Reaction to the Reactions

Friday, September 06, 2013 /by

NEW YORK—A friend of mine doesn’t own a television. Instead, his apartment is filled with reading material—fiction, poetry, art books, historical tomes, highbrow magazines. And unlike many of us with crammed book shelves, he seems to have actually read most of it. There’s only one thing, he says, that he regrets about not having a TV: “I have to watch Federer on my computer.” Notice that he didn’t say tennis, he said Federer. And notice that he still finds a way to watch him.

I mention this comment as an example of the devotion that Federer inspires among intellectuals and aesthetes. In their minds, his success is more about the triumph of artistry than it is of athleticism. It's seen as a rare victory of beauty over brute force. Until recently, his losses left these fans with a sense of disbelief: If Roger Federer wasn’t winning, there had to be something wrong with tennis, and there was probably something wrong with the world, too.

So it came as no surprise that Federer’s ugly defeat at the hands of Tommy Robredo on Labor Day was given full and mournful coverage in elite outposts like the New Yorker, Slate, and the New York Times. What was surprising to me was that the tone of the coverage had changed, in the same way that Federer’s tone in his post-loss press conference was different from what it had been after his defeats in the past. Federer spoke frankly, without angst or defensiveness, about his “self-destructive” performance, the unsatisfactory state of his game, and the fact that fans would be “shellshocked” to see him play so poorly. This was no longer a No. 1 player trying to explain an unexplainable defeat; it was a No. 7 player was has been in a slump admitting that he needs to train and practice if he’s going to avoid more results like this in the future. 

“I’ve got to go back to work,” Federer said, “and come back stronger, get rid of this loss now as quick as I can, forget about it, because that’s not how I want to play from here on. I want to play better. I know I can.”

Federer’s sense of realism, and his implicitly lowered expectations—forget about major titles; for now, he just wants to play well—are mirrored in our liberal media.

Slate’s article on his loss was entitled, “Play On, Roger: The greatest tennis player of all time has become mortal. Now maybe we can finally appreciate him.”

The author, Lowen Liu, echoes what I said above about Federer fans, and sees the problem with their viewpoint:

“This is the essential paradox of Roger Federer. In assigning his achievements to a divine power, we dispossess him of his talent and the work he’s done to exploit it. This impossible standard—Fed-liness is next to Godliness—makes his failings that much more stark.”

Rather than advising him to take his legend and run, though, Liu says “Federer should play on,” in part because it will make us appreciate how hard it has been for him to do what he has done all along.

“That the greatest tennis player of all time could keep playing past his expiraton, undaunted, and outlast his own legend—that would be something worth celebrating.”

The story is similar at the New Yorker. Two years ago, the magazine ran an article by Calvin Tomkins under the pompous title, “Roger Federer’s Majestic Decline.” This week its web piece about him, by Reeves Wiedeman, is more blunt and skeptical: “What Now for Roger Federer?” it’s called. Wiedeman doubts that Federer will ever allowed to be human, to be just another athlete. 

“It’s clear," he writes, "that fans and reporters feel too invested in him to simply let him play.”

The most drastic change in tone comes at the New York Times. In 2006, at the height of Federer’s dominance, the paper ran David Foster Wallace’s mega-tribute “Federer as Religious Experience.” This Tuesday, it published “A Lesson in Adjusting to Lowered Expectations,” a column on Federer by Chris Clarey. In it, Chris compares Federer to another 32-year-old former No. 1 who lost this week, Lleyton Hewitt, and says that Roger might have to take a page from Rusty’s book:

“Hewitt,” Clarey writes, “was once the planet around which the tennis moons orbited. But the intense Australian has moved on from those increasingly distant days and found meaning at a new, lower level...What’s already clear is that Federer, now ranked seventh, has downshifted into a genuine underdog’s role...Now it is a question of whether he can or truly wants to adjust to that status. Now it is time to find out truly how much he loves the game when he is not dominating the game.”

I’m not sure that Federer has become a full-time underdog just yet, but I do agree that enjoying winning is different from enjoying competition. We’ll see if Federer still loves the battle now that he has started coming out on the wrong side of it earlier in tournaments. I can’t see him in the Hewitt mold myself. Rusty, while he was a No. 1, hasn’t won a major since 2002. If the Aussie hadn’t lowered his own expectations, he would have had to retire at 23. 

With Federer and Hewitt losing in the same week, the comparison was interesting. But the two most recent all-time men’s champions to hang up their sticks, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, might be more apt antecedents. Like Federer, Sampras and Agassi were at the top of the rankings and winning Grand Slams for more than a decade. They took very different approaches to their declines. 

Sampras ended his as soon as it began. He had a bad season in 2002, but finished it on a high note by winning the U.S. Open at age 31. So he decided to quit while he was ahead. That would have been the equivalent of Federer hanging up his racquet, at the same age, after winning Wimbledon last year. For purity’s sake, it might have been the best option—our last memory of Federer would have been as a champion on Centre Court. But it wouldn’t have been the best option for Federer. He was No. 1 in the world at that point, and obviously not ready to stop competing. Sampras himself has hinted that he wishes he had stuck around longer.

Agassi played until he was 35 and a back problem had him hobbling like a man twice that age. What was interesting about Andre was that over the last five or so years of his career, he seemed to be irritated by every aspect of tennis except one: Winning. Fortunately, Agassi won often enough in his 30s to make prolonging his career worthwhile. There are key differences between Agassi and Federer. The American says that he always had a love-hate relationship with the sport, and there was a sense that, at the end, he was making up for time he squandered in his 20s. Neither of those things are true for Federer. But I still think it will be difficult for Federer to put up with everything that goes into tennis if he’s not at least in the hunt for Grand Slam titles. That’s what kept Agassi going. If there's one thing we know about Federer, it's that he hates to lose. As he said, he doesn't want to play tennis like he did this week again.

I’ll finish by saying that while this was Federer’s first loss before the semifinals of the U.S. Open since 2003, it wasn't the first time we've talked of his descent from heaven to earth. In 2008, he had his string of five straight Wimbledon titles, and four straight years at No. 1, snapped by Rafael Nadal. At the Open that year, he fought through a long fourth-round match with Igor Andreev and was emotional in victory throughout the two weeks. Afterward, I wrote about the 27-year-old Federer, “He showed us the effort that has always been there, just beneath the surface mirage of his effortlessness.” I speculated that seeing Federer fight to win would be the fun part of watching him in the future.

In other words, the man has been “human” for years. Federer has always been an athlete, not an artist. He’s always won because he’s a good competitor, not because he makes competing look easy. He shouldn’t have needed to start losing for us to appreciate that.

*****

When Roger Federer falters, smart people get sad. Something different happens when Andy Murray loses: British tabloids go mad.

The Wimbledon champion was blown out of New York and back across the Atlantic by Stan Wawrinka yesterday. Even as Stan was doing his post-match interview on-court, Murray was already beginning his press conference in the media room—he must have sprinted to get there that fast. A few hours later, the Mail caught Muzz and his girlfriend, Kim Sears, grimly barreling through London’s Heathrow airport. Or, as the paper put it:

MURRAY IN A HURRY...AGAIN! GLOOMY ANDY BEATS HASTY RETREAT BACK TO LONDON AFTER TITLE DEFENCE IN THE BIG APPLE TURNS ROTTEN

Still, this was just one loss, right? As Murray himself said, he’s had a great year.

Not so fast, the Telegraph warns:

ANDY MURRAY’S EXIT FROM THE US OPEN QUARTERFINAL SHOWED THAT THE SCOT IS STILL NOT THE GENUINE ARTICLE AS CHAMPION
For Andy Murray, the abject surrender of his quarterfinal defeat to Stanislas Wawrinka represented an alarming throwback to life “pre-Lendl”

The Independent nods its head, sadly, in agreement:

“There was a time when Andy Murray had to get used to his Grand Slam dreams being dashed by Swiss opposition, but tonight it was Stan Wawrinka rather than Roger Federer who ended the Scot’s defence of his U.S. Open title. There could be no escaping that this was a desperately disappointing performance by Murray.”

The Express also fears for Muzz’s future, though it seems more worried about his celebrity status than his game:

ANGRY ANDY MURRAY SWISS-ROLLED OUT OF US OPEN
Murray’s glorious flirtation with fame suffered a serious setback last night when he lost the U.S. Open title he won a year ago

But it’s the Sun that sees the situation the clearest, and avoids hyperbole in its cool-headed assessment of the situation:

SHOCK AND WAW
Andy Murray saw the sky fall in on him as the reigning U.S. Open champion meekly surrendered his crown

The paper did, however, appreciate Murray’s honesty afterward about his bad play. They even got what seems to be an exclusive quote from him on the subject, one that concisely and eloquently summed up his afternoon:

I HAD A STINKA
Murray refused to make excuses for being blown off the court by the swashbuckling Swiss

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