little to criticize overall, but I’ll not deny that he can put his foot in his mouth at times in ways I wish he wouldn’t. And certainly he is petulant on occasion after a tough loss—those who bristled at the “lucky shot” remark would probably enjoy the YouTube interview of former coach Peter Lundgren who characterized young Fed’s typical post-loss reaction as, “the opponent was lucky, I wasn’t lucky, blah, blah, blah . . ..” Not to mention Fed’s dad who once literally shoved his face into a snow-bank as a message to “cool it” during a post-match tantrum.
I guess if I were to choose one point, it would be that I sometimes wish he would publically apologize on the occasions where he’s let his temper get the best of him, as after he was fined for some salty language used during his dispute with the umpire at the 2009 U.S. Open. Then again, there are other players who are great at the “sorry folks," but then super-quick to either re-offend or let us know that they’re not that sorry after all. So if Roger prefers to just let his character speak for itself, I can respect that.
As for the age-old “arrogance” question, I’ll answer it with a story. Here is Fed’s account of his first-ever meeting with the great Rockhampton Rocket: “The first thing I said was ‘oh my god, Rod Laver, you’re Rod Laver’, then I felt really stupid because of course he knew who he was.” Do those sound to you like the words of an “arrogant” guy? Federer, to me, has enormous respect for those with significant achievements; he has referred to favorite childhood players like Becker, Edberg, and Sampras as “heroes” to him. When he speaks admiringly of what he’s accomplished, or his understanding that fans may be thrilled to meet him, it’s because he’s in turn been thrilled to meet the others. It’s like a club that he dreamt of being able to join, and wears his membership pin with pride and some disbelief.
As you say yourself, whatever Fed’s self-regard, he is far from supercilious or haughty in person. The Rick Reilly line that he treats the woman who cleans the hotel the same as the man who owns it is a sentiment that’s been echoed by many observers. I think the Pseudo-Fed caricature, while clever, is not particularly perceptive and misses these subtleties.
I also agree with you that Fed is amazed himself at how far he’s come I had the opportunity today to listen to a post-Wimbledon press conference where he was asked what he’s most proud of in his career. His response was his overall level and consistency; that he had made his former weaknesses, the “mental and physical” into “almost strengths.” This echoes his famous line that “I always knew I had it in the hand, the question was did I have it in the mind and in the legs.” His success was far from a foregone conclusion and is probably a product of many factors, including the support system around him, and most especially his wife.
In the latest edition of the Fan Club, I talk with Joella, an attorney from New Jersey, about the appeal of the all-time Grand Slam champ and new world No. 1, Roger Federer. This is Part I of our discussion, which will continue today and tomorrow.
When we met at the U.S. Open a couple of years ago, I knew you were a true Federer fan because I caught you worrying your way through—“frazzling” in the local vernacular—a match between your man and Jürgen Melzer. I remember thinking, “What does she think could happen? That Federer might lose?” But that’s the way it is with fans. We’re always worried, always fearing the worst, always warning, no matter who the opponent is, “I don't know, this guy could be dangerous.” That’s how our favorite player has to think before each match, of course, and occasionally, the opponent really is dangerous. And it's true, Melzer did take one set to a tiebreaker. That qualifies as dangerous in these days of top-player dominance.
This seems like an appropriate time to talk with a Federer fan—I hope, before you start frazzling over the Olympics, that you’ve taken some time to savor this particular moment in his career. He’s No. 1 again, he's the Wimbledon champ again, and he's avenged a couple of recent Slam losses to Novak Djokovic. Plus, he's the favorite for the event that might mean the most to him. Since making a surprise run to the semis and meeting his future wife at the Sydney Games in 2000, Federer has made no secret of his love for the Olympics, and his desire for a singles gold. He was even inspired enough to come through in doubles in Beijing. I’m sure he’ll be extremely motivated not to finish his career without any singles medals—that would be strange, wouldn’t it?
Of course you know all that, and lot more about the life and career of Roger Federer. I'll start by asking if you remember when you first saw him play, or if there was a moment when you knew you were a fan, and what it was about him that appealed to you.
I met Federer before I ever saw him play, in Key Biscayne in 1999, when he was 18. I was there to do an interview with him for Tennis Magazine for our "On the Rise" section, about up-and-coming hot shots. These were Fed's teenage yellow hair days, and he was relaxed and obliging when we asked him to stand between two palm trees on the beach for a photo. He seemed like a friendly, straightforward guy.
The next time I interviewed him was also at Key Biscayne, in 2006, for an article about his budding rivalry with Nadal. This was Federer at his peak, and he was, not surprisingly, more outgoing, more confident, and more willing to wax sarcastic when his buddies were around. Federer is not without an edge, but from what I can tell he has matured and mellowed in his married years.
Even in ’06, though, Federer didn't put on a star's attitude. Like all athletes, he can bristle in press conferences, but one thing I've always liked about him is that he'll talk to you naturally, person to person. For example. After his U.S. Open semifinal loss to Djokovic last year, Federer had been emotional—stunned, really—to start his press conference. At the end, when he was done with the questions, he saw a familiar face walk past him. I expected him to stay silent and get out of there ASAP, but instead he cracked a quick smile and said, “Hey, how are you?”
I remember that Melzer match well; a bunch of us Tennisworld t’wibers without evening tickets sat around watching it on the big screen. Pete Bodo was to one side of me, in earnest conversation about the nature of internet journalism. I kept giving these squeaks and yelps of excitement and each time Pete would jump and quickly turn his head towards the screen, worried he’d missed some significant incident. He never had, of course.
When did I first know I was a Federer fan? Probably during the 2004 Australian Open final. It had been a great tournament for me, as I cheered on Federer and Marat Safin to get through their respective halves of the draw and I looked forward to an exciting and tightly contested final, with a sympathetic winner whoever emerged on top. Of course, it didn’t turn to be a great match, as Safin was tired and Federer was supreme. But to my surprise, I found myself not particularly disappointed, nor was I rooting for the underdog Safin to make a comeback once he’d fallen behind—I was just happy to see Federer win and continue his amazing run. True fans usually don’t root for exciting matches; they want their favorite to win as quickly and painlessly as possible. And apparently I now was one.
It happened pretty fast. While I’d first heard Federer’s name when he took out Sampras at Wimbledon, I’d missed the match. Given his subsequent dismal Slam results (I was a Slam-only tennis watcher at the time), it was not until Wimbledon 2003 that I saw him play—first in his classic semifinal against Roddick, and then of course the Wimby final. I loved his grace and brilliant shotmaking, in contrast to the more brutal power of his opponents. I’d always enjoyed stylish players—former favorites included Hana Mandlikova, Edberg, Rafter, and Graf—so no surprise that Federer’s strokes suited my taste. Later that year, at somewhat loose ends in a new apartment in a small town, I made a channel-surfing discovery—it was possible to watch tennis on TV outside of the Slams! So I got to see more of Fed, including matches in Montreal and the Masters Cup, and the more I saw of his shotmaking the more I enjoyed it.
I was intrigued by what I saw of his personality as well. The first time I’d ever heard him speak was during the Sue Barker interview at the Wimby trophy ceremony, which is worth a re-watch:(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2M8kgLSlPg). Beyond the tears and delight, there is the trademark innocent narcissism: “I love my game, watching myself . . .”, and the unquenchable enthusiasm. When asked how he felt experiencing what the great Pete Sampras had so many times, the young Fed replied, “I don’t think he ever got bored.” Years later, many have wondered that Federer is not yet bored, given all his success and mileage. But we could have known he was unlikely to be, if we’d listened carefully from the start.
People sometimes laugh at Fed for being self-enamored, but I very much liked that Fed himself was a Fed fan. His tennis game is his form of self-expression, and what artist with a true love of his craft does not take pleasure in the product? His enthusiasm for the sport and pleasure in his own game to me brings him closer to, not farther from, the spectator.
Still, it was not until the summer of 2004, when I discovered the Federer official website, that I first read about Fed’s family background and childhood, and that's when he became even more special to me. I learned that we had had some surprising things in common: We are both products of marriages between parents from very different countries (Switzerland and South Africa in his case, USA and Israel in mine), and we both grew up in our father’s country, to which our mother had immigrated at around age 21.
Moreover, our mothers had handled the situation similarly, taking us for frequent summer visits to the family and country she’d come from, as well as ensuring that we grew up able to communicate with our maternal relatives: my first words as a baby, like Roger’s, were in my mother’s language rather than my father’s. There were similarities in the parenting styles described as well, which he once summarized as “discipline from my father; looseness from my mother”; an experience which mirrored my own. I learned of his struggles, despite his talent, with focus and discipline. It was all very, very familiar.
I was quite fascinated. I had certainly not expected to “identify” in such ways with a top tennis pro, not to mention the player who was already my favorite.
So I began to follow Federer’s career on a daily basis and became more emotionally invested in his matches and progress. Since I’ve always been interested in what makes people successful, I began to see what I could learn—how was this guy, like me in many ways, able to reach the top of the world? And how would he continue to navigate that rarified air? The anecdote you tell of Fed’s ability, after an unpleasant press conference and devastating loss, to not let his bad mood and bad fortune overwhelm him, is typical of many I’ve heard and points to his ability to compartmentalize. I suspect it’s a great asset, and one of the keys to his resilience and buoyancy over the years.
I think it’s quite a story: How a kid many considered lazy and destined to become an underachiever, became one of the most successful athletes of his generation. So hopefully we can explore that journey a bit more as we continue our chat.
“Tennis doesn’t belong in the Olympics.” This phrase was uttered often enough during the 1980s, when the sport was making its return to the Games after six decades away, that it began to be regarded as a given, even among tennis fans. Yes, Steffi Graf was obviously thrilled to play for her country in 1988, and yes, she reveled in her Golden Slam of that year. But the anti-Games argument seemed valid at the time. Tennis players were pros, rich and famous pros who already had four of their own Olympian two-week gatherings each year. The Games, ideally, were still about unknown, maniacally dedicated amateurs doing it for love of competition and country.
The Olympics went pro in 1992, with the admission of the NBA’s Dream Team. With Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson around, Graf and Boris Becker and their colleagues no longer loomed as large, or loomed at all. By the start of the next decade, a new generation of tennis stars led by Roger Federer and Venus and Serena Williams were fully invested in the Olympic dream. Yet the feeling that tennis didn’t belong persisted right up until the eve of the 2008 Olympics. It likely persists today, but to me Beijing was a watershed. Today's tennis players were still rich and famous and individualistic, but they showed in China that going for gold meant something special to them.
It’s only fitting, because tennis and the Olympics have much in common. The sport was one of the original nine in the 1896 Games in Athens, and over the years the ITF, tennis’s ruling body, and the IOC each waged long-standing and ultimately losing battles to keep professionals out of their competitions. In fact, tennis was dropped from the Games after 1924 because the two bodies couldn’t agree on what it meant to be an amateur.
Tennis and the Olympics were each a product of Victorian values. Tennis obviously began in England, and its competitions were reserved for the upper class—all 22 participants in the the first Wimbledon identified themselves as “gentlemen,” and the winner, Spencer Gore, was an Old Harrovian (i.e., a graduate of the Harrow School, where squash was invented). The modern Olympics were the brainchild of a French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was devoted to the ideals of the most famous Victorian schoolmaster, Thomas Arnold of the Rugby School. De Coubertin admired how English public schools incorporated athletics and sportsmanship into their (boys') education, something that was foreign to French schools at the time. He tried to import those concepts, and ended up reviving the Olympics along the way.
As the 20th century progressed, tennis and the Olympics were among the last bastions of amateurism. Each held out against the professionalization—i.e., Americanization—of sports for longer than seems possible now. I like to think of the All England Club’s 42 acres as the last, tiny fortress of the British Empire, which was finally overrun when the Club admitted professionals—as well as the U.S. talent agency IMG—in 1968. Three months after they walked through the gates, the Olympics weathered its own American revolt when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their famous Black Power salute on the medal stand. While the IOC held off the pros for another quarter century, the heavily sponsored Games are now highly commercialized, and American-centric. Beach volleyball, rather than squash, is an Olympic sport.
(Aside: It’s interesting that “professional” used to be a dirty word in sports circles. Now the term, in all walks of life, is one of the highest compliments you can pay someone. Of course, this doesn’t mean that either pro or amateur sports—i.e., college football—is any less corrupt or dollar-driven than the other.)
Tennis and the Olympics are still not a perfect fit with the pros—imagine LeBron James bunking in a single bed in the Olympic Village and you get the idea. The old-guard, nationalistic ITF and IOC still run the shows, and this year the ITF irritated two of the Olympics’ biggest fans, Federer and Serena Williams, by forcing them to play its team events, Davis Cup and Fed Cup, at least once each year to qualify in 2016. (Federer and Serena are right; the rule should be dropped. No one is served by forcing them to play something they don’t want to play.)
And yet, to my mind, the Olympic tennis event as it's now constituted is as close to an ideal tournament as we’re going to get in the pro age. You have everyone there. You have everyone playing both for themselves and for something greater than themselves. And you have them playing doubles and mixed doubles. In that sense, the Olympics, despite its rampant commercialization, is reminiscent of an amateur era Grand Slam. For once, we get to watch doubles with the same fervor we watch singles. For once, we get to care about the whole of tennis, the team side of tennis, rather than just its individualistic side.
Still, it's the stars that shine. In 2008, we saw Rafa flat out collapse after winning the singles; Federer do his voodoo spell over Stan Wawrinka after their doubles gold; Dementieva shriek with joy; and the Williams sisters smile broadly and proudly on the medal stand as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. We’ll see some version of those special moments (minus, sadly, Rafa's presence) on Centre Court next week. Tennis may or may not be good for the Olympics—the Games, from a U.S. point of view, are still about track, swimming, gymnastics, and basketball. But the Olympics, in the way that it showcases all of the sport, is good for tennis.
Remember the days when we wished there was more tennis on TV? I think, on summer weekends at least, that our wish has officially come true. And then some. Even on vacation, even shuttling between various locations on the East Coast, even when I was expressly trying not to see any little yellow balls flying back and forth, I couldn’t quite wipe the sport out of the corner of my eye.
I caught glimpses of cold fans in Hamburg and wet fans in Gstaad. Bumpy grass in Newport and sizzling hard courts in Atlanta. John Isner winning a tournament and Thomaz Bellucci another. Gilles Muller reaching a final and Grigor Dimitrov a semi. Andy Roddick chucking his racquet halfway across the court, in the direction of a line judge. Rafa looking bummed. Serena beating people. And best of all, in their San Diego final, Dominika Cibulkova and Marion Bartoli offering us every possible variety of shriek and fist-pump known to woman. Love it or hate it, you had to appreciate their creativity in the heat of battle.
As we make our transition to the Olympics, here’s a look back at a few of the other things I learned, about tennis, on my summer vacation.
Rafa’s Listening to His Knee
“I will compete when my knee says I am ready to compete,” Nadal said while announcing his withdrawal from the Olympics. I’ll take a second to note that this conjures a funny image for me: Rafa’s knee as Adrian in Rocky II, finally giving him permission to “Win!” (See the scene in multiple languages here.)
But Nadal’s pullout is a drag for many reasons. The first is that it lets a considerable amount of air out of the Olympic tennis balloon—the Beijing gold medalist, Spain’s original flag-bearer, and one of the biggest stars of the Games in any sport will be missing. The second is that Nadal may finally have to begin looking for ways to cut his schedule significantly. Now that his idea for a two-year ranking system, which would have taken some pressure off of him to defend points, is kaput, there doesn’t seem to be any other option than resting whenever possible.
Nadal's current rest period looks like it will last at least until Cincinnati. He’s never been enthusiastic about the fall season, and he doesn't have a lot of points to defend there. In the long run, if he wants to be healthy for the majors, it could be time to cut it out entirely.
Wimbledon...Can Move Its Dates Back After All
This was impossible, right? Wasn’t the Big W’s schedule set in stone, dictated to the tournament for decades by its overlords at the BBC? Apparently not. Wimbledon will start one week later in 2015, giving everyone a precious and hopefully useful extra seven days of practice on grass. I know the Newport tournament director, whose event currently comes immediately after Wimbledon, has been dreading this possibility. But I wonder if that tournament could be moved ahead of Wimbledon, into the extra week. There are always plenty of American players looking to get on the grass as soon as possible after Roland Garros.
John Isner May Be Even Harder to Predict Than Petra Kvitova
My line with Kvitova is that whatever you think she’s about to do—from shot to shot, point to point, match to match—she’s probably about to do the opposite. The same, it seems, can be said for Isner. Big John was a giant-killer in the spring, mentally checked out during the European summer swing, and then bounced back to win in Newport and make the semis in Atlanta. Even there, though, he was tough to figure. Against Roddick in the semis, Isner would lose 20 m.p.h.s on his serve for the first three points of a game, then suddenly gun one at 135 when he was down break point.
So how does Isner look for the Olympics? He just won a grass-court tournament, but he’s heading back to his hated Europe. In other words, it’s the usual with him: Who knows.
Andy Roddick is...Back? Andy Roddick is...Around
Roddick, slumping for much of 2012, beat Isner and Muller for the title in Atlanta. He also, as I said, threw his racquet in the direction of a line judge. Like Tiger Woods, Roddick has gotten testier with age, but it usually serves him well against opponents he believes he should beat. He wins as much with attitude as he does shot-making. His recent results make Roddick a hip dark horse pick for an Olympics that will be two-of-three sets on grass. But he rarely brings that same, usefully bullying style to matches against players ranked ahead of him.
There’s a Lot of Betting at Home Being Done in Tennis These Days
We’ve had our Mercedes Opens and our Mercedes Cups. We have multiple events with the name BNP Paribas in it. A luxury mobile and a bank, OK, we can live with that. Now, though in successive weeks, in Hamburg and Kitzbuhel, we have the Bet at Home Open and the Bet at Home Cup. Am I wrong (or just American) in thinking that this is an unfortunate development in a sport that has had match-fixing issues?
It Wouldn’t be Olympic Season Without...
...a steroid story floating around. This month the US Anti-Doping Agency banned Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, along with another doctor and trainer associated with Lance Armstrong’s Postal Service cycling team, for life. The three of them accepted their bans, rather than, as USADA chief Travis Tygart put it, “waste resources by moving forward with the arbitration process, which would only reveal what they already know to be the truth of their doping activity.”
As we found out before Wimbledon, del Moral has been associated with a tennis academy in Valencia, Spain, where various pros have trained. Will he be allowed to work with them? The ITF hasn’t said.
I thought there were a few other stories or matches of note over the last two weeks, and there probably were. But like so many of them in tennis, they fade as quickly as they appear. We’re caught in the Olympic undertow now, and there’s no getting out from under it. I'll finish today by mentioning another sporting event, golf's British Open, which ended Sunday. Like everyone else, I feared a collapse from leader Adam Scott in the final round, and I cringed when it finally came. I had rarely seen Scott play, but I was caught up in his terrible saga as if I were a friend of his. I had to chance the channel when the highlights of his meltdown were replayed later. That's fandom for you: It makes you, irrationally, care. Get ready for two weeks of that irrational caring from London.
The subways in New York have been overflowing this summer. Whatever time of day it is, the cars seem to be full. There’s an influx of out of town visitors at this time of year, of course, but there are also more restless natives out on the town, and underground. On a stifling day, it feels good down there, soaking up the free air-conditioning.
Yesterday I took a 4 train from Brooklyn to Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon, a time when I usually expect it to be, if not empty, at least on the sleepy side. Instead, the car I was in was jammed. Old-timers say the city is blander than it was once, but it still has more characters than any place I’ve ever been. A woman sitting next to me, having her lunch, was putting salad dressing on her potato chips. Another woman, standing across from me, was doing a strange, slow-motion version of calisthenics. A few seats down, there was an intense young man reading a part from a play, loudly. The car felt like one big communal living room.
At 14th St. two guys in their early 20s, one black, one white, both shirtless, got on. One of them announced, in a booming voice, “It’s showtime, people!” This elicited groans from most of the car. "Oh no,” one said. “Jesus, not now,” said another. “Man, there’s no room for this,” said a third. They knew what was going to happen next.
It was break-dance party time, which on a New York subway means arms and legs flying all over the place to a boom box beat—it’s part dance, part gymnastics. There really didn’t seem to be room for it. Fortunately, the two dancers couldn’t find their music. “Where’s Jimmy?” one of them asked in rising disgust. It turned out that Jimmy, the man with the beats, had walked into a different car. We were in luck.
Or were we? The dancers were apologetic and told us they wished they could have given us a show. This seemed to sway the audience to their side. “Do it without music then!” the woman with the salad dressing yelled. She and a few others began clapping time. One of the breakers picked up their beat and started chanting, “No mu-sic! No mu-sic! No mu-sic!” to it. It felt like we had a Grandmaster Flash song going in the car, just like that.
The other dancer took the hint and began doing his thing. He spun, he did a somersault, he did a back flip. The clapping got louder, and a few people went “Whooooo!!!!!” Encouraged, he kept doing back flips, until he was virtually a blur. Then he jumped up and hung between the bars at the top of the car (“Whooooooo!!!! again). By that point, he been given a wide berth—there was room for showtime, after all. For the finale, one of them threw the other across the car, where he landed and went right into a somersault. That was it, we were at 42nd Street. The audience clapped and cheered, and one of the breakers took off his backward hat and held it out for donations. There wasn’t time for people to get their wallets out, but that was OK, according to him. “It’s not about the money, anyway,” he said as he ran through the crowd of passengers and off the car. “Have a good summer!”
I'm not sure why I'm telling you this story, except that, like the man said, it’s summer, which means it’s time for a vacation. I’ll be out next week, and will return Tuesday, July 24. By that week’s end, the Olympics will be here. Until then, enjoy the tennis, and all the other ways you make your Julys last.
It’s an irony of the tennis fan’s life that, in one important sense, when we watch the sport in person—from “up close”—we’re really watching from farther away. Seeing a match live, we have a chance to hear the sound of the ball, feel the heat of the sun, and sense the atmosphere around the court and the mood of the players. Even as we’re perceiving all of that, though, we’re being taken farther away from one of the game’s crucial expressive factors, one that can let us inside a match, and one that we’re used to having total access to on TV: the players’ faces.
We can see their expressions from the stands, of course. But even if we’re sitting in the front row, we can’t follow them the way we can follow them from our living room couches. Even from a physical remove of thousands of miles, with the help of the invisible stalker known as the television camera, we can be on the court with the players, a couple of feet in front of them, studying their every blink and mutter. We watch from close range as they decide which ball to use to serve. We’re right next to them as they widen their eyes and bounce forward to make a return. On changeovers, we can stand directly in front of them and try to figure out what they’re thinking as they sit and stare blankly into the distance—in other words, when they stare straight at us.
This intimate emotional access is one reason tennis was such a big part of the TV sports revolution in the 1970s. No other game offers it to viewers in quite the same way. For the most part, we keep our distance from soccer players; you can go for many minutes without getting a glimpse of the star striker. In American football, helmets and shoulder pads block our view. We do close in on the faces of baseball pitchers as they take a sign from the catcher, basketball players as they prepare for a free throw, and golfers as they stand over the ball. But whether it’s a teammate or a caddy, all of these athletes also spend a significant amount of their time interacting with someone. In tennis, we see a person who’s on his own, conversing with his own thoughts; if he's talking, it's probably to himself. We see him working two jobs at once—a player is a competitor, as well as a solo performer on a stage. It’s not surprising that tennis fans form strong attachments to their favorites. When they see them close up on television, they have them to themselves.
This topic was on my mind during Wimbledon’s two weeks. Watching it on TV this year, I tried to think of what made the experience different from watching it live. Much of it was in the faces. When I tried to write down my impressions of various players’ expressions, the first thing I noticed was how little—aside from the obligatory fist pump—they give away. The need for calm and concentration, the desire not to show anything to their opponents, and the necessity of acting like you don’t notice the thousands of people surrounding you, combine to produce a mask that is rarely taken down. I can still remember the first time that I saw the juniors players I grew up with begin to acquire that mask. I was still in the 14-and-unders, but nearby there was a 16-and-under tournament with some of the best players in Pennsylvania. When I went over to watch one afternoon, I was amazed most of all by how composed these kids were. Where was the whining, where were the tantrums? For the first time, my peers seemed be playing Real Tennis, and it was riveting. It wasn't the good shots that they were hitting that made me feel that way; it was the way they went about their business.
But even the blankest masks are a form of expression, and none of them are exactly the same. Rafael Nadal works his eyebrows into a look of eternal concern. Ryan Harrison always seems to be working himself up, puffing himself up, for a test of his mettle. Serena Williams assumes an air of natural, unhurried authority. Milos Raonic’s eyes are like glass, but they’re also where he shows his anger. Kim Clijsters narrows hers as she gets ready to return serve; that’s when, on her good days, she seems most eager and concentrated.
No mask can be held up forever. It’s the moments when the players drop them that we wait for. Here are a few of those moments from this past Wimbledon.
Alexandr Dolgopolov, after his second-round opponent hit yet another winner past him, staring at his coach and raising his eyebrows—“What can I do?” Jo-Wilfried Tsonga acting out for the audience how the ball bounced and why he made an error, and then smiling to himself after the next point—Tsonga, rather than putting up the mask, seems to think with his face. Vera Zvonareva’s features slowly crumpling on a changeover. Sabine Lisicki lifting her upper lip with each service toss, and joyously flashing a toothy smile after beating Sharapova. Lukas Rosol looking up at his player box, as if to confirm that he was doing what he thought he was doing against Nadal. Tamira Paszek nodding to get herself to slow down before a big point, and grinning in embarrassment after a bad miss. Yaroslava Shvedova laughing at her mom in the stands, even as she was about to lose to Serena Williams. Angelique Kerber exploding with relief after not blowing her quarterfinal with Lisicki a second time. Andy Murray, red-eyed after his finalist's speech, the mask he had worked so hard to keep up for two weeks finally stripped away.
It was that last moment that humanized Murray, and made him a million new fans. That’s another irony about watching tennis—even as fans scour player’s faces for signs of emotion, the players know that showing too many of those signs will distract them from their jobs. Many of us say we want pros who act out, who show their personalities, but perhaps the biggest star in the history of the game, Bjorn Borg, was the one who gave us the least. It was the mask that never went down that fascinated us the most.
A game of faces. Competition and performance, sport and stage, tennis on TV isn’t about glimpsing emotion or personality as much as it is about seeing their surface; the surface that tries, not always successfully, to hide them.