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BREAKING: FEDERER IS HUMAN — AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN

Matt Zemek

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Federer is God! Federer is the King Of Tennis! Without the Maestro, there is no tennis!

Look, folks — before I professionally began my tennis writing career in 2014, I wrote for a Federer fan blog. I used to be a Federer fan. I am not anymore because I am now a commentator. I can say that I am a fan of tennis because I love writing about the sport professionally, but I can no longer call myself a fan of any player. When anyone makes the jump across that bright red line from fan to commentator, the world has to change. The way one evaluates anything and everything in the theater of activity one covers has to change. It’s that simple.

This doesn’t mean one doesn’t take enjoyment from one’s job — as someone who gets to write tennis and hope that people will donate to Tennis With An Accent to fund my work, I enjoy having this opportunity. Yes, I will need to make some money from this work; otherwise, I won’t be able to do it on a continuous basis. Yet, I do enjoy writing about tennis and having the chance to see if a media philanthropist might notice what Saqib Ali and I are trying to do here at TWAA and help us enjoy a long life as tennis commentators. I enjoy my work — that is allowed — but if I speak and write in ways which are consistent with a fan, I’m not cut out for this line of work.

I think you know how a fan reacts, since if you’re reading this column, you are almost certainly a fan of a particular player. I think you can distinguish how a fan reacts from how a commentator reacts. Both can be excited, both can express a large range of emotions, but when you are covering a sport as opposed to being a fan of a player or group of players, the big picture is what has to be accounted for.

When you are blogging for a fan site or live-tweeting a match as a fan, there is no sense of responsibility — this is not a criticism of anyone who comments the way a fan does, merely a simple representation of the fan’s mindset and the fan’s experience. When anyone moves from “fan blogging” or fan-style commentary to professional coverage (coverage for which one gets paid to any slight degree), that person has to look at the wider range of views. She or he isn’t writing for one rabid fan base; s/he is writing about the sport as seen from a collection of perspectives which need to be taken into account. When a fan writes something at a fan site, the intent of a column is to look at the tennis world through the prism of that one player. When writing professionally, individual columns can certainly look at life through the prism of individual athletes, but that process of examination must be spread out across the tours, across the sport. If someone has an inner view of an athlete as a fan blogger, that view must become a more outward view as a professional writer, something with a more emotionally detached tone which blends into observations of other athletes.

Professional sportswriting is not — and cannot be — a one-perspective business. Seeing the world through various sets of eyes is a prerequisite and a non-negotiable part of doing this job well. I am allowed to feel things in a very deep, private corner of my being, but the measure of professionalism in my writing and live-tweeting — my public commentary on tennis and any other sport I cover — is that I must represent various truths and various viewpoints, not just one. I have to be fair, I have to look at a broader landscape, and I have to be generous with various athletes, not just one. Otherwise, readers will know I am playing favorites, and as soon as a readership knows a writer or commentator is playing favorites, the game is over. I would need to seek a new line of work. I would not have professional respectability, and I would not have earned it, either.

Why this long prelude after Roger Federer’s stunning loss to John Millman on Monday night-turned-Tuesday-morning at the U.S. Open? Because as much as my former Federer fan self might very privately and inwardly enjoy TV broadcasters waxing poetic about how incredible Roger Federer is, the professional commentator in me has been irritated by the extent to which honest praise has at times turned into fawning over the years.

To be clear: Roger Federer has definitely earned the right to be spoken of in very lofty tones. It is inherent to the nature of an iconic athlete to draw more praise than his peers. That he receives constant praise is not the problem. Not at all. What gets me is when Federer is spoken of as a deity or a king or something beyond this world. That’s when the line gets crossed.

Let me say something very specific: A lot of over-the-top praise of Federer or any athlete or any public figure is often a calculated attempt to get more pageviews in the media industry, since pageviews are at the heart of the current business model for many publications or outlets. Praising Federer lavishly is a great way to get into the media bloodstream. The article might get noticed by a Fed fan in a given nation (where the publication is based), and that Fed fan circulates the article among friends, and it goes viral. This happened all the time before I joined TennisTwitter in 2009. I was on Peter Bodo’s TennisWorld blog as a commenter who interacted with Rafa and Djokovic fans in the comments sections. Articles would get passed around by fans like hotcakes. This was the emerging internet world which has changed media consumption habits so profoundly. It is a world in which political tactics are now so highly dependent on using the web to create viral patterns and messages which resonate with certain groups of voters and create enthusiasm leading up to Election Day.

Praising Federer, to reiterate, is simply good business these days in a media-centric context — but that doesn’t mean it is honest or thoughtful analysis which adds value. So much of what passes for commentary is or can be clickbait meant to stimulate emotional responses more than educate a reader about a subject. This, too, is a relevant distinction between a fan’s perspective and a professional commentator’s perspective.

Long story short, no one is truly helped or nourished or illuminated when Federer is talked about in a reverential way. Praise is great — it has been well and truly earned by Roger — but reverence is hagiographic and hyperbolic when coming from anyone who calls himself or herself a professional commentator or writer. There is nothing professional about treating human beings as something more than what they are.

Here, then, is the central point on which I hope to illuminate you, the reader of this piece: Not only should Federer not be spoken of as a walking God; it actually helps to appreciate his career and its remarkable successes when one RESISTS the impulse to treat him like something bigger than just a man.

Federer has played over 1,420 matches in his career. Per tennis writer Utkarsha Mitra [@utkarsha97 on Twitter — he is a good follow], this loss to John Millman marked only the ninth time that he has lost tiebreakers in consecutive sets. The Evgeny Donskoy match in Dubai in 2017 was another recent example. Those are weird, weird matches, rarely replicated. One of those matches — one of those days when you get out of bed the wrong way or get suffocated by miserable humidity — happened to Federer in Dubai a year and a half ago, and it happened again versus Millman, who was fit enough and strong enough and ready enough to win the match of his career and make a first major quarterfinal at age 29. Three cheers for him — and more will be said on him in a separate column later in this U.S. Open.

It was no more complicated than that, everyone: The miserable, choking humidity and heat which plainly caused Novak Djokovic to suffer against Marton Fucsovics — and nearly got him down 2 sets to 1 before he rallied late in the third set — affected the 37-year-old Federer. Yes, this was not a normal experience for Federer, who said that it was very rare for him to have the feeling of not having a full amount of air in his lungs. Yet, isn’t it in the nature of getting older to have more struggle-bus nights such as this one? Sure, we didn’t expect this — none of us did, fans or writers — but we knew the weather in New York was miserable. Federer got ambushed by it, and his opponent was skilled enough and fit enough to take advantage.

There was no injury. There was no severe illness. Federer is older and couldn’t win the few points he needed in multiple sets to survive this one difficult night.

I said this after Djokovic-Fucsovics and I will say it again here: Nasty weather during a tournament requires players to survive the night when the conditions get to them and create a miserable experience. Djokovic survived his match. Rafael Nadal was suffering with taped knees against Karen Khachanov. That match easily could have gone the other way — like Federer-Millman, it also went into a third-set tiebreak tied at one set apiece.

Djokovic is therefore not the only player for whom heat-related empathy should apply. It should apply to other players who suffer in such conditions. So many of the problems or mistakes that afflict tennis are viewed by various fan bases as player-specific problems, as though one person embodies — either as the victim or the beneficiary — all the ills of a sport.

But that viewpoint is precisely how FANS think about issues. Professional commentators can’t filter all the problems of a sport through one player, especially since we have now seen all three members of the Big 3 struggle with the humidity in New York. Making Roger Federer into something or someone more than human is merely one side of the coin; on the other side of the coin are those who make him the villain of tennis and the man responsible for every problem. Neither view is balanced; both views are extreme and help no one.

A person shouldn’t hold Federer uniquely responsible — or expect him to be the one to act on — various problems in tennis scheduling, court assignments, the use of roofs at tournaments,  or various other policies. Just the same, other people shouldn’t expect Federer to be an automatic victor in moments such as Monday night’s match against Millman, to the extent that if he loses, he MUST be injured or MUST be ill or, most of all, must be nearing the death of his tennis playing career.

Whether it is hyperbole in a great athlete’s moment of triumph, or runaway hysteria in the wake of a shocking upset loss such as Federer-Millman, both cases share the fundamental trait of being wildly disproportionate reactions in relationship to what actually occurred.

Remember the 2013 U.S. Open, and Federer’s loss to Tommy Robredo? I know it was five years ago, and that a trillion different things have profoundly changed our world in that period of time, but try to recall that Monday evening in New York. Also in the fourth round, also one match away from facing a member of the Big 3 (Nadal) in the quarterfinals, also playing in very sticky and steamy conditions, Federer was a mess. He didn’t serve as poorly then as he did against Millman five years later, but he gout routined in straight sets, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. He was 2 of 16 on break points. He made errors with a level of regularity that no one in the tennis community was used to seeing. He did have back problems earlier that summer in Hamburg against Federico Delbonis and then against Daniel Brands, so his form could have been questioned heading to the U.S. Open, but then again, he played a highly encouraging and entertaining Cincinnati quarterfinal against Nadal in which he held up well. The performance against Robredo — who, like Millman, is a grinder and hardly a big hitter — was out of the blue and very much unexpected. Yes, Federer was likely to get demolished by an in-form Nadal in the quarters (much as I thought Federer was headed for a decisive loss at the hands of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday, had he gotten through Millman), but the Robredo loss was still a thunderbolt.

After that match, the flood of voices calling for Federer to retire to preserve his legacy — as though being human and struggling to work his way back to the top would seem grimy or beneath Federer’s supposedly glossy and peRFect exterior — were numerous, including among Fed fans. That moment was the darkest of Federer’s career. It was emotionally easy as a fan and intellectually easy as an observer to think, with Federer at 32 years of age, that the end was near. After all, most tennis careers — if they haven’t run out of juice at 32 — hit empty soon after that. Pete Sampras was done at 31. Ivan Lendl’s best days deserted him at a similar point in time. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg didn’t make it to age 32. Neither did Bjorn Borg. John McEnroe made a few deep runs at majors in his early 30s, but ceased to be a regularly consistent force on tour well before turning 30.

Most human beings who are really good at professional singles tennis are done at or near age 32, so at least on a conceptual level, it was understandable why so many began to write Federer’s career obituary after the Robredo loss.

There was just one problem with that: Much as deifying Federer is an overreaction to his greatness, “the sky is falling” reactions to terrible performances are just as extreme and unwarranted in the other direction.

Federer knows this better than anyone. He said after the loss to Robredo, “The story of my life: When I lose, people are shell-shocked to see me play this way.” It did feel like the end of the world for a lot of Fed fans — and the beginning of a hopeful new period for his detractors — after that match. Yet, the proper response to that match as a professional commentator (which I had not yet become but wanted to if I ever got the chance) was not that “doom has descended upon Federer.” The proper response was to say that Federer’s career never felt more uncertain than it did at that moment.

When Federer lost to Delbonis and Brands on clay, he was trying out his new racquet and got injured, likely in an attempt to physically adjust to his new stick and the movements and reactions it involved. He wasn’t as physically compromised at the U.S. Open, so when he got drummed out by Robredo — something which wouldn’t happen on most days for him — the panic set in around the world. That panic manifested in the calls for his retirement or (from some professional writers and commentators) the proclamations that he was DONE and would never win another major title.

What did I think at that point in time? I thought, very consciously, about these two notions: First, that I had no idea what to expect. I would have been lying to myself if I said I expected a very particular career trajectory after that moment. Nadal and Djokovic met in that 2013 U.S. Open final, much as they are expected to meet in the 2018 final this upcoming Sunday. They were joined by Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka had just made the U.S. Open semifinals in 2013, days after Federer crashed out. The tour was getting tougher. Rafa and Nole were thriving. Murray had just won Wimbledon. Yes, it was hardly ludicrous to think Federer was in trouble.

That was one of my two very conscious thoughts after the Robredo match.

The other thought: If I or anyone should write Federer’s career obituary, I need to wait for compelling and legitimate evidence that it was warranted.

Federer’s streak of 36 straight major quarterfinals was snapped at Wimbledon in 2013 by Sergiy Stakhovsky. That was one of the most ridiculous runs in the history of tennis. In the two months encompassing Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Federer encountered a world of misery… but it was only two months.

Surely, any objective analyst or commentator needs to see more than two freaking months before weighing in on the long-term reality or trajectory of a career. That was where a number of professional writers and commentators (some of them preceding 2013 — I can personally go back to 2010 to find highly-paid media figures in the United States pointing to Federer’s demise at age 29) shoveled dirt on Federer’s tennis grave without having nearly enough evidence to be credible.

I recall thinking to myself after the Robredo match that if Federer spent the 2014 season losing in the second rounds of most tournaments and never going past a quarterfinal — something like that — his decline would be complete, his chances of winning championships at big tournaments essentially finished.

We know how 2014 turned out — no major trophy, but a 2014 Wimbledon final in which Federer had break point at 3-3 in the fifth set against Djokovic, plus semifinals in both Australia and the U.S. Open. Federer made three major semis in a year when he turned 33 (in August). Very few men in the Open Era have done that, Jimmy Connors being one.

Next year, Rafael Nadal will turn 33. In two years, Novak Djokovic will turn 33. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they match Federer’s feat, but if they don’t, that won’t be cause to think they are finished. Surely some people felt Nadal was done in 2016, and that Djokovic would either take a lot longer to build back his form or that he would never regain it again this past March.

As I sit here, five years after another fourth-round U.S. Open loss by Roger Federer that no one anticipated, I can only look back at the Robredo aftermath and marvel at all the enormous accomplishments Federer has put together in what is the “old age” portion of a tennis player’s career. Oldest No. 1 ever. 20 majors. Repeat Australian Open champion. A record-setting eighth Wimbledon. The pile of wins over Nadal. World No. 2 at age 37. Six finals in nine tournaments played this year. The Indian Wells-Miami double last year. Seven titles last year.

For all the people — fans or over exuberant commentators — who gush about Federer or fawn over him as though he is not made of the same stuff that you and I are, those voices don’t add to an appreciation of Federer. They mythologize him and turn him into this “other” being, something from another planet or galaxy. That makes him less relatable, not more.

It is best to view Roger Federer as human — strong but vulnerable; consistent but not immune to noticeable failures; extraordinary in his feats and athletic prowess but subjected to the same forces as the rest of us in our own jobs. When realizing that a gifted but imperfect, flesh-and-blood human person has achieved what Federer has achieved, both in the run of his full career and in the five years since losing to Tommy Robredo, it makes the journey, the man, and the accomplishments so much greater than when assigned to a god or a member of a royal family.

Roger Federer does not exist outside the laws of physics or the forces of the universe. He is not a being set apart. He is made of this earthly clay. He has managed to forge remarkable works from that clay, but he is not exempt from the struggles of the artist or the challenges of the scientist as he tries to figure out the next challenge, the next tough match, the next difficult night at the office.

Hysteria might flow through Twitter on nights such as Federer-Millman at the U.S. Open, but all that can be waved away with a simple response: Human beings have bad nights, and can’t magically control how they feel on each and every day they are lucky enough to wake up and have another go at life.

If that response isn’t convincing enough, here’s an even simpler truth to end on: Getting older is not easy.

If we are thinking like human beings, not gods; if we are acting like human beings, not worshipers of a king; and if we are truly focused on the need to be kind and empathetic toward public figures as human persons, despite the rare and specific circumstances they inhabit, we can allow Roger Federer to have a bad night, and not think this is any more profound — or worrying, or newsworthy — than that.

Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. shackle52

    September 6, 2018 at 6:06 pm

    Great piece and I meant to respond earlier. Reading it caused me to think about all the various ways I’ve observed coverage of Fed’s career over the years. Yes, there has been some fawning but there has also been a lot of folks who have gone out of their way to make sure everyone knew they were NOT on the Federer bandwagon. When I was a new Fed fan in 2006, their were plenty in the US press that did not want to see him surpass Sampras’ slam record. There were multiple think pieces on whether his dominance was good for tennis. I have searched for video of the press conference that followed the USO 2006 final where a reporter asked him if he would be so affable once he started losing. Somehow, I can’t imagine anyone asking that question of Nadal or Djokovic. Then there were all the “imperial Federer” takes on how he moved through the world. There was such eye-rolling over his fan base, referring to us as “kool-aid drinkers”. Imagine my surprise when a well-known sports reporter said lots of folks in the press room were more than delighted to see Fed’s decline in 2008. It made a good story. I guess that could count as a different perspective. We’ve had stories that indicated Federer was more performer than competitor. I agree with you: I’ve never thought much of the “Federer isn’t human” but I must admit, I never took it very seriously. Sports and hyperbole have always gone hand in hand. My admiration for Roger is all about him being human. It reminds me of how much we are all capable of when our talent and circumstances work together. When the ESPN commentators thought they were done with Federer during Novak’s dominant period, they started referring to him as “Mister Federer” with all the emphasis on “Mister” as a dose of irony. Yes, some coverage of Fed, especially from his dominant period until now has always been over the top. However, this Fed fan appreciates every fair assessment of this great athlete, even when it’s not what I want to hear at the time.

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