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Disliking Federer

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Federer at Wimbledon in 2009 © Justin Smith

So he’s done it again.

After two and a half of years of wandering in the wilderness of, well, not mediocrity exactly, but second or third best-ness, after climbing the small foothills of adversity, a twingey back, a few disappointing chokes, a couple of kids, after going four sets with Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin, Federer is once again the number one player in the world. Terrific.

I never liked Federer. He may be a nice guy. He may have as many moral virtues at his disposal as he does tennis strokes. And I’m happy to believe he’s the greatest tennis player ever. But I always want him to lose. He’s one of those stars, like Helen Mirren, that people seem to admire because they want to say something about themselves.

‘Federer Moments’, as David Foster Wallace famously called them, are part of what I dislike. ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ says more about Wallace’s genius than Federer’s. The ‘mystery and metaphysics’. Those elaborate physiological explanations. You could give a neurological account of what it takes to tie shoelaces that would make the act seem almost mythically complex and difficult. You don’t need tennis to make the body wonderful. But the best way to explain the difference between Federer and, say, Andy Roddick, isn’t physiological.

I once saw Federer live at Wimbledon, a third or fourth round match, against Mario Ancic. This in the days when Federer won everything. Ancic was being talked about as a potential stumbling block, because of his serve and volley game. But it became clear pretty quickly that Federer was going to win. And not for any complicated reason. Federer had a better serve than Ancic, a better second serve, a better return, a better volleying game, better groundstrokes, better forehands and backhands, and he covered the court better.

Most professional athletes have clear weaknesses – holes in their game. Except Federer. And that’s why I don’t like watching him. What I find compelling about tennis is the way players have to manoeuvre themselves into a position where they can exploit the things they do well – in one way or another, they have to run around their limits.

Sampras, for example, had a pretty basic game, and watching him play was like watching someone build a house with a hammer and saw. He had to make those tools do everything. Federer’s victories lack the sweetness of struggle, of obstacles overcome. To make his air of perfection even less attractive, his record when someone stands up to him hasn’t been great.

There was always something self-regarding about his modesty, especially at the height of his success. He sometimes talked about matches as if the only opponent that mattered was himself. But his legacy is an odd one. Generally regarded as the greatest player of all time, he has a lot of records to back up this assessment – including majors won. But it’s hard to think of someone as the best ever when he has such a poor record against his greatest rival. He’s lost to Nadal 18 times and won 10; of the eight major finals where they’ve met, Nadal has won six.

I loved watching Tim Henman – his implausibly symbolic Englishness. If there’d been a Barbie figure to represent English tennis, it would have been Henman. Asparagus-long and pale, he looked as if he grew up with a grass court in his back garden. (He did.) People attribute his failure to advance beyond those six major semi-finals to a failure of nerve, but the truth is, he probably overachieved.

The way Murray has taken over Henmania is curious. His relationship with his audience has been defined by one of the least important things about him, where he was born. It’s like falling for a boy because of what he looks like – and then being stuck with his personality.

And yet the personality came across well yesterday. Federer on court shows little but the odd fist pump of celebration. Sometimes he lets out some frustration at bad line calls – impatience with underlings. But Murray talks to himself, he internalises visibly. And after it was all over he couldn’t keep back the tears, and his girlfriend, seeing him cry, couldn’t keep them back either, a strangely private moment.

When he managed to find his voice he said the right things honestly, which isn’t always easy, and showed some self-awareness along the way: if I look at the private box, he said, I’m going to cry again.

But the tears were oddly boyish, for a 25-year-old multimillionaire, and you couldn’t help feeling that the emotions that prompted them had something to do with the reason he lost. Federer, by contrast, looked as sleek as a banker. Somehow he’d found time to put on a big gold watch – did he get paid for doing that? Murray will win one major one day, he said, or something like that – a grand little gesture, the big man sweeping the crumbs off his table, while Murray stood there, looking even more like Raskolnikov than usual. Something for the crowd. No mention of the wife and kids, until Sue Barker prompted him. OK, it’s none of our business, but none of this is really our business, and we judge these people on what we can see.

After the fact, it’s easy to read all this backwards into the match. The sense of inevitability. But Murray could have won. He was up a set, he had a couple break points in the second, one of which he should clearly have put away. Federer broke him against the run of play. And even afterwards, Murray had his opportunities. If he could have got his first serve in a little more. If he hadn’t slipped on the damp grass. If he had put away his chances at the net. He can beat Federer: their record against each other is 8-8. He just didn’t do it this time, and the painful thing about sport is the way things that could have turned out differently don’t.

Comments on “Disliking Federer”

  1. Tatty_Divine says:

    “I loved watching Tim Henman – his implausibly symbolic Englishness.” May explain why you fail to appreciate such a great player….and the second part falls prey to the same absurdist writing you accuse others of.

    Supporting the over dog is an under fated pleasure. Return to the natural order of things.

  2. Edmund Gordon says:

    “There was always something self-regarding about his modesty, especially at the height of his success. He sometimes talked about matches as if the only opponent that mattered was himself.”

    Spot on. His response to being asked how it felt to win yesterday’s final – “Familiar” – was as tasteless as that gold watch.

  3. streetsj says:

    I’ve never understood this fascination with players’ personalities (sic??). We watch tennis to watch tennis players. Watching Federer is savouring good champagne; he can do everything you expect brilliantly and he can surprise as well. His strength is disguised by his elegance. Murray – clearly a brilliant player too – simply does not have the finesse.
    Who cares what comes out of their mouths. Who cares whether they are motivated by money or disgusted by commercialism. It simply isn’t the point – watch their hands, their feet and, of course, how they respond to adversity and success.
    Wonderful, inspiring tennis; turn it off when the match is finished.
    Just as true of cricketers, even more so of footballers.
    Watching bankers speak on the other hand…

    • Geoff Roberts says:

      The “fascination” is probably a fall-out from the sheer monotony of the game, which only gets interesting at tie-break time or in the last phases. As for the comments of winners/losers, just imagine having to listen to Footballers analysing the game for a minimum of two days nonstop.

  4. Ra Ra Rasputin says:

    Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin, that was bad enough. Two words: Virginia Wade. And she may have even won.

    Making me wonder on the knowledge of the author on the topic as hand. The follows the final nail in the coffin: I loved watching Tim Henman.

    You may be more interested in cheer leading than tennis.

  5. Simon Wood says:

    You’re so right, Ras, that throwaway comment about Helen Mirren set off a tripwire. Bye bye. “Come on Tim.” The three most dreary and doomladen words in the English language.

  6. zbs says:

    I have never been very good at taking my sports as politically—that is to say, favoritism empowered by a healthy dose of us v. them—as some of my pals. In this case, even with Murray being as much of an underdog as he was, I couldn’t really appreciate it: it was just uglier play. Uglier in pretty much every way. And even supposing it’s possible to put aside personality, or somehow surgically circumscribe only the “athletic” expression of a personality, Murray’s mopeyness became pretty apparent in his game itself—not just his muttering—especially visible, perhaps, in his service game, which seemed to lack any sort of conviction by the third set.

  7. who Cares says:

    Ok, well you lose by attacking Federer and enhance your great Yourself by been there, done that. Ridiculous.It’s the media and the HUGE global impact.. who magnify everything.
    Federer is a basically shy, very, very intelligent guy taking care about his trade; tennis. Probably more than the others. Period.
    He is a down to earth guy. I happen to know him. He’s a incredible hard worker, who has had, in his prime years barely had a coach.
    Multilingoal, cosmopolitan. Stable family, two kids.
    Get a life!

  8. It won’t surprise you to know that I don’t agree. Federer does have weaknesses – his chief one being that he plays beautiful tennis, which isn’t necessarily the best way to go about beating a bludgeoner like Nadal. His (largely unsuccessful) struggle to overcome this limitation is a sad and strangely moving sight, and makes a victory like last Sunday’s all the sweeter.

    Also, I’m no expert, but wasn’t Michael Jordan kind of the Federer of basketball? That didn’t stop you liking him….

    The Rolex, the tendency to say immodest-sounding things: I think they have more to do with his Swissness than any inherent personality fault.

  9. requiemapache says:

    The comprehensive run down of Federer’s pros and cons can be found here: http://www.theonion.com/articles/roger-federer,8365/

    Speaking fluent German and being possibly only the second best player in the world on a clay court are counted among his weaknesses.

  10. simonreidhenry says:

    Will Skidelsky is right. On court Federer does have one weakness: the terrible, aching weakness – for him at least – that is his inability to overcome Nadal. For the rest of us that weakness has made for one of the most compelling sporting rivalries of modern times, so I’m all for it.

    Nadal is no artless bludgeoner, though: he’s learnt more from playing Federer than that the easiest way to beat him is to keep mugging his backhand with heavy topspin.

    What he hasn’t yet learnt, and this is the real genius of Federer, is his instinct for improvising off the ball. Take the inside-out baseline forehand that Fed pulled off during the Wimbledon final against Murray (at one set apiece, and two one in games to Murray): something between a drop shot from behind the baseline and a cut-off volley angled out wide – and utterly unforeseeable. A remarkable shot in an otherwise tepid baseline rally. I’d say the reason Murray didn’t see it coming is that Federer probably didn’t see it coming either: in the moment it was simply where his practiced limbs, channeling his reading of the flight of the ball and Murray’s movements offstage somewhere, told him to put it.

    The point exemplifies the brilliance of his shot-making under pressure. Unwilling, it seems at times on almost snobbish grounds, to choose between a blunt change of scale or key (long or short, hard or out wide) he’ll quite happily step outside the key of the point momentarily: searching for untried solutions or interesting workarounds, or maybe just a killer high note to end the point on. The result on the above point? The crowd erupts as the ball falls dead in an impossible part of the Court and momentarily forgets that until then it was Murray’s point for the winning.

    That’s why Federer’s matches are a joy to watch.

    Having said that, I’m less a fan of Federer’s off court style: not just the straight-faced ‘you know one of the interesting things about being a genius…’ banter that Sue Barker likes to indulge him in, but the rest of the sponsorship gimmicks that glory in his excellence (the RF branding of his jersey, the tally of previous victories notched into his shoes like a lover’s bedpost). It’s such heavy labouring of a point that we all get already, and it grates against the instinctive nature of his own talent. Nadal seems somehow to avoid this. For all his bludgeoning he comes across as a more modest chap at heart.

  11. Simon: a good analysis. You’re right about his capacity for improvisation being the real mark of his brilliance. With that shot, what was so amazing about it, I think, was that he’d messed up – he went to run round his backhand and hit a regulation topspin forehand but then realised he hadn’t given himself enough space. He couldn’t play the shot he wanted to play. It was a losing position. No other player would have had the imagination to think up that alternative allied to the skill in executing it and the sense of balance/style to make it look seamless, almost as if it were what he’d intended all along.
    I think that point – shortly after the return from the rain break – was a turning point in the match. It was at that moment that Federer really demonstrated to Murray that he was operating on a higher level than him.

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