Photo: Wikimedia Commons
At some point in his career, perhaps after David Foster Wallace’s lyrical essay, Roger Federer became wrapped in romance.Where a basketball player is a great athlete, Roger is a great artist.
Where a quarterback fires a rocket into his receiver’s chest, Roger carves a perfectly arced backhand winner just inside the baseline.
And where mortal athletes get eulogies, Roger gets an elegy.
Right now, we are at the elegy stage with Federer.
I know that because the Swiss choked away his quarterfinal match against Jo-Willy Tsonga yesterday. I know this because these “shock” upsets are becoming more and more frequent. And I know this because I spent 10 minutes attempting to make sense of this passage by Grantland’s Brian Phillips this morning:
“For a while now, ever since we started saying he was ‘still good’, we’ve been conscious of the fact that the end of his career was in view. But to see him looking paralysed, seemingly frozen on the edge of some big, dark thing that no one else could perceive, was a lot more unsettling than the ‘vague sadness’ I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It was about as close as you can come to watching the fantasy of sports fall apart before your eyes.
Granted, Federer wasn’t standing behind the baseline thinking ‘now I gaze into the abyss beyond understanding.’ He was thinking about how much topspin to use, or how to improve his first-serve percentage. But the poet isn’t the man who sits down to breakfast. There was an abyss somewhere, even if it was ours and not Federer’s.”
Expect to see more than a few “Odes To Roger” in the coming days.
This is not to say that these elegies won’t be warranted. Federer was one of the greatest athletes of all time.
His play was awe-inspiring. He found angles that other players couldn’t see and hit shots that other players couldn’t hit.
He was as mentally tough as anyone, maintaining a borderline creepy steadiness during the tensest of moments.
He was, in my eyes, as exciting to watch as Tiger in his prime, LeBron in his Cleveland days, and Bonds when his head was the size of a parade float.
But the question remains: Why the romance around Federer? Why the poetry?
You could point to his European roots. You could point to how the flow of a tennis match lends itself to poetic themes. You could point to Roger’s overt interest in playing “beautiful” tennis.
All of these are legitimate theories. But another reason why we talk about Roger differently from how we talk about other transcendent athletes is decidedly more uncomfortable: class difference.
Tennis implies a certain level of affluence. It connotes upper-class notions of etiquette and respect. It has an inherent dignity that other sports do not.
Because of that, tennis players come to personify those characteristics and associations. Tennis players are dignified in the popular imagination. They are not merely athletes, they are thinkers and gentlemen who happen to possess athletic prowess.
Athletes in other sports simply do not get this type of respect.
One of the primary criticisms of LeBron James centres on his perceived ignorance of his own skills. He is a block of talent who doesn’t know how to fashion himself into the great player he can be.
Tennis players are never talked about in this way. They are always in total control of their skills. LeBron can dunk because of God-given talent that he has no control of. But Roger chooses to hit a screaming forehand precisely where he wants it. He has agency over his own play in a way other athletes don’t.
So it’s our assumption that Federer is aware of his own skills that sets him apart. It’s what makes him “creative,” and it’s what allows the romantically-inclined to call him a “poet.”
Of course, this narrative is completely false. Federer’s “poetry” is no different from LeBron’s “God-given talent.” The only thing that’s different are the socio-cultural associations of the two sports.
Obviously class isn’t the only reason for the romanticization of Federer. But in a sport defined by its affluence, it’d be naive to ignore the role of class when talking about the fallen Swiss master.
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