By Andrew Eccles
UPDATE: Alex Chick has responded to TTI with the following tweets in the hopes of clarifying his article’s original intent:
The world has always hated heroes.
This is perhaps the best way of explaining the phenomenon of Roger/Rafa/Novak anti-fans. Yet, I won’t dwell too much on social media fandom, because such aggressive factions are frankly too infantile to discus – and this is hardly a tennis-centric issue. The world is full of anger, and the world now has a place to publicly vent, for better or for worse.
As cracks begin to show in the ATP’s Golden Era, I fear we will see this anger spilling out in other areas more, and more often. Upon reading Alex Chick’s bewildering article for Eurosport.com, in which Roger Federer is accused of having “betrayed [the] spirit of sport,” I couldn’t help but feel that hands had been rubbed together, blood had pumped a little too fast, and words had been written without due care.
The article was nonsense. Let me explain why.
The World Tour Finals were an extremely frustrating affair for tennis fans. What should have been a crown jewel to conclude an intriguing ATP season became a one well and truly trampled by swine. The world’s Top 8 largely conducted unceremonious matches, with sets often ranging between 6-0 and 6-3.
Young arrivals couldn’t rise to the occasion. Nadal was absent with injury. Murray had exhausted himself to qualify. Cilic looked burdened by his US Open success. Djokovic was able to roll through pretty much anyone in front of him. Federer withdrew before playing a single point of the final.
The tournament was ludicrous, and messy, and disappointing. It was not the standard to which we have become accustomed.
It was what any great era looks like when it starts to lose steam. Is age and weariness rendering the elite unsportsmanlike? Have they betrayed the sport that they’ve been the face of for a decade? Of course not – the very implication is mind-boggling.
Chick’s article was the inevitable result of overall disappointment in the World Tour Finals. It was a disappointment that I would have sooner expected to see condensed into 140-character rants on social media. It was not one I expected to see on a leading sports website. Simply put, the article is largely conjecture and quote-mangling that reads more irresponsible than uninformed.
One highlight comes when Chick isolates a part of Federer’s apology speech to the O2 crowd: “I just cannot compete at this level with Novak.” Chick has a very precise interpretation of this quote, which frames the angle of the article.
“Roger Federer is telling us he withdrew because he didn’t think he could win […] he cried off not because he couldn’t play but because (he thought) he couldn’t win.”
There are two issues with the way in which Chick handles this quote, which is described as ‘damning,’ as if it were a fingerprint on a bloodied knife. The first is a matter of equivocation, how being unable to ‘compete’ is the suddenly same as being unable to ‘win’. This is not necessarily the case. Compete could just as easily mean the simple act of picking up the racket and playing a rally of tennis at the highest level, something expected if you didn’t want to get booed off the court or criticised for playing with ‘no effort’ after invariably losing, 6-0, 6-0. I find Chick’s assumption regarding Federer’s word choice during a difficult speech to an angry crowd quite striking, because it shows no effort to take into account any greater context.
The second issue is the simple fact that, before Sunday, Roger Federer had only withdrawn from a match twice in his entire career. Surely, Federer has played matches where he didn’t feel healthy enough to win. He has played through pain, something Chick reminds us all sportspeople must do. This is not a player who retires for no reason, or one who doesn’t understand commitment to his sport. One who is arguably the greatest player the sport has ever seen is not exactly known for being lazy.
A more broader issue with the article? It positions conspiratorial opinion as fact:
“Of course, it was not just fear of a pasting that informed his decision. Switzerland face France in the Davis Cup final this weekend – a chance for Federer to win the ‘World Cup of Tennis’ for the first time.”
Chick states, with absolute certainty, that Federer’s decision was based both on his realization that he wouldn’t win and a decision to rest for the Davis Cup final. This is presented as fact. It may not be false – these thoughts may well have been part of Federer’s decision-making process – but to present them as clear truth is misleading, especially to less tennis-literate readers, who may be searching for an explanation for an unusual circumstance.
Chick presumes to know the inner workings of Federer’s psyche, yet describes a player that is completely alien to one any tennis fan has followed in the last decade. I can almost understand that, in this era of the popular culture anti-hero, suddenly anyone who appears polite, well-meaning or in any way noble has to become a figure of suspicion.
I can understand it, but that doesn’t make it right.
Besides, Federer isn’t Captain America either. He can be perceived as sometimes arrogant off the court, angry on it. He can be dismissive of rivals and their chances against him, all of which to emphasize that he is fiercely competitive.
I find it hard to believe that Roger Federer, who has battled for seventeen Grand Slam titles, who reinvented himself after a disappointing 2013, would simply pull out of his biggest match of the year, an opportunity to really silence those who see him as the past-champion, for no good reason. It doesn’t ring true, not for one who has so confidently held the mantle as leader-of-the-pack.
The world has always hated heroes; it’s a sad part of human nature.
It will be a moment that neither typifies nor defines Federer’s career. It will be a moment that fails to diminish Novak Djokovic’s position as champion.
Whomever you feel is the greatest-of-all-time, however robbed-of-a-victory you feel Novak Djokovic was, however hot your anger boils, there should still be a place for reason. To love one player shouldn’t mean to hate another. To be disappointed for one day shouldn’t be an excuse to publicly eviscerate a person’s character.
Roger Federer’s 2014 was brilliantly back-from-the-brink. He has yet one tournament to play, for which he may or may not be fully fit. Switzerland may or may not win.
One thing is guaranteed: Roger Federer will have no need to apologize to that which he never betrayed.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!