Let me tell you a story.
There was this guy. Great tennis player. He changed the way tennis was played. He raised the bar for training and fitness habits on tour. Powerful serve. Tremendous forehand. European. He made a bunch of U.S. Open finals in a row. He made more than 18 major finals in his career. He won more than 93 titles in his career. He made more than 145 major finals.
This player went through growing pains on tour in his early years and didn’t always behave well. He came through those tough times to become a model for how to practice and established a work ethic his peers had to fight hard to match.
Later in his career, he skipped the French Open multiple times — despite having won the event and made multiple finals in it — because he wanted to win Wimbledon so badly.
Roger Federer, right? Well, yes… but also Ivan Lendl.
No need to name names, but some folks on #TennisTwitter got all huffy and puffy and extended their chests to tut-tut about how disgraceful it was that Federer has skipped the French Open again.
In full candor, I wanted to see Fed try Roland Garros again. I felt and do feel that a player in his position has the right to do whatever he wants, but I also feel Federer is a prime ambassador for the sport and can do a lot of good by merely making the attempt to play at the sport’s clay-court major. I also feel that he had a chance to go deep if he played, if only because of the attrition on tour right now. Yes, I am disappointed in and by his decision… all of that is true and sincerely felt.
Yet, a DISGRACE? Where is a sense of proportion in criticism? Federer is making the decision because playing on clay affects his body, chiefly his knees, in a way which doesn’t apply to other surfaces. I don’t like to like the decision, but it certainly comes from a reasonable and respectable line of thought. An athlete wanting to preserve health and longevity is hardly cause for an uproar. An outpouring of modest disappointment? Sure… but not outcries of “DISGRACE!”
That word belongs to corrupt prime ministers or bank executives who commit fraud, or movie moguls who abuse women or manipulate them into various sets of actions against their will. A tennis player skipping a tournament and a surface-specific swing to promote his health? Let’s not be sloppy and lose all sense of perspective.
That point aside, though, 27 years before Federer skipped Roland Garros in 2017, Lendl skipped the French Open to prepare for Wimbledon. 27 years before Federer skipped Roland Garros a second time in 2018, Lendl skipped Paris AGAIN to train for SW19 in 1991.
Some will say, “Oh, it’s different. Lendl had never won Wimbledon, whereas Federer has won it eight frickin’ times!”
Does that matter enough to draw a fundamental distinction between the two moves? Hardly. They were both discretionary moves the players did not have to make. Lendl, in 1990 and 1991, made the final of a major tournament — he was still very relevant on tour but past his prime and moving close to the end of his career. The idea applied to Federer — that a grand old man of the game owed it to the sport to play Roland Garros — was as legitimate in Lendl’s time as it is in Federer’s day. The motivation attached to winning Wimbledon differed, but the reality that both men were consumed by winning Wimbledon was and is the same.
The similarities far outweigh the differences here… but some people are making it seem Federer has established this alarming new precedent.
Nope — there is nothing new about it. Hence, it is not a precedent.
Ask Ivan Lendl how disgraceful it was that he skipped the French Open in 1990 and 1991.
It almost goes without saying, but don’t expect a satisfying answer.