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.

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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.


  1. Really great piece. Completely agree with everything you wrote.

  2. Standing O.

  3. Great post. However when Federer plays I only focus on his results. I am a FedererFanatic and don't care much about either Rafa or Djoker when they win or lose. After over 40 years of watching tennis I have never felt as positive about a single player. Would people rather that Fed read from a script where he says only that which would generate the most positive reaction? Or say what he wants to say? People who are haters will always find something to jump on, and that is what leads to media trainers and pre-canned statements and pr firms ruling what the masses see and hear. Let's just let people say what they think and not dissect everything, esp words spoken moments after hours spent bashing the ball against your opponent.

  4. Ramble mode...

    "What I don't get is why that remark was so strongly perceived by a decent-sized chunk of Tennis Twitterville as somehow classless."

    Not only the power of perceiving through bias, bitterness and resentment that Federer won AGAIN, which I'm sure is a large part of it, but the power of narrative, combined with the INSTA-OPINION and snowball nature of Twitter. Fed's post 2009 speech, for example, had an unfortunate feel to it, which in large part wasn't his fault AT ALL. (the jacket, clearly overwhelmed post-match, etc). But subsequent events are interpreted in light of that and other previous comments in pressers, post-match interviews etc. People were expecting a clumsy moment in this one and kind of made one out of nothing, IMO.

    As you said, one sad thing is that experiencing gloating/unfair loathing etc of one's favourites doesn't seem to make most people empathise. It makes them want to take revenge, and hit back. Which possibly makes them feel better for two minutes. Then other people get drawn into the argument, and the whole silly cycle is repeated and perpetuated.

    "Human beings lash out in bitterness and frustration when attacked or made to feel lower by another subgroup" - My feeling, talking in generalities, is that a lot of resentment from some Federer fans towards Nadal is about the way the Fedal rivalry developed (and there's a similar recent dynamic with Nadal fans' feelings towards Djokovic), whereas a lot of the resentment from Nadal fans or Djokovic fans towards Federer is about the way Federer is perceived in the media as, basically, a god - see Simon Barnes. Federer is so much seen as the Platonic form of tennis, comportment etc that everyone else somehow becomes necessarily inferior and lesser in comparison, and we're told that if you don't like Federer you can't like tennis, etc etc, with the implication that preferring a not-proper-enough player makes you not a proper enough tennis fan. I blame David Foster Wallace. :)

    It's particularly difficult for Djokovic to get the respect he deserves because he has both of Fedal, and a rivalry that became bigger than both of them, to contend with, and the tennis world, media and fans both, still sees things through Fedal-tinted spectacles.

    Obviously there's lots more to it than those things, many more layers, and there have been times in the media when Fed was the one being seen in a negative light, back in early 2009, for example. And I know that some Fed fans feel that Federer doesn't get his media due.

    I try to cut out excessive negativity, gloating & hateration from my Twitter, regardless of fandom - it's my safe place. One can't really ask people not to feel what they feel, or not to express it (although I frequently do, in less thoughtful moments - a bad habit of mine) - but it's not obligatory to read and listen on one's personal Twitter timeline. It works out as a gain, not a loss, because the more interesting, genuine and thoughtful opinions, even when they're opposite to mine, become more visible, as opposed to getting lost in the hateration stuff. Plus, I'm happier. :)

  5. I've been saying for years that deifying Roger is wrong-wrong-wrong. As a religious person it's especially offensive to me: It almost reeks of paganism. 'See this handsome, athletic, successful, suave guy? Well, he must be the new incarnation of Jupiter! All hail him!' And of course, this Roger god is just as much a figment of fallible human imagination as Jupiter was.

    HOWEVER, that has nothing to do with my love for Roger. Does he see himself as a god? Goodness, I think he would split his sides laughing at the idea. How is he to blame for the media lazy, cliché thinking any more than he is to blame for their predicting his retirement after every loss? Nor should he be blamed for his fans' deifying him, although most of them have no inclination to do that. They love him very much as human being : shortcomings, bad hair days, giggle attacks and all.

    Actually, I can think only of ONE Federer fan I've ever come across who insisted on deifying Roger. I think you know him, Matt: he now wages a personal twitter crusade against his former god. True fandom isn't warship; it's recognizing the good in a person and supporting them because their basic nature is decent and they seem to be trying to do the right thing, on court and off court. May we all be able to say the same thing about ourselves.

  6. Matt, you know that I like it so much when you write about tennis that I'd pay you out of my own pocket to let you do so regularly. But with respect, I don't think your idea is going to work. A truce is not needed.

    Out in meatspace, our opportunities for self-identification are limited: clothing, tattoos, calculated emotional displays whenever things happen. Here on the internet -- a place that is not real -- we have tools like avatars, screen names, status updates, message boards, and image macros. It's easier than ever to advertise ourselves as certain types of people, but the core human imperative for community hasn't changed: we must do whatever we can externalize our inner lives. We are searching for people like us.

    I believe that tennis, of all the sports we have, offers the best reflection of who we are and want to be. Players travel the world ten months a year, battling others and themselves; we collect our favorite(s) and follow along. As fans, we're drawn to competitors who, in all those lonely and vulnerable hours on court, exhibit similarities to us -- or at least the qualities we hope to attain someday.

    The contract between player and supporter is very clear (not clear enough to stop endlessly annoying the non-fans in our lives, however): in return for inspiration and the opportunity to transcend our humdrum routines, we offer emotional investment. Our heroes will never give us more than a general racquet-clap to the stands after a win, or maybe a giant-ball autograph or two-second handshake in person someday, but this is an even and equal transaction. What balances it out is that by supporting a favorite player, we join a group of like-minded others... and thanks to the deep psychology inherent in tennis, those others are likely to be more like-minded than would be otherwise comfortable.

    This isn't tribalism, Matt, it's community. What matters is that you stand up and say "I am a Federer fan, and I'm very proud of him and his accomplishments." Others will, and already do, gravitate towards you in a positive way. Negativity always takes care of itself (negatively), but at least here on the internet we have the block button and the delete key to speed that process along.

    I, personally, am not a Federer fan. I don't like it very much when he wins, and never have. That, and my inability to find anything in common with any of the other current Big Four (or top twenty), is why I don't watch the men that much anymore. I haven't made a single friend by being an Anti-Fed, and I never will, and I understand the dynamics behind that. But I still do hold out hope that another Pete Sampras will come along someday.

  7. There is one more angle to this episode, which is not in your article (atleast not clear enough) - the "lost in translation" angle.

    Federer said "atleast one grand slam" but what did he exactly mean? In a later interview Federer (kind of) elaborated on the comment by saying "I hope he wins multiple grand slams, not just one". Would anyone think that the latter comment is classless?

    To me it looks like Federer wanted to make the latter comment during the presentation, but couldn't quite get the right words.

    This is one of the commonest forms of misunderstanding - the same sentence means one thing to me, yet something subtly or totally different to another person. And this is bound to happen because of vastly different cultural and educational backgrounds.

    A little more perspective, patience and understanding goes a long way in spotting the "lost in translation" angle.

    There are some philosophical lessons to be learnt from this, but not probably worth going into here.

  8. I'm a Nadal fan but I find criticism of Fed's remark ridiculous. Seriously, when you mentioned the utterly harmless remark, I thought you were going to say Nadal fans were offended because if Murray wins Slams in the future those would be Slams Nadal won't win and that therefore means that Fed is rooting for Murray so Nadal doesn't break his record.

    Anyway, I agree with the author. Let's just enjoy this great sport and all these great players.

  9. Matt, nice to see you still writing, still the voice of reason. They do all seem to be great guys, as well as great tennis players; philanthropic, respectful of others, and, of course, law abiding. I'm another Fed fan. I love his wins and am sad at his losses. But I also am sad at this loathing, and it's an even bigger issue in more important spheres of life. It is now sadly common, in politics, and on social issues, as well as tennis, to consider anyone who disagrees with us as somehow evil. We don't have to discuss things with each other; we can just be self-righteously indignant and insulting, egging those who agree with us on further. Our inability to see others with different views as equally valuable human beings is costing us greatly. We can feel a sense of community - as many of us Fed fans, Rafa fans and Nole fans do - without needing to hate anyone. Every small step towards tolerance is a great thing. So thanks for your post. Keep it up!

    Oh, and I'm a big Paul Wellstone fan too! What a terrible loss that was.

  10. This article does nothing to change the fact that Lord Federer is a one of the sorest losers this sport has ever seen. I know his fans do not want to come to terms with the truth, which is fine. Nothing can ever change the reality that Federer is a classless loser. He does a much better job appearing gracious when winning, but how hard is that?

    Even after the Olympics loss yesterday, he attributes his loss to the Murray home court advantage coupled with Federer being exhausted after his semi win over Del Potro (despite playing the first semi AND having an off day before the final to recover). The guy is spoiled, and classless. No grand slam trophy case will ever change the reality of that.

    As a side note: most of the tennis world besides Lord Federer understands his most recent grand slam was tainted by the fact he won the semis and finals INDOORS at Wimbledon. He is a great indoor player. It worked well for him. It is just sad that a grand slam event with Wimbledon's history is now being changed to accommodate money and television. Luckily, weather cooperated in the Olympic final. No surprise that outside, Federer didn't stand a chance and was routed. No golden slam for his career because of it. But he remains a top 10 great of all time nonetheless, just not the GOAT he and his fans always wanted him to be.