Sunday, July 4, 2010

Federer Fans, Nadal Fans, and a Window Into Political Discord

There's room for one more blog post at the end of a cluttered and busy week, and it falls outside the realm of politics... well, not quite, now that you mention it.

This is a sports post and not inherently a political one, but even a brief stroll through the landscape of tennis fandom has something to say about the way people approach any contentious subject.

As Rafael Nadal tries today to win the Wimbledon crown his injury ceded to Roger Federer in 2009, it's worth making a few points about these two champions and the way they're perceived by the public. A number of things need to be said, and a number of questions need to be asked, about the roots of support and opposition that have penetrated deep into the conversational topsoil whenever Mr. Federer and Mr. Nadal occupy center stage.

We all have our preferences as sports fans. It's a free country. Some fans gravitate to Federer's ice, others to Rafa's vibrant fire. Some women will respond to Fed's Swiss polish, many others to Rafa's Mallorcan flair. A Fed fan might be touched by the way Federer relates to his wife, Mirka, while Nadal fans might be stirred by the deep bond Rafa enjoys with the family and the neighborhood that hold him so close. On the court, the precise flourishes of an in-form Federer are wondrous for some, while Nadal's unceasing determination and energy rouse many other tennis souls to flights of ecstasy. Fed fans love how Roger set a new standard for tennis excellence; Rafa fans thoroughly appreciate the fact that someone else is stepping up to the plate and leveling a stern challenge to that very standard.

All of this is good and healthy and human and, one should add, quite necessary. We need differences to complement each other and lend fullness to the human experience. To be a sports fan - like a connoisseur of art - is to be one person out of many, one carrier of a unique set of tastes and preferences that will differ from the next guy or gal. All of this is good.

It's the unnecessary collection of distractions and tangents and friction points which detracts from the majesty and marvelousness of what the Federer-Nadal era should be.

Why is it that Federer's press conference - following his quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon on Wednesday - was somehow perceived by some as finally (or rarely) revealing Federer's humanity? Was this humanity not present before? When Federer failed to live up to (by a small margin, not the large margin I had originally perceived) the highest standards of conduct, why did that come across to some as being a welcome moment that somehow humanized Mr. Federer?

When Nadal asked for a medical time-out in his third-round win over Philipp Petzschner, why was that viewed as an act of dubious sportsmanship on Mr. Nadal's part, given that he missed Wimbledon in 2009 because of balky knees?

And here's the biggest question of all: Why is it that when an athlete receives either too much coverage or what is felt to be a misguided form of coverage in the press (coverage, it should be added, that he himself is not manipulating or orchestrating), the athlete becomes less attractive in the eyes of many fans?

Nadal suffers from this dynamic when his comments on injuries are referenced. The same thing applies to his five-set wins. It is true that there is at least some degree of a double standard in terms of the way Rafa's comments and on-court performances are treated in comparison with Federer. When the Swiss is pushed in a five-set escape, more alarm bells go off than is the case with Rafa. Mr. Nadal doesn't receive the "what's wrong?" chorus to the extent Federer does; I don't think that claim is tenuous.

You might be wondering: "How does NADAL suffer here?" He suffers in the realm of fan perception. Because of the media's double standard and because of the shadow (unnecessarily) cast by medical time-outs that have a legitimate basis in the reality of Rafa's frail knees, a number of fans come to like Rafa a bit less than they would otherwise.

Rest assured, though, Mr. Federer also gets scarred among tennis fans for similar reasons.

Whenever the media does a fawning piece on Fed, or brings an old classic Federer match into the discussion of a present-day battle unfolding live and in real time, a lot of groans are articulated on tennis message boards and blogs. Federer's pervasive media presence and frequent presence on a TV screen have created a (hyper-)saturation effect which makes Federer a turn-off for a number of tennis fans. Yet, I would dare to say that for both of these great champions and fine sportsmen (imperfect, but still very good over the long run of time), the media coverage - in its tone, tenor, content and quantity - substantially effect the extent to which the player is appreciated and admired by the tennis public.

Well, the Wimbledon final is four games underway. Time to shelve this post. I would simply like to get some in-depth feedback from a wide cross-section of tennis fans.

I leave you with this point: You can hate the media - often, you should - for what it does to try to bend perceptions of tennis stars and other athletes. Let's focus more on being critical of the media and not taking things out on the players themselves if they have nothing to do with the nature of the (wayward) media coverage being directed at them. On the other hand, if a great player and sportsman - no matter how sterling the reputation - does say something (or do something) to merit criticism, one shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge as much and, if need be, call that player (like Federer after his Wednesday press conference at Wimbledon) on the carpet.

Let the feedback flow once the Wimbledon final is over.


  1. Hi Matt. For the first time in a very long while I did not watch the Wimbledon men's final. As a matter of fact I don't even think I watched the semis in their entirety. Roger Federer drew me to this sport as well as Venus and Serena Williams. I keep telling myself that I am a tennis fan rather than a fan of favourites as I will watch anyone play tennis as long as it is on tv or on a live stream somewhere in the world, but I think for the first time I am becoming disenchanted with tennis.

    When the No.1 ranked player in the world is cited at the biggest stage in tennis for illegal on court coaching and when said No. 1 player is accused of gamesmanship by not only his peers but by fans at large and commentators then something needs to be done.

    I know that Nadal has many fans out there but I think he has single handedly destroyed tennis as we know it. From what I have seen on twitter the fans were left stunned by what they supposedly witnessed today, 4 July. No wonder Federer no longer watches tennis.

    There is no skill being employed any more. It is not about tactics any more. It is all about brute force and running your opponent ragged. It is about employing gamesmanship in order to get ahead. No longer is this a sport of gentlemen but just a sport that it is not the best who prevails but the one who can use gamesmanship to overcome.

    First it was the shrieks of the women now it is the grunting, time wasting and any other means that can be used to get the win.

    I hope everyone is happy.

  2. TennisAce:

    Your thoughts allow for a deepening of this conversation.

    Much like media coverage is more a reflection of the media itself than of the player receiving media coverage, shouldn't it also be the case that if Rafa delays or does these other things, it's up to the sport to consistently police these things?

    We shouldn't blame Rafa for doing things that the tennis establishment allows him to do. If the sport of tennis began to enforce policies, Rafa would stop. He's being given a certain allowance, and he's merely using it. This should be a negative reflection on the sport of tennis and the way it is governed. It shouldn't be a negative reflection on Rafa himself.

    Rafa overruled a number of out calls in the French Open against Almagro to give his opponent a point and/or a replay. In terms of being fair to opposing players, Rafa sets a high standard (Soderling a possible but increasingly old and somewhat outdated exception).

  3. Matt, even if the sports is allowing him to get away with it, why does he or anyone else feel the need to employ such things. Maybe I am a bitter Federer fan who sees the writing on the wall for one of the greatest players of this generation.

    Maybe I am mad that all of a sudden the records and achievements of one of the greatest to ever play this sport is being swept away by some as nothing remarkable.

    Maybe I am just a bitter disenchanted tennis fan, but I just do not like where the sport is going right now.

    I love Wimbledon and I love tennis but it breaks my heart to see the sport going this way. It really and truly does and unfortunately, nothing will be done about it.