Fan Club: The Federer, Part III
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.