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“It’s About Respect:” On the ATP’s Next Generation

By: Andrew Eccles

As Roger Federer lifts a sixth Basel trophy with a blistering 51-minute win over David Goffin, I think it’s time to address a problem that has infected the younger generation of the ATP for a number of years.

I call this problem, “The Roger-Rafa Effect.”

To be clear, the R-R Effect is by no means the fault of the decade’s two most dominant forces in men’s tennis. Their service to the sport has been extraordinary, their fanfare deserved, and the respect paid to them by fans entirely appropriate.

My problem is not with respect from the stands, it is with the respect across the net.

There are two types of respect a player can have for his or her opponent. The first is of a useful variety. It is looking across the net and thinking, “this player is great, this player has the capacity to destroy me. I’d better make sure I destroy them first.” This is the kind of respect that Federer and Nadal have for one another, the kind of respect we see from Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, and other players who have battled to overcome the current greats of the game.

Then there is a more self-destructive kind of respect. This respect arrives to court with memories of posters on walls, and glassy eyes staring out into the crowd. It approaches the baseline with a contented smile already on its face. This kind of respect doesn’t seek to destroy, it seeks to enjoy. This kind of respect says, “I can’t believe I’m on court with ___. This is the best moment of my life, I’m just happy to be here…even if I lose.”

And lose, it does.

We see far too much of this second respect among the young competitors of the ATP, and nowhere near enough of the first. This is not good for the sport, and it is tiresome to watch.

The WTA has been invigorated in recent years, and while we’ve seen familiar names winning the Slams,  the depth of the challenge has made the Tour so exciting. From fast risers like Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard to young guns like Belinda Bencic and Madison Keys; these players do not seek to enjoy, they seek to destroy. The final results may vary, but the intention is always the same, and that makes for electric viewing. It nurtures rivalries. It improves play across the spectrum of the sport. Does anyone feel this from the ATP?

I don’t, and frankly, I’m tired of it.

Where have these players learned this excess respect? Certainly not from Federer or Nadal themselves. Not from Djokovic, whose refreshing lack of on-court respect has made him World No. 1 and enemy-of-crowds the world over, which is not at all a bad dynamic to have on Tour. Not from Murray either, whose prolonged monologues and sulking body language proves he often feels his losses are in his hands, rather than his opponents.

So, where?

My theory is this: the current crop on the ATP has had more access to the off-court behavior of their heroes than any generation before. On-demand video, blogs, social media, specialized television channels, streamed press conferences: they have taken in a consistently respectful off-court demeanour from their heroes. They’ve watched Federer and Nadal, both of whom are painstakingly polite and respectful individuals off the court, who inundate fans with their mutual respect for many years. They’ve watched this, and they’ve made a terrible error.

They’ve brought it onto the court.

Facing each other across the net, neither Federer nor Nadal are not thinking about polite. In their own, rather polarizing styles, they are seeking to destroy. Only occasionally does this seep off-court. We heard it this week from Federer when remarking on Nadal’s loss to the teenaged Borna Coric: “He should not be defeated by someone I have never seen play.” A fascinating statement, as it reveals an inherent lack of respect from Federer for his younger colleagues. He isn’t afraid of them – and why would he be? Many wear shirts with his initials sewn in, just to make sure the world knows how much they love their hero.

Criticize or question Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal on social media, and you see this effect among fans. Fandom is more aggressive, more sycophantic, more unwilling to grant praise to other competitors than at any time in the sport’s history. Why? Off court access. Surely, in the micro-society of the ATP locker room, we’ve seen a similar phenomenon.

The hope lies, I think, with the newest names on the scene. We’ve witnessed the flashy arrogance of Kyrgios. We’ve all read the deep self-analyses of Dominic Thiem. For the young Austrian, perhaps it’s good that he has become so friendly with the ever-rebellious Ernests Gulbis, a mentor who should help him shed any extraneous respect he may naturally carry on his shoulders.

As younger players continue to emerge, young enough to have been saturated – perhaps even exhausted – by monthly Federer-Nadal matches on their televisions and disproportionately angry fandoms on their social media, we will see less of this dangerous on-court respect.

The shared legacy of Federer and Nadal is a great one. They have been – and they remain – a pleasure and privilege to watch. Their generosity of off-court respect has made them fantastic ambassadors. Only good things will come if that degree of respect continues into the next generation. But please, young ATP, leave that outside the tramlines.

Seek to destroy. It’s what your heroes would do.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!

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