Fan Club: The Federer, Part IV
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!