Monday, July 9, 2012

Loathing the Loathing: A Call For A Tennis Fan Truce

I am a quixotic person. I tilt at windmills. Paul Wellstone, he of the 1 vote in many 98- or 99-1 United States Senate votes, was a foremost political hero of mine. I fight losing battles. Hey, I'm a political lefty. Moreover, Jesus fought losing battles.

Oh, geez -- there goes Matt, comparing himself to Jesus... or at least, that's what I can imagine a few readers saying at that point. Yeah, I just don't say things exactly the way they should be said every single time.

*                                       *                                         *

In the two paragraphs above, the first one was dead-dog serious: There are battles I want to continue to fight. The second paragraph was meant to convey a point: People acquire very specific notions of what it means to behave well, and by golly, when public figures cross those lines, they often stay on a shiznit list forever.

The battle I want to fight is the battle against loathing among fans of men's tennis. This crusade has animated a part of my tennis writings and tweets over the past five years or so, and its necessity was raised yesterday when Roger Federer -- the men's tennis player I'm partial to -- broke a two-and-a-half-year drought at the majors by winning Wimbledon, and then made a remark after his victory that did not sit well with a considerable portion of the online tennis community.

I surround myself with plenty of Federer fans on my Twitter timeline, but I include substantial portions of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fans as well, to provide a rich sampling of opinion and color from a sport that has added much to my life experience. Similarly, my political Twitter feed -- @RealHowardBeale -- includes just as many conservatives as liberals. I don't go on Twitter or any interactive medium so that I can only hear what my side, my "tribe," has to say. People don't learn much that way. People don't grow much that way.

This is an essay meant for all tennis fans, but my story must necessarily begin with a survey of non-Federer fans in my timeline when Federer notched his victory. Dozens of Nadal and Djokovic tweeps met the moment with class and a sporting mentality. I recognized some of them specifically in tweets during the trophy presentation and in the 30-45 minutes after it. Sadly, though, an equal amount of tennis tweets following Federer's win conveyed a palpable sense not just of disappointment, but disgust. Most tweeps were sad that Andy Murray lost, a sadness that is shared and embraced by any sports fan with a heart that hasn't frozen over. Murray's post-match speech on Centre Court moved me to tears. I want him to win a major someday, and I reckon that most tennis fans feel the same way.

It was with great perplexity, then, that I beheld the following post-match chain reaction on Twitter: Federer said that he felt Murray would win at least one major, but a vocal subsection of Twitter pronounced the Swiss to be classless and appalling in his behavior. This, just a week and a half after a huge kerfuffle emerged from Federer's revelation that he laughed for 10 minutes after Lukas Rosol beat Nadal... the laughter coming out of disbelief, not haughty enjoyment of Rafa's plight.
To the non-Federer fans in the audience, let me share with you a few things: As stated above, I am a political liberal. I want the athletes I root for as a sports fan to be good people, to exhibit good values. There is a certain connection between the athletes I root for and the values they represent. Yet, athletics being what it is, it is almost invariably true that successful athletes lead lifestyles different from the common person. It's also true that athletes come from so many different backgrounds, meaning that as much as I might want to envision or think of an athlete in my own image, I'm never going to get a perfect package.

Federer's lifestyle is not one I can remotely begin to identify with. There is an extravagance which certainly doesn't mesh with my sensibilities, a sometimes aristocratic bearing which smacks of overwhelming elitism. Speaking to non-Federer fans, you know these feelings better than I do. You can't begin to bear this part of Federer's identity. I get that. Moreover, that's not a problem. Rafa, the simple low-key fisherman without the champagne-and-caviar tastes, is the kind of man I and my late Czech father would identify with in terms of a daily lifestyle. War-surviving Novak Djokovic has fashioned a life story that -- to a neutral observer -- would rate as more inspiring than anything Federer has managed to do. It's great that many people on this planet find more to like about Nadal or Djokovic than Federer. I am not here to try to sell you on Federer as an identity or, more urgently, as a person.

What I am here to do is to draw a distinction -- a distinction that so often gets blurred, much as in American politics. You may not prefer a given person, image, or modus operandi. Your heart may not be captured by a stylistic imprint, an essence, a vibe, a worldview. Yet, your lack of preference for that person/image/worldview/essence does not make it bad or value-negative. Human beings -- in politics, tennis, religion, anything under the sun -- have, in the internet age, lost sight of the difference between a life-and-death contrast and, on the other hand, varying flavors or shapes of legitimate competing ideas.

If an athlete does really bad things -- Michael Vick's dogfighting, Ben Roethlisberger's aggressive behavior toward younger women, Shawn Kemp's or Antonio Cromartie's fathering of several children with several different sexual partners -- the notion of said athlete going on a fan's black list is perfectly reasonable, even enlightened. If an athlete doesn't grow up, thereby failing to honor his/her compact with the ticket-buying public, there's an undeniably appropriate quality to any subsequent attempt on the part of fans to shun that athlete.

With Roger Federer, no such dirt exists. No, you don't have to like the guy. No, you don't have to see the world through a Federer fan's lens. You don't have to prefer the way he plays tennis. You should, however, be able to muster up enough humanity to avoid the blackest forms of loathing.

What is Federer's great sin, a la Vick/Roethlisberger/Kemp/Cromartie/Adam "Pac Man" Jones/Tiger Woods or any other athletes who have truly engaged in shameful behavior at some point in their careers? Federer runs a charitable foundation that, to my knowledge, has not become one of the shadowy, flimsy shops that fails to give donors (and recipients of aid) a good return on their investments. He has, by all accounts, led a monogamous life. Sure, could there be a Joe Paterno-style expose in the future? There's always that chance, but remember: This is not an attempt to deify Federer or give him the kind of veneer that allowed Paterno to slip under the radar at Penn State when Jerry Sandusky's abuses went unpunished. This is merely an attempt to allow Federer's humanity to be seen for what it is: maybe not your own flavor, but not anything worth loathing.

This brings us back to Federer's remark that he hoped Murray would win at least one major. I can see why another human being -- one with a different worldview or wiring compared to mine (much as a conservative differs from my left-leaning outlook) -- would say, "Ya know, I just don't agree with or prefer that way of handling that kind of situation. Federer should have remained generic and applauded Murray on a great tournament without applying pressure to him." Again, I understand why Federer's remark would create a wince or a chagrined reaction of some sort.

What I don't get is why that remark was so strongly perceived by a decent-sized chunk of Tennis Twitterville as somehow classless. Is Federer perceived as dishonest when he says that? Is Federer willfully trying to place pressure on Murray? Sadly, I suspect one of those two answers applies to the (not representative) subsection of non-Federer fans who pounced on that remark with such passion on Sunday. The quickness to find fault in a Federer comment was striking because, well, Federer had just won a major for the first time in a long while. When Federer was winning majors with more regularity, the fault-finding-in-a-phrasing police became a numbingly regular part of a post-major experience for Federer fans.

Here's a quick pair of thoughts for those inclined to view Federer's post-victory remarks in the worst possible light:

1) What is your handbook for what to say in moments of victory? That's not a snarky question; it's serious. If certain remarks are inappropriate, what is the range of acceptable ones? See, this stuff gets tricky in a hurry. What might initially seem to be inappropriate to your own way of thinking is really just something that sits outside your realm of preference or your field of taste. This leads to...

2) When judging an athlete's post-event remarks, specifically those to his/her defeated opponent, always be ready to make the distinction between, on one hand, "acceptable or unacceptable" versus "preferred or not preferred." Those are two very different distinctions, the kinds of distinctions that should draw a bright red line between actions and statements that justify the true loathing of an athlete, and -- on the other hand -- actions and statements that merely lead you to prefer one athlete's way of being over another's, without enmity or rancor.

This is where I'd like to speak directly to fellow fans of Roger Federer.

You felt some of the larger online tennis community's displeasure yesterday. You rediscovered what it was like to stand in the winner's circle after two and a half years of watching Nadal and Djokovic fans catch the heat. The absorption of that outside negative energy should serve as reinforcement for the good Federer fans, those who have always been quick to congratulate Nadal and Djokovic fans in the aftermath of a sweet win for the Mallorcan or the Serb. For the Federer fans who gloated when Nadal lost to Rosol -- only to watch Federer come within two points of losing to Julien Benneteau the very next day -- this can become an eye-opener, a moment that leads to greater peace among men's tennis fans in this golden era for the sport. The fact that Roger Federer endured such withering and unfair scrutiny during his foremost years should now make it easier to appreciate, two and a half years later, what Nadal and Djokovic fans have had to put up with... especially today. This really is a great time for a tennis fan truce.

It is especially true in matters of religion, ideology and politics, but it's not very different in men's tennis: Human beings lash out in bitterness and frustration when attacked or made to feel lower by another subgroup. The various factions in men's tennis have all taken such a pounding from the other sides that they're the first to loathe those other subgroups and view their favorite players in the most negative light possible, damn the evidence. This is the tribalism that moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt speaks to in his excellent new election-year (in America) book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. It is a book every American should read in advance of the Obama-Romney campaign, and it is the book Federer, Nadal and Djokovic fans would do well to read as well.

In conclusion, the three men who have done so much for the sport of tennis over the past nine years should be lauded for their achievements. As people, they represent three distinct ways of being: Swissness with affluence and a regal bearing; Spanish island-ness with a strong family emphasis on hard work and simplicity; Serbian-ness with a burning desire to strive and achieve and make a positive name for oneself and one's country, driven by survival instincts and a certain degree of nationalism. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic represent such different things to many people. We, as human creatures, are different and -- moreover -- meant to be different, so it is good and right that these three tennis players not be seen in the same ways by everyone. It's good and right that each player is preferred over and against the others by a subsection of tennis's global fan base.

However, all of this exists within a context of preferences, not Good versus Evil or Life-Affirming versus Life-Squelching. One should prefer Djokovic over Federer as one prefers strawberry over vanilla; one should prefer Federer over Nadal as one prefers organ music over guitar music. It is entirely true that many fans of the Big Three are terrific tweeps, gracious in all circumstances and reflective of the best of humanity. However, when one person's victory is met by a desire to quit tennis (what, the past two and a half years suddenly ceased to be enjoyable?) and one's perfectly reasonable remarks are viewed as somehow unsporting, it would seem that for far too many tennis fans, a good-versus-evil tribalism is alarmingly prevalent.

Federer fans, Nadal fans, Djokovic fans... none of us should feel it important or necessary to loathe one of these three terrific players who have contributed to this remarkable time in the sport's history. Here's a compromise, however: If anyone feels it necessary to continue to engage in loathing, why not keep it private instead of taking the fun away for the fans of the victorious player?

I have rather enjoyed the past two and a half years of men's tennis, even though my favorite player didn't win very much at the majors. Moreover, I'm quite aware of the extent to which Federer fans have been quick to gleefully gloat when Nadal or Djokovic suffered some form of setback, so I know whence this revulsion comes. This is therefore the perfect time to make an appeal for mutual respect and decency... not just from your side, but from mine.

Tribalism, in any field of endeavor or any aspect of human beings' sociocultural pursuits, has never worked out particularly well for the global family of all creation.