TWGH - Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God

Friday, March 02, 2007 /by

[Ed. Note: Peter Bodo is on vacation until March 5th. In his absence, we are proud to present TennisWorld's Greatest Hits (and Misses). We hope you'll find these entries as relevant today as when they were originally posted. --S.]

DATE: 8/27/2006

Feduso06The U. S. Open hasn't even started and we're already embroiled in a headline-generating controversy, CBS commentator Mary Carillo’s charge that Roger Federer tanked his match against Andy Murray at the recent Cincinnati Masters event.

The story slowly took on a life of its own, which was a bad deal for The Mighty Fed and a not-so-bad deal for the CBS publicity honchos.

For Carillo herself, it’s basically a wash: the attention, including Federer’s forceful denial of her charge, enhances her status even as, in many quarters, it has hurt her popularity and, possibly, her credibility.

I got a sense of just how big this story is yesterday, when I met my friend Liz for a drink after work (it’s always Monday at TennisWorld!), and she brought up the subject. Liz is a big Mets fan, a sometimes tennis fan, a discerning consumer of sports news and always smart as a whip, with a great BS detector and an almost disconcerting ability to cut to the chase in any given story.

So let’s de-construct this Tempest in TV-teapot. As the quotes show (including the one in the story by my buddy, Marc Berman, linked above), Mary herself never used the word “tanked”. But she undeniably confirmed John McEnroe’s assertion that she said Federer “threw the match.” There’s no way around that, and therefore it’s accurate if not literally true that she said he tanked. And that’s a very serious charge.

In this, I think Mary made a critical error. Tanking or throwing a match means choosing to lose, or not put forth the effort required to win. It represents the crossing of a very fine and almost impossible to draw line between throwing a match and being unable to muster the energy or will to compete in one. We see relatively few examples of the former, at least among the top players. But examples of the latter abound (look under “S” for “Safin”).

Stepping on the court with you’re the needle on your mental or emotional tank (or both) on “Empty” is a common hazard for the round-the-calendar tennis pros, and the more volatile or artistic players in particular struggle with the condition. The more moody you are, and the more your performance – in anything – is tied to your emotions, the more liable you are to have these “no go” days. This is, fundamentally, a form of impotence.

TMF is a genius, no matter how you cut it, in each of the only two departments that count: technically (as a champion with the physical skills to play at level that routinely touches the breathtaking) and mentally (as a competitor, able to find ways to win even when his technical genius is not firing on all cylinders). The wild card in all this is the emotions – that inchoate, ever-shifting combination of feelings, instincts and impulses that can work together, almost like one of those computer viruses running in the background in your software, to corrupt the integrity of your technical and/or mental program.

Usually, the emotions degrade your mentality first, and then your technique begins to disintegrate until critical mass is attained and you become, well, a basket case. And one of the signature qualities of TMF is that he’s much more artistic and emotional than his persona suggests. Players who are both artistic (think Evonne Goolagong or Ilie Nastase) and emotional (think Martina Navratilova or Boris Becker) never produce the degree of  off-the-charts consistency that the very best players (think Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, Ivan Lendl or Chris Evert) achieve, unless the their minds are strong enough to clench the handle of greatness so tightly that their emotions rarely accumulate the kind of critical mass it takes to loosen it.

But that, I think, is precisely what happened to Federer in Cincy. He shut down, uncharacteristically and – in this, Carillo was right – conspicuously. But that’s a very different thing from consciously deciding not to compete. Or, as Liz put it, “Tanking is a whole different ballgame and a very specific thing, and she (Mary) should have been very careful about that. You just don’t say somebody tanked unless that’s exactly what they did.”

I agree with her, and I’m not saying that to pile on Mary. I’m focusing on it, though, because it underscores something else that I’ve been thinking about, which is that tennis is a monotheistic religion, presided over by a god called Effort. All the other gods – and they include Artistry, Charisma, Empathy – appeal to some, and, in the eyes of tennis pantheists, may have equal or even superior value (how else can you explain the very common preference for Safin over TMF, or Jennifer Capriati over, say, Justine Henin-Hardenne?).

But in the end, Effort is lord – both the ticket to salvation for players (which is why the most talent-blessed rarely are the greatest of players) and the deity before whom most fans, most of the time, ultimately bow – even if they don’t know it. It is why so many people adore Nadal. Effort is rarely as sexy as Artistry (unless it's in a container like Nadal's), nor as flagrantly sentimental as Empathy; it isn’t a warm and fuzzy god; it’s potent one. Effort is, ultimately, awesome. And isn’t that what being god is all about?

Effort is the hallmark of the greatest of champions, period. It's why we love Jimmy Connors, Graf, Sampras (see “C” for Corretja) et al, the playing company that TMF keeps. And that, I think, is why so many took umbrage at Mary’s charge. It implied that Federer is a sinner in the hands of the angry god called Effort. It tarnished his virtue, and Federer has been nothing if not a paragon of virtue.

If, on the other hand, Mary had just said that Roger showed up without his game, or even that on the day he was an impotent competitor, it would merely question his heretofore nonpareil consistency. After all, in losing the match, he squandered his chance to build upon a record just slightly less impressive than his rival Rafael Nadal’s clay-court streak: his streak of 55 straight match wins in North America.

At the end of the day, the wisest thing Mary did was choose to say "no comment" once the story took on a life of its own.

These musing seem especially relevant to me on the eve of the U.S. Open, where once again I'm posting the famous Man in the Arena passage, from a speech by former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, and dedicating it to all the players in the draw, right down the the ones who will be history by tomorrow night at this time:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who  neither know victory nor defeat.

Like they say, Let the Games Begin!

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