He Fights Like an Opera Singer, But He Wins Like a Man

No, sir (or ma’am) — Roger Federer does NOT fight like a girl. He doesn’t even fight like a metrosexual. Indeed, it’s never productive in any forum or format to create a gender-identity-based framework for describing or comparing the ways in which human beings go about their business. Nobody wins when that game gets played. However, in light of Roger Federer’s survival act at Wimbledon on Monday against Xavier Malisse, it’s very much worth exploring a specific nuance of Federer’s tennis life that can and does get lost in the shuffle.

After thinking about the ways in which Federer repulses some segments of the tennis community — albeit segments not found among the regular readership of this blog — the thought hit me: While a prevalent perception among tennis fans (note that I used the word “prevalent” and not “dominant” — there’s an appreciable difference) is that Rafael Nadal is a passionate fighter while Federer is the gliding, above-it-all stylist, both men are fighters. Going beyond that, they share so much on the court despite the obvious surface differences in style and temperament. (Since January of 2011, Novak Djokovic has joined Roger and Rafa in this most remarkable triumvirate.)

Yes, on the surface of things, Nadal bounces around the court with his odd mannerisms and evident hunger, exposing his determination and energy to the world. Federer is the more closed-in, guarded, non-grunting wearer of one of the steadiest poker faces in sports. There are exceptions, sure (2012 French Open quarterfinals, 2009 U.S. Open final, 2007 Wimbledon final, fourth set), but Federer’s between-point body language rarely changes based on the scoreline. Djokovic can be found somewhere between Nadal and Federer, displaying red-hot irritation or five-alarm discomfort at times, but then reining in his feelings to produce some of the most emotionally focused and endpoint-driven stonewall tennis we’ve ever seen.

Spanish fire, Swiss elegance, Serbian defiance. The outward appearances create such strong contrasts, the sensibilities and worldviews of these men colliding in such vivid relief, that the similarities found in their veins and loins so often – and substantially – get overlooked… not to mention vastly underappreciated. Nadal and Djokovic fans would be right to think that their players don’t receive enough recognition as craftsmen or stylists amidst the rush to shoehorn them into the label of “fighters.” I’d be delighted for a Nadal or Djokovic fan to speak to this in the comments or on another tennis blog, but since this is a Federer blog, I’ll devote the rest of this piece to the overlooked and underappreciated aspect of Roger himself, in evidence on Monday against Malisse.

In order to capture the undervalued essence of Federer, however, one must first use Maria Sharapova as a point of comparison.

Doots, the owner of this blog (at whose pleasure I am guest blogging during Wimbledon; matches are ending between 1:30 and 6 a.m. in Australia, for those who might be wondering…), is a huge Sharapova fan. I have never been enamored of Sharapova’s game. It lacks the elegance of Federer’s. The sometime-avalanches of double faults disgust me from an aesthetic standpoint. However, Sharapova will always have my lasting and sincere admiration for one very profound reason, magnified at the recent French Open: Sharapova could have coasted on her vast fame and abundant material wealth, but didn’t.

Anna Kournikova took this easy and familiar route, and so many athletes in team sports follow the same path, cashing their paychecks without spilling blood in the pursuit of championships and, more fundamentally, the maximizing of their talents and, verily, their whole selves. Sharapova — glamorous, immensely attractive, and sponsored to the -Nth degree — could have been content to collect appearance fees and mid-range paychecks at majors, pocketing a few million dollars of prize money each season while making tens of millions in the corporate world. That wasn’t enough for her. She was trained to be a tennis player, and dammit, she was — and is — going to squeeze every ounce of effort out of her body. Would that all public figures had that level of self-respect and aspirational authenticity. Would that politicians and other people in much more important public positions took their unwritten compact with their constituencies that seriously. Sharapova is a model of professionalism, an example for anyone who wants to know what it means to give dignity to work.

What’s interesting to note, though, is that because Sharapova’s style is that of a grinder, a defense-first player, it’s easy to see the determination on the court, flowing through the TV screen. Sharapova is easily seen by the larger public as a fighter, a prime exemplar of mental toughness.

With Roger Federer, the spirit of a fighter simply does not come to the surface in the eyes of most tennis fans. There’s a very simple overarching reason for this.

Whether you care for him (or her?) or not, the mysterious person behind the @PseudoFed Twitter account has tapped into a rich vein of humor. Plenty of Fed fans here might hate Pseudo Fed — I know Doots is in this camp — and that’s fine. (I’m not here to debate the matter and would not ever want to; I don’t have a strong opinion on Pseudo Fed one way or the other.) However, what’s undeniable and instructive as the conveyor of an important insight is that the parody account has struck a chord with many tennis fans; Pseudo Fed is viewed as the best thing since sliced bread in the eyes of many tennis fans who are not Federer fans. Journalists — whether or not you care for THEM, either — have also been captured by Pseudo Fed.

Why is this so? You know the reason: Roger Federer, while not found in the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or in other similar photo shoots (Sharapova has dipped her toes into those waters at times), has carved out a niche as a man of glamor and upper-crust extravagance. The “Feel The Touch” fragrance; the association with Anna Wintour; the jackets and cardigans at Wimbledon; the NetJets commercials — these and other parts of Federer’s history and present life present a man with champagne tastes, caviar aspirations, and operatic appetites. You don’t have to like the Pseudo Fed brand or what it stands for, but the fact that it pokes fun at these parts of Federer’s personality — and that it gains public acclaim from many corners as a result of doing so — shows that the public views him as a diva, an opera singer, a member of the elites, those who play polo and are found at the poshest country clubs. That’s what white jackets and creamy cardigans are for, right?

If you find a Federer hater, you will unerringly find a person who views Roger as unduly arrogant, who sniffs and sneers at most other tennis players. If you find a Federer hater, you will find, without exception, the kind of person who — like any hater — will always: A) look for those kinds of (Pseudo-Fedy) things that reinforce the worst aspects of Federer’s public image; and B) take innocuous or (at least) value-neutral events (see Federer’s innocent remark about laughing after Nadal lost on Thursday) and apply the most negative slant to them. To a certain extent, there is nothing to say to the hater (in any endeavor or station of life), especially for those who are always looking for more dirt to throw on him. However, for the Fed haters who don’t always look for dirt (and who merely interpret events negatively, mainly because Fed’s Swiss mannerisms might not mesh with their own cultural conditioning in terms of how to handle success, fame, and so on), it’s worth making this one point about Roger based on the Malisse match:

He might fight like an opera singer, but he wins like a man just as much as Nadal or Djokovic.

It is the one great and shining commonality that binds Federer with his two great rivals: All three of them hate losing and fight to the death to avoid it. We’ve seen Nadal shrug off two-sets-to-one deficits so many times at the majors in his career. We’ve seen Djokovic fight from two sets down so many times in the past 19 months, especially at the recent French Open, when he went back-to-back. However, Federer — on Friday — staged his eighth two-sets-down comeback at the majors, and on Monday against Malisse, he produced the kind of wolf-in-GOAT’s-clothing survival act that has defined his career.

(NOTE: The use of GOAT is not an endorsement of the view that Fed is the greatest player of all time; I put Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova into those spots for men and women. It’s merely a variation on the word “sheep” for purposes of cleverness and change-of-pace. 😉

If you know anything of what it’s like to play tennis, you know how much of a challenge it is to play the sport. You know that you have to make sweet and solid contact with the ball in a very small strike zone, all while tending to multi-layered mechanics of feet, hips, torso, shoulders, eyes, and head… and oh, running your brains out. Oh, and don’t forget to think through playing patterns and shot choices, too. Oh, and keep an eye on your opponent. Oh, and also keep in mind the sidespin and kick of the ball as it comes to you. Oh wait, one more thing: gauge the wind and the quickness of the surface and other playing conditions. The thinking and reacting that must occur on the court in the heat of battle are complex and heavily detailed; that such thinking and reacting are immersed in high-impact body movements only makes tennis that much more daunting for anyone who dares to play it.

Sure, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are physical marvels, athletic specimens and mental titans of the highest order. They spill their guts so plainly on the court, winning entirely deserved and merited admiration from their legions of fans, people who have been fully repaid for their loyalty. However, Federer’s win over Malisse displayed just as much grit and fight and junkyard-dog intensity.

You just didn’t see it on Federer’s face, as is almost always the case when you see the Swiss play tennis.

Federer hit groundies with the pace of Bernard Tomic at the end of the first set. His movements were limited, his between-points walks even slower and less energetic, if that’s humanly possible. His serves were less authoritative, his lateral hop steps far less pronounced. There was nothing vibrant or dynamic about the way Federer moved. He was even more quiet than normal, and he’s quite the Quiet Man to begin with. His drop shots paid huge dividends against Malisse, but for the most part, he didn’t play with normal flair or verve. His shots didn’t end in dramatic flourishes; he didn’t set an arena aflame the way he did on Friday against Julien Benneteau.

Federer, stylistically and emotionally, did not register with neutral tennis fans as much as he normally does, and normally, Fed doesn’t register all that much with the non-Federer fanbase. Casual American sports fans who tune into tennis only during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (I heard from some of them on Twitter during the Malisse match) said, “Oh, Federer just isn’t what he used to be.” They didn’t know he had tweaked his back in the first set. They also viewed his 33 straight quarterfinals as the most unbreakable record in sports, quickly ignoring the more impressive 23 straight semifinals. They only look at the surface, in other words, not the deeper story.

Looking at the surface — not the deeper reality — is exactly what would make you overlook the extent to which Federer fought, scraped, and ultimately SURVIVED on Monday. Sure, Malisse helped Fed out A LOT. There’s no denying that if Federer had played Benneteau today, he would have been knocked out of the tournament. Yet, it’s still a tremendous feat for Fed to have gotten through this match (and will remain so even — nay, especially — if Mikhail Youzhny takes him out on Wednesday in the quarterfinals).

Just exactly how many professional tennis players would have been able to deal with a tweaked back — which, indeed, can happen to anyone anytime — in the first set and use all sorts of guile to stay in the ring? How many men or women would have been able to serve at a half-decent clip (Federer has served much worse than he did against Malisse with a much healthier back) under those physical conditions and those weather conditions? How many players would have had the foresight to take pace off groundstrokes at 5-6 in the first set, throwing a talented but erratic opponent off balance? Xavier Malisse is a world-class headcase, but how many other players, when hurting and hampered, would have been able to run off a 6-1 second set and then take six of the final seven games to win the match?

You didn’t see Federer gesticulating wildly or emoting with any noticeable spark in this match. He looked old, tamed by time and the ravaging effects of age. He didn’t thump the ball the way he can. He didn’t dance around the court or give his foe a demonstratively balletic bashing.

All he did was think, adjust, wear that cardigan during delays, and win.

Here’s something to contemplate: If Novak Djokovic had been Federer’s opponent on Monday, the scoreline probably would have been 3, 1 and 2 for the Serbian star. Throwing in a little twist, if Federer had not taken a medical timeout, you would have heard plenty of people say that Federer is disinterested. That word always surfaces when Federer is not at his best, shanking balls left and right. However, because the opponent was not mentally tough, you got to see the extent of Roger Federer’s mental toughness. You got to see why Federer has been able to make 33 straight major quarterfinals and rewrite so many tennis records.

If, of course, you were willing to see the goodness in Roger Federer — no, not as a man or even as a tennis player, but as a fighter, a fighter with just as much pugnaciousness as Mr. Nadal and Mr. Djokovic.

Roger Federer isn’t the simple, never-tout-yourself fisherman that Nadal is. He’s not the rightly proud, hungry-for-accolades, escaped-from-a-war-zone survivor that Djokovic is. He can’t be like them and won’t be like them in those outwardly obvious ways.

However, Roger Federer — for all his high-end tastes and his often operatic comportment — has just as much junkyard dog as his great rivals. After all, opera — despite the colorful costumes and the high-rent crowd in fancy dress, fresh from 300-dollar-a-plate dinners with thousand-dollar-a-bottle champagne — involves quite a lot of killing and bloodshed in its own right.

Federer can look so ordinarily unremarkable and so tamely quiet as he did on Monday against Xavier Malisse, yet survive an injury to win a second-week match at a major tournament, a feat whose enormity is hard to intellectually grasp. It might still be impossible to be emotionally roused by what Federer did if you are not his fan, and especially if you’re someone who always looks for the most negative interpretation of the man.

Simply know, though, that what he did on Monday — not the tennis playing, but the surviving — is something for which Federer, as accomplished as he is, still fails to receive due credit.


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About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

7 responses to “He Fights Like an Opera Singer, But He Wins Like a Man”

  1. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    You are totally right about this Matt. By far the biggest thing about Roger that is underrated is his fighting ability. Benneteau said it best I think; Roger has a poker face out there and you cannot tell how he is feeling, and that unnerves players. Against Malisse, he was obviously struggling to move, but he was still doing enough to win. I feel for Xavier because it is hard to play an injured opponent, as Roger pointed out. You just get that subconscious sense that you don’t want to run your opponent side to side because you don’t want to injure them. Whether or not that went through Malisse’s mind, I’m not sure, but the injury definitely had an effect on his play.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Fed still played a good match even with the bad back. The conditions did not help, certainly, but the undershirt that Roger was wearing in the final three sets most certainly did. Fed said he feels confident about the quarterfinal – he’ll have a day and a half to recover – and I hope he can finish it quickly. Djokovic is elite right now, but the wind, rain, and even the grass could be great equalizers. (In the end, we do not know what will happen between them if Fed is healthy because they have never played on grass. I assume Fed’s game will suit better for playing on grass than HC and clay.)

  2. NML (@nancyglenview) says :

    Right on Matt. How many times have we heard the commentators say that Federer’s career is so amazing because he’s never had any serious injuries? How many times has he played a match injured but never let us know? The one time he dared mention an injury after a loss (at Wimby 2010) he was crucified for it. Since then he’s chosen his words very carefully. True, he has a great poker face but as a fan I can tell by looking at his face when he’s hurting and today he had that look. Like you said, he is a survivor and he rarely gets credit for his survival skills because he makes it look so easy. So effortless. But that’s what the great ones do. It would be a shame if injury prevented him from winning another major. I hope he is able to survive.

  3. cali says :

    i love you Matt. Just not the “If Novak Djokovic had been Federer’s opponent on Monday, the scoreline probably would have been 3, 1 and 2 for the Serbian star. ” and ” if Mikhail Youzhny takes him out on Wednesday in the quarterfinals).” I am Federer fanatic I’m sorry.. and i don’t remember when but there’s a grand slam he won where he faced some back problems in one game, maybe a 3rd round, he managed to survive, recovered and won the whole thing. it will be lovely if it happens again!

  4. Julie R. says :

    Excellent piece! It certainly may be only us Roger Federer fans that are fully aware and are much more appreciative of this fighter in him. Just because he does not display it 100% of time like some other fellow tennis players, and nor because he makes it look so effortless and easy, that there isn’t no grit in him. It doesn’t negate it. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, the casual fan will miss it, and the haters themselves – well, perhaps some of them see it and refuse to acknowledge it. Tennis is a tough sport mentally and physically. Roger has mastered this sport through his amazing skills to another level. Also, about that PseudoFed Twitter account, I actually find it amusing and not in the least offensive. Sometimes it’s a little ridiculous, but I get a good laugh out of it.

  5. jonny says :

    Dear Matt, nice post except for the fact that Sharapova is the furthest thing from a defense-minded grinder. On the contrary, she is an attacking ball-basher (her defense is abysmal at best although it is improving as seen in FO’12) and when the chips are down, she tries even harder to hit you off the court. This is the fearless fight that we see from her because she would rather go out swinging than roll over. The difference I see is that Sharapova unlike Federer doesn’t have the tools to have an effective Plan B or C and hence can only rely on what she does best – smashing the daylights out of the ball when in trouble.

  6. flo says :

    The germ of an idea of the jokes through PseudoFed are okay but the problem for me is that Federer’s grasp of the English language is actually quite good and so I can’t buy into the concept of his thoughts being in that mangled English that the writer employs. If a gimmick account is doing Cookie Monster then I expect the writer to center himself and get that voice right; the PseudoFed fails miserably on this account. Also Federer’s hubris seeps out more subtly whereas PseudoFed can’t find that humblebrag-ish quality.

    As I was watching the Malisse match I was thinking that other than Federer the only top 10 player who could play while basically pushing balls back is probably Murray. Take away some of the movement and power from Nadal and Djokovic and they’re not surviving many matches. Though Malisse did have a letdown. He was so stunned to lose that first set that it took him until the third to pick up his game.

  7. naughtyT says :

    me likey.. thanks Matt.

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