Fan Club: The Federer, Part II

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 /by

RFHere's the second part of my chat with Joella, about you-know-who. See Part I here. A third installment is on the way.

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Joella,

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. 

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Steve,

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.

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