Federer Redux: More Than a Household Name
[17 March 2006]
Technical perfection blended with human emotional actualization.
by John Mitchell
Last year David Marchese wrote an article for PopMatters about Roger Federer and how both his genius and success were largely occurring "under the radar." His conclusion was to suggest a quiet revolution of sorts, one in which we privately acknowledge Federer's greatness to others in the know.
Since then, Roger Federer has won many more tennis matches, including the U.S. Open and just recently, the Australian Open. While Federer continues to dominate his sport and display the consistent grace and genius with a tennis racquet that Michael Jordan once did with a basketball, his relative obscurity appears to have remained just as consistent. Perhaps this quiet revolution idea was not enough. I, for one, am ready to declare that I have a new sports hero, and that Roger Federer is it. In fact, I believe that Roger Federer can one day save our world (though more on that later).
I have been involved in sports all my life, and in tennis since I was in junior high school. I remain an avid sports junkie (although if I don't log onto ESPN.com for a day or two, I can still manage to function and take care of my and my children's basic needs). However, it has been a long time -- until I witnessed this year's Australian Open (Federer's 7th Grand Slam title, halfway to Pete Sampras' once-thought-untouchable record) -- since I was actually moved by sports. I speak not of the emotional excitement of sports, but of the kind of human emotion that is usually only on display in college athletics or within the Olympic realm -- the type of pure emotion when someone without pretension (this effectively rules out most professional athletes) realizes the utter joy and nirvana of reaching a crowning achievement, when it dawns on them how all of their hard work, persistence, and hope have now become realized into a singular moment of success. I saw great tennis from Roger Federer during the Australian Open, and I've always admired him for his great skills; what I wasn't expecting was how he would win me over with his humanity.
Roger Federer is typically characterized in the same way as many Teutonic and Scandinavian athletes: stoic, cool, unemotional, unflinching, and calculating. It is as if Sweden, Switzerland, or Norway were breeding grounds for the world's professional killers. Think about it, what other personality profile describes the "assassin-like" coldness and determination that so many attribute to Federer as he disposes of each successive victim of his racquet? And yet here Federer was, fumbling for words as he accepted the Australian Open trophy from Rod Laver, one of his childhood heroes.
Millions (at least thousands of viewers, I doubt millions of Americans were awake at 6 in the morning to catch the live broadcast) like me were probably expecting a short, curt speech whereby Roger would say, with his usual grace, aplomb, and brevity, "thank you to my family, to Marcos, a worthy opponent," etc., then maybe adding some Terminator-like epilogue of "anyone who continues to resist my perfect tennis game will be terminated in Paris." What I didn't expect was Roger fumbling for words, falling silent, and then starting to cry like a schoolgirl. And I loved it! Now I'm crying as I watch him pour out all of his heart in the realization of how great this moment is and, maybe slightly, how great Federer himself is becoming. I thought to myself, "this is what sports is about." It's about stretching yourself, about striving for perfection of form and function, day in and day out, and maybe, just maybe, reaching that state of perfection -- whether it's with a golf club, a basketball, a tennis racquet -- and enough of those perfect moments coagulate into a winning streak, then a tournament win, then a Grand Slam win, and then you're accepting a trophy from your childhood hero. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Roger Federer.
For both his success and his humanity, Federer should not only be a household name, he should be a sports hero. I don't care that he's not flashy, I don't care that he's a foreigner, I don't care that his game more resembles Edberg's surgeon-like precision than Becker's dramatic athleticism. Well, actually, I do care! I like that he's humble, I like that he's not American, I like that his game is fluid rather than grandiose. Sports fans, we are seeing perfection on display in his game! Somewhere in the tennis universe there is a template for what tennis is supposed to look like in its perfect essence, and Roger Federer is that. On top of that, the guy is a decent human being to boot, someone who is just now only realizing his earning potential as a sports (or at least tennis) icon. Part of me grieves for this, for I fear Federer might be swallowed up by that "other" side of sports, the side that's flashy, full of dollar signs, full of lights and glow and neon, but I doubt that he will. It is like fearing he might lose, it's just not bound to happen.
I have not seen the likes of Federer in any sport. Certainly Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods come to mind in terms of individuals who have achieved a similar perfection of their sport, but there's something different with Federer. And I think it gets back to his humility, to his quiet grace. Federer embodies not only athletic greatness in his sport, but also human greatness in athletics -- something that's not often found hand-in-hand. I've seen ugliness from Jordan and Woods, and while it does nothing to de-emphasize their athletic greatness, I must admit it didn't make me want to emulate them in any personal way. It is Federer's human qualities on display that make him such an admirable champion, one that I want to emulate -- especially after the emotional Australian Open finale. Technical perfection blended with human emotional actualization: it was a wonder to behold. Roger Federer has inspired me to play better tennis, but I also think he is inspiring me to be a better athlete, to conduct myself athletically with more joy, more humility, more love for the game and its competitors, maybe even inspiring me to be a better person. This, perhaps, is how he can save us all. A silly idea, yes, but let's at least recognize the Zen-like qualities he brings to his business as he does it under an international microscope. I think more people, not just athletes, should emulate such an approach to life. He's got my support and admiration, and if there's any justice, he'll soon find the recognition he deserves.