With March Madness in the books, it seems like a good time to open the mailbag—with no April fooling around, either. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at email@example.com.
I see that you gave Roger [Federer] a B for his performance in Key Biscayne. Do you think that’s really fair for someone who is 32 years old? He's now in the Top 5 and should have beaten a guy [Kei Nishikori] who is 10 years younger than he is.—Alexa
I thought the B was generous, actually; or at least empathetic. I wonder what Federer would give himself for losing to Nishikori after being up a set and a break twice? My grade did factor in, if not his age, his current situation. Federer is 32, he had just reached the finals of back-to-back tournaments, and, with Davis Cup following soon, he had suggested in Indian Wells that he might not even play Miami. Federer also said in Indian Wells that he half-expects himself to have good results followed by “early exits.” Taking his busy and successful last month of play into consideration, I thought a B, despite the fact that he blew a lead in the quarters against a lower-ranked player, was fair for his Miami run.
Your question leads to bigger one: How much slack should we cut Federer for his "advanced" tennis age? Some is in order, of course; I don’t think anyone, even Federer himself, expects him to win 12 tournaments in a season, the way he did in 2006 when he was 25. And leaving aside his past achievements, what he’s doing at 32 is impressive. By that age, Borg, McEnroe, Sampras and most other male Open era greats were either out of the game or in terminal decline; Federer, as you said, just moved back into the Top 5, and he nearly beat the world No. 2, 26-year-old Novak Djokovic, two times in one month. Once upon a time we celebrated Andre Agassi for playing well into his 30s, but he won his last major title, the 2003 Australian Open, at the age Federer is now.
Yet I think we can make too many allowances for Federer’s age. One reason we celebrated Agassi was that at the time he was a rarity. Now we can look back and see that his career marked the beginning of a trend toward success at older ages in tennis. Federer said last month that he doesn’t feel ancient in part because so many of the guys he grew up with are still on tour with him. He’s not a outlier, but part of the aging of the sport in general. Tommy Haas, who turns 36 this week, is ranked No. 17. Radek Stepanek, who has clinched the last two Davis Cups for the Czech Republic, is 35. Stan Wawrinka, who turned 29 last week, just made his biggest career breakthrough. Only one player in the ATP’s Top 10, Milos Raonic, is under 25 (and he’s ranked No. 10). On the women’s side, the world’s two top-ranked women, Serena Williams and Li Na, are both 32.
(The phrase “aging of the game” is unfortunate; it makes it sound like a bad thing, a weakening in some way. I’d say it’s the opposite, that it’s a sign the tour has become at least slightly more humane, and less prone to burning its stars out, over the last two decades. Tennis players shouldn’t have to stop doing what they love at 30, and there's nothing wrong with fans getting to see them at or near their best for as long as possible.)
With Federer, I think we can balance the obvious fact that he won’t be the same player at 32 (or 33, as of early August) that he was when he was 25, without making excuses for him or acting like this part of his career is nothing more than icing on the cake. Federer himself doesn’t make those excuses, or act like he's simply taking a victory lap. He knows that he’ll have more ups and downs than he once did, but he still thinks he should win tournaments regularly and challenge for every Grand Slam. I hear a lot of fans say, after one of his losses, “Well, what do you expect? He’s 32.” But I’ve yet to hear those words out of Federer’s mouth, and I doubt he likes to hear other people say them. Considering that he's 22-4 so far this year, I doubt many of his opponents walk off the court thinking that he's not the player he once was.
For Federer, competing at 32 means competing full out; he couldn't be successful any other way. He has a little more perspective in defeat than he once did, but he's still eating the cake, not the icing, of his career. He's still playing with the same desire and expectation to win that he always has. We should expect the same from ourselves as fans.
Maybe you can settle an argument: A friend and I disagree about upsets. I tend to root for them, because they’re exciting. He says he supports the better player, and if you root for an upset, you’re really rooting for the better player to fail. Do you think wanting to see upsets makes me a hater?—Sundip
As a lifelong lover of the upset and the underdog, I’ve had similar conversations over the years with different people. And I had some of the same thoughts last weekend, during the Sony Open and the NCAA March Madness games. Even as I was enjoying the spate of college-basketball upsets in the early rounds, I had to admit that part of that enjoyment came from seeing coaches who have been elevated to god-like status—Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, Bill Self, Coach K—come crashing back to earth. Which means that I was rooting in part for someone’s failure. But that wasn’t enough to stop me. To my mind, one of the benefits of sports is that, except for a few rare cases, every athlete, team, and coach is proven to be human in the end, and that no result is set in stone. I don’t think these are bad things for the rest of us to remember.
In tennis, my argument in favor of upsets starts with the (dubious) concept of, as you call it, the “better player.” All players are obviously not created equal, but when two top pros face off, there’s no such thing as a “better player” in the absolute sense. There’s only a winner and a loser of that particular match; or, as the pros like to say, there’s only someone who is “the better player on the day.” Over time, by looking at the results of many matches, we can determine who had the better career. But that doesn’t mean anyone is supposed to win any match. As the commentators like to say, “That’s why they play the game.” It’s the ultimate cliché, but it’s a worthy one. All any can match determine is a winner and a loser, not a better and a worse. Next week there will be a new match, and a new winner and loser.
When you root for the underdog, you aren’t rooting for failure. You’re rooting for surprise and, as you say, excitement. You’re rooting for the idea that every match—every sporting event—offers an equal opportunity for either competitor to win, and to be the better man or woman on that day.