A few Sundays ago in Dubai, Roger Federer defeated Ivan Ljubicic to win the Dubai open for the third year in a row. It was his 15th consecutive win, and 41st in his last 42 matches. He’s also won four of the last eight grand slams—in a sport where two grand slams over the course of a career pretty much guarantees hall of fame status. His peers, men and women, have repeatedly said they prefer to watch him play more than any other. Tennis legends such as John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Boris Becker have said he could very well be the greatest player of all time.
Roger Federer is playing a brand of tennis that’s never been played before, combining classic grace with modern power. He moves so fluidly that he never appears out of place and he finds angles on the court that would perplex geometry professors. His game has no glaring weakness. In case I’m not being clear, he is a supreme talent taking the practice of his sport to a new level—but how many of you could pick him out of a lineup?
The incongruity between Roger Federer’s success and his popularity is not altogether shocking. The most famous tennis players in the world are undoubtedly Serena and Venus Williams and Andre Agassi. All three have tennis resumes that are beyond reproach. But that’s only part of the story. Agassi and the Williams sisters have proven to be masters at placing themselves in the public arena outside of a purely athletic context. Agassi has long been a success as a corporate pitchman, particularly for his Canon “Image is Everything” campaign. The Williams sisters have proven to be even more adept at venturing into the realm of celebrity. They exist in that strange realm where people are famous simply for being famous. My sports-phobic mother knows who the Williams are, but has never seen one stroke of one match either of them has played. This comes as no surprise. Venus appears in the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated Magazine‘s swimsuit edition. Serena is well-known for the skin tight catsuits she wears during matches while other players stick to the tried and true tennis top and athletic skirt. I consider myself a faithful tennis fan, and I don’t know of one non-tennis product or event that Federer has been associated with. Even Pete Sampras, winner of more grand slams than any other man but long derided for his lack of flair, has been a long-time endorser of Movado watches.
The notion that style wins out over substance is not new, nor does the validity of that proposition need to be debated. But has the popularity pendulum swung so far in the direction of style that a once in a lifetime athlete can toil away in relative obscurity? It’s not as if the sport of tennis is incomprehensible to the average American the way that, say, cricket or rugby is. Every city is home to public tennis courts, and the popularity of players like John McEnroe, the Williams sisters, and Agassi speaks to the fact that tennis enjoys a noteworthy level of public attention. Even Andy Roddick, the top-ranked American (who Federer has beaten eight of the nine times they’ve played) has hosted Saturday Night Live. For comparison’s sake, Federer’s highest profile talk show gig has been on Charlie Rose.
If it’s not the obscurity of tennis that’s to blame for Federer’s lack of recognition, then, is it the man himself? After all, the public success of the more well-known tennis players is inextricably linked with their ability to market themselves as personalities—McEnroe is the hair-trigger wild man, the Williams sisters are glamour girls, etc. What does Federer bring to the table? Relatively undemonstrative on the court, Federer has shown no flair for drama off the court either. The most compelling quote I could find attributed to him was his remembrance of his grandmother telling him, “it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” Not exactly the stuff of which media phenomena are made.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between Federer and the more spot-lit tennis stars is his foreignness. Federer is Swiss and the others are American. I’m sure it’s better than Roddick or Agassi’s French and German, but Federer speaks a measured, accented English—it’s obvious to anyone listening that he’s not from around here. It would be sad to think that cultural otherness could preclude an otherworldly athlete from gaining popularity, but that seems to be the case.
It was not always so. Past Grand Slam champions Boris Becker (a German) and Bjorn Borg (a Swede) had more sex appeal and status than Federer enjoys—even if it’s unlikely that either could top Federer’s game if they all played in the primes of their respective careers. Without judging whether or not the aforementioned two are significantly more attractive than Federer (I think they’re all nice-looking dudes), there must be something else. It’s not the personalities; while Becker was a passionate and fiery competitor, Borg was renowned for his utter stoicism on the court, something that drove his archenemy McEnroe crazy. Federer is cool as a cucumber, but Borg was an emotional snowman.
The difference again has to do with a selling point. Becker had a supreme self-confidence on and off the court, and also had the added cache of being the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon. He exploded on to the scene, a 17-year-old wunderkind, diving all over the court and smashing serves befitting his nickname of Boom-Boom. Then he came back the next year and won again.
Borg benefited from his rivalry with McEnroe—a classic contest of polar opposites. Borg, long blond hair held in place by his ever-present headband, was content to stay in the backcourt and laser his groundstrokes across the net. He was the stylish and aloof counterpart to the brash New Yorker McEnroe, who fearlessly rushed to the net time and time again to put balls away or watch them whiz by in about equal number. They split the 14 matches they played against each other.
Becker and Borg captured particular saleable essences that Federer does not. Borg epitomized a certain European elegance and élan that was heightened when contrasted with McEnroe’s scruffy explosiveness. Becker, riding the wave of adulation unique to prodigies, won early and often, and then played out the rest of his career in the role of living legend, which—in the ridiculously accelerated career of tennis players—meant his greatest victories were already behind him by the age of 24.
Unlike Borg, Federer has no great rival he can team with to capture the public’s attention—he beats everyone. Unlike Becker, a player for whom the term ‘swashbuckling’ was surely written, Federer’s game does not appear overwhelming to the casual fan. He plays with such fluid ease that he never seems to exert himself. His shots are so consistently brilliant as to be monotonous. He doesn’t explode at you, he just does everything better than everyone else. Lacking both personal magnetism and a foil to combat his cultural disadvantage, Federer seems destined to remain the idol of aficionados.
And this disadvantage shouldn’t be understated. The failure of the Canadian and European dominated National Hockey League to find popularity outside of regional strongholds is evidence that the American public has trouble embracing heroes that aren’t homegrown. Where is the counterexample? Yao Ming? Ignoring the fact that basketball has a built-in popularity advantage, Ming’s popularity surely has something to do with his novelty. A gigantic Chinese man playing basketball is something we’ve never seen before. The concept of Yao is exciting. A non-descript white dude playing tennis? We’ve all seen that one before.
There does seem to be one way that foreign athletes can overcome the obstacle of their strangeness, though. That way is sex. Yes, Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova are Russians; but they are also beautiful blond women. The foreign heritage stumbling block can be easily avoided by the running, groaning, and sweating of beautiful young women. Let that not diminish the skill necessary to succeed at women’s tennis—a woman champion has just as much skill and trains just as hard as her male counterparts, but it would be naïve to say the looks of the players doesn’t matter.
Who is responsible for sex appeal usurping skill in the marketing of talent? At a glance, everyone. Checking the Women’s Tennis Association website to research this article, the second-featured story was titled, “Daniela Sizzles in Italian Vogue.” And it’s not just the women’s tour that does this. It was only recently that the ATP abandoned its “New Balls, Please” marketing campaign. Seriously, the next generation of stars was promoted as “new balls.” Excuse me for being squeamish.
It’s hard to fault the players themselves. Who can blame someone for succumbing to the lure of endorsement money and the seduction of magazine covers? A player with the ability to capture the public’s attention is going make a lot of people rich. Someone like Roddick, who shows up in teen magazines and has a witty, media friendly personality, plays the marketing game well. He shows up in ads and on talk shows, which gets him recognition, then the media feels compelled to focus on him because he’s a known commodity—he sells.
It’s a cycle Federer is shut out of. In essence, Federer is an athlete of an order American sports fans have never been able to fully embrace. He’s humble to a fault, wary of drawing attention to himself, and a Swiss polyglot. His relative strangeness is exacerbated by his seeming eagerness to be self-sufficient. At a time when most high-profile professional athletes have a battalion of trainers, coaches, advisors, agents, paid “friends,” and the corporate star-making machine to lean on, Federer goes at it with a bare minimum. He has been without a coach for long stretches at a time and his girlfriend doubles as his publicist. His game does most of the talking.
Yet, to argue that Federer should be catapulted to the top of the sports celebrity heap is futile. His stature represents all that is good and all that is bad about modern sports. The good is that he is the number one ranked player in the world who has amassed millions of dollars in winnings. If you like athletic genius, you will like Roger Federer. The bad is that because he does not fit the mold of a media darling, his recognition will remain strikingly disproportionate to his achievements.
Instead, I propose a different strategy to give him his due. I say that anyone who is interested in the purity and excellence of sport, anyone who is interested in athletic brilliance, in strength of body and mind, in sport for sport’s sake, should keep Federer as your special secret, your password to a largely forgotten world—a world where the game and the people who play it is all that matters.
Let’s make Federer’s success something to stealthily toss around at the bar or on message boards. Put his name in play and see what happens. If you think you may have found a sympathetic partner, try tossing in a couple of spinners. Test their groundstrokes. Maybe you’ll have found someone who sees the beauty and brilliance of Federer’s game and what he stands for. Maybe you’ll have found someone who cares more about what happens on the court than off of it. And tell them to pass the secret on. If we can’t serve an ace, let’s win the battle one stroke at a time.