Why Roger Federer is Ruining Men's Tennis
by a longtime tennis fan
Just how many times can Dick Enberg say "Oh, my"?
How many analogies to a symphony orchestra or a championship baseball team can be made when referring to the play of the current men's tennis champion, Roger Federer?
Federer is only 25 years old and has already achieved Grand Slam number ten, and American tennis commentators need someone to hand them a Thesaurus because they've already run out of adjectives for a player whose mechanics are more analogous to a Swiss watch than a Swiss man.
We have a long, long road ahead . . .
Another year, another Aussie Open. As has been true since the timing of this Grand Slam tournament was changed back to January two decades ago, the 2007 tennis season opened in Australia with a sense of hope for the new year and a sense of fun characteristic of the land Down Under, where the fans are celebrating summer's reign while here in Portland we're suffering from the winter rain. (Even the 'extreme heat' of the early matches in Melbourne look pretty darn good about now.)
The hype was predictable: Would James Blake finally live up to his Grand Slam promise after a great run at the Masters? Would Andy Roddick solidify his return to top form under the watchful eye of former great, Jimmy Connors? Would Nadal take to the bouncy Rebound Ace better than he had to last summer's hardcourts? Would Leyton Hewitt do anything worth mentioning (or televising), either courageous or reprehensible?
Would Roger Federer be unbeatable like in 2006 or vulnerable like in 2005?
New coaches were everywhere making their presence felt: Connors and Roddick, Brad Gilbert and Andy Murray, Larry Stefanki and Fernando Gonzalez. And any of their three charges might make a decent run for the final.
Yes, it started with spirit, but it turned out that nobody but Federer had a ghost of a chance.
And in the final two rounds there was no suspense, no drama, and, worst of all, very little entertainment.
Tennis promoters around the U.S. must be rubbing their temples in dismay while silently thanking the tennis gods that fewer viewers are staying up all night watching the Australian Open than the other three majors. Because the longer Federer's streak runs, the worse it will affect people around the U.S. turning up and tuning in, much less being inspired to pick up a racket.
Federer has become an inaccessible sort of tennis legend, reminiscent of the Tolkien hero Aragorn who wields the magical weapon Anduril in the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a faraway look in his soulful eyes. He's handsome. He's manly. He's strong. He has a noble brow (despite what appeared to be a very human zit under his headband during this year's trophy ceremony).
He has even been known to weep after a win, as he did during the oft-repeated trophy ceremony from last year's event. (Oft-repeated, no doubt, to add some humanity to the man's implacable visage. Television producers are smart enough to realize this guy needs a spin doctor -- and it's not to fix his slice backhand!)
No tears were evident this year, unless you count those being shed by Nadal, Roddick and Gonzalez, to name just three.
"Give us a smile," Enberg urged after one of Roger's unbelievable shots.
Sorry, Dick. No such luck.
Yes, Roger Federer is definitely one of the good guys, as we're constantly reminded. It's hard to hate him.
Which is part of the problem. We end up feeling bad about pulling against him. At least we never had to apologize for rooting against the dour, Orc-like Ivan Lendl when he pounded his way into all those Grand Slam finals.
Tolkien's Aragorn was a wonderful character. But his efforts never captured the imagination like those of the unlikely hero, Frodo, the little Hobbit who had to overcome incredible odds to win the day. Couldn't the perfect Federer take off his tennis shoes during a changeover and at least be revealed to have big hairy feet?
No doubt Enberg thought he was reassuring the fans today when he read off stats that proved Federer had not yet earned the title 'The Greatest Player of All Time.' Connors won twice as many tournaments overall. Sampras was number one for far longer. Etc., ad nauseum.
(Great. Let the world know that tennis is all about one dominant player kicking the crap out of everybody else. That will certainly make the sport more attractive for the less initiated.)
Connors, at least, was exciting to watch, especially once his suspect forehand had been exposed by Arthur Ashe. Fans could love him or hate him without restraint. He wore his heart on his Italian tenniswear sleeve. He didn't just pump his fist -- he used his whole body. Once he won a long match while dunking a cramping hand into an ice chest so he could grip the ridiculous metal racket he was too stubborn to abandon.
And even low-key Pete occasionally staggered around the back of court puking before he finished off a tough five-setter with a few well placed aces.
The advent of Connors (and his 'Love Doubles' alter ego, the iconic Chris Evert) helped give rise to the tennis boom in America, despite the angst of the establishment that hated their supposedly one-dimensional ground games and two-fisted backhands. They were accessible. They were great, but their style could be emulated.
What is there about Federer that anyone on this planet can possibly identify with?
Why worry? The consummate tennis Know-It-All, Mary Carillo, who commentated Federer's semi-final and final for ESPN, says there's good news for us fans. Federer is going to make the other guys better. They're going to stop banging the ball from the back of court and start rushing the net and honing their transition games. This despite the fact the only player in the world with a winning record against Federer is a dirt-baller who sometimes returns serve from the next province.
I feel better already.
I wonder if Andy Roddick does, since he's already been working on just those tactics, and he was dismantled (if not dismembered) by Federer like a junior who accidentally wandered onto the wrong court and ran into the proverbial buzzsaw.
We had hope for Gonzalez. He had played brilliantly to get into the final, he had nothing to lose, and Roger sometimes shows a chink in his chainmail in the first set of a big final. But Gonzo couldn't take advantage of his chances and blew the first-set-winning forehand into the net.
The rest was history.
Or maybe destiny
is a better description.
It was fitting that during the changeover after Federer got the break in the second set, I surfed to another channel that happened to be playing the 2004 sword and sandals flick, 'Troy.' At the risk of mixing my epic metaphors, there on the small screen were the buff Brad Pitt and Eric Bana as Achilles and Hector in their mano-a-mano moment when the Greek finally takes down the Trojan hero. How evenly matched they seemed as they strutted around on the sand in little outfits revealing straining biceps and toned legs (kind of like last year's final at Roland Garros), creating suspense for anyone lacking enough classical education to know Achilles would drive that spear through Hector's chest.
What came to mind?
Hubris, the ancient quality that had every epic warrior and conqueror starting to doubt he was actually human, not heavenly.
Does Roger Federer suffer from hubris? Maybe not in the first set of a Grand Slam final, but certainly by the press conference afterward. Now Roger says we can go ahead and call him "a genius." But unfortunately we've already used that term to death.
At this point I think we should count ourselves lucky that Roger didn't decide a few nights ago to circle Rod Laver Arena in a chariot, dragging Andy Roddick's lifeless body behind him. On second thought, that, at least, might have added some entertainment value.
Industrious tennis organizers are bending over backward to do just that, adding the challenge system to two of the majors and actually considering the concept of on-court coaching. But watching from home it's hard to appreciate the rare challenge when the increasingly caustic Carillo -- who clearly has been fruitlessly warned by someone behind the scenes to tone down her rants -- continues to carry on about every possible modification designed to lure more fans to the game. Fans? Who needs them? Let's protect the pampered players who have to call for the trainer every time they get a cramp, a strain or a banana caught in their throats.
(Oh, for the days when Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon with a strained groin muscle and sat during changeovers with a stoic expression on his face and a spray can pointed at his belly!)
Carillo, no doubt, would prefer a 'pure' contest between two warriors played out at the all-but-abandoned courts at my local park, rather than one tainted by the challenge system and the threat of legal coaching. We should remind her that in such an unlikely scenario the put-upon Roger Federer, "embarrassed" by occasionally making a challenge and being revealed to actually be capable of human error, would indeed have to call his own lines.
(Mary, don't get me
So, another Aussie Open is over. No more wild weather, wild flying bugs or wild fans. And no more wild guesses about something exciting or dramatic happening in the men's draw.
Now we have several months before we have to revisit the monotonous mantra of Grand Slam statistics and "Oh, mys." Another veteran commentator, Cliff Drysdale, says this will be the year of the Federer Grand Slam, and he's probably right. Federer, like Sampras before him, will start playing the record book, not the other players. And American tennis fans can only hope that Andy will mature like Andre Agassi and take advantage of an occasional opportunistic chance to somehow flesh out his own heroic career.
Because when it comes to the next few years in tennis, Federer's dominance is pre-destined.
And when it comes to the "genius" Federer, one thing aside from his tennis brilliance is proven.