A Place At The Tennis Table

For those who don’t stop here often during a tennis major, please know at the outset that while this is a tennis blog, there is a bit of a preference and priority for all things Roger Federer. Therefore, when Fed bowed out of the U.S. Open in the fourth round on Monday, it was natural to think that there wouldn’t be another major essay on tennis until the end of this year’s U.S. Open. At the end of each major, the two singles championships regularly receive a wrap up from Doots (the publisher of this blog), myself, or both.

However, some days in tennis somehow manage to hit the sweet (or is it sour?) spot with fans in such a way that something has to be said about the matter. Wednesday, Sept. 4 was one such day, and the fact that Federer had no part in the events is precisely what should enable us — and by us, I don’t mean Federer fans — to appreciate this sport, and each other, a little bit more.

This essay is not intended for any one fan base or subgroup in the wide, wide world of tennis lovers. It’s meant for everyone. How fitting this is, given that the U.S. Open takes place in the same city (New York) where the United Nations was born and still stands today. This essay is all about giving each fan, each human person — inherently precious, equally loved, and powerfully valuable — a place at the tennis table, an affirming bit of support in a democratic and unifying context.

The first thing to realize about tennis and, for that matter, sport in general is that the identities of players and teams do not generally exclude certain characteristics, they merely diminish them. Roger Federer is primarily a shotmaker and stylist, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t fight or care. Rafael Nadal is the greatest fighter-competitor I have personally seen as an observer-chronicler of global sport, but that doesn’t mean he can’t unfurl dazzling shotmaking beauty. Novak Djokovic is a smaller-scale (but still titanic) version of Rafa.

We know this, tennis fans. We know that the players we watch during the second weeks of majors — even those who don’t seriously threaten to win titles, such as Tomas Berdych — are defined by a few core identities, even while the sum of their parts as whole persons is so much more. The core identity of a player is simply what stands out more clearly than anything else, but human persons (within and beyond sports, as athletes but also as private people and as citizens of the world) all have yin and yang within them. We all have a left brain and a right brain. We all have the capacity to be scientific and artistic. One side typically emerges in greater detail and in sharper relief, but that doesn’t mean the other side ceases to exist.

Here is where this essay gets (particularly) serious.

Why do we lack peace on earth? We lack it because, gosh darnit, we — people of the world, generally speaking, not you and I talking about tennis players — allow an insistence on this ideal of justice or goodness to trump another person’s ideal. Nations and ideologies so firmly and deeply insist on one way as “the right way” to the diminishment and exclusion of The Other(s). Religions, cultures, gender roles, traditions, borders, you name it — clusters of human beings get so attached to and possessive of “THEIR WAY” that another person’s way is simply not tolerated.

Now, let it be said that in sport, we are afforded the blessed safety of knowing that whacking a yellow ball across a blue/grassy/red brick-covered rectangle is NOT a life-and-death matter. It is precisely the safety of sports which enables so many people to be so passionate about a public entertainment without people getting genuinely hurt. Sport arouses such passion precisely because it’s NOT war, even though on-court action (Nadal-Djokovic, chiefly) can feel like gladiatorial combat at times. (PS — That’s not meant as a putdown, but as a compliment. Some fans might disagree or take umbrage with that… and that’s part of what we’re exploring here, so stay tuned. 😉

Yet, while sport is — in a very real way — a place to safely vent frustrations and let off steam after a betrayal from a friend or a reaming endured at the hands of a workplace supervisor, it is also a place where, ideally, people can learn more about themselves and each other, coming together in ways that never would have been possible otherwise.

Sport, at its best, is unifying. It brings Arab and Israeli, Indian and Pakistani, liberal and conservative together when a shared love of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic elicits a high-five or (on Twitter) the exchanging of a simple “:D” or “:-)))” or some other expression made for a 140-character world. In team sports, going to the local football match can bring together people of different races and classes. This is the hope and potential of sport. We see it during every Olympics, as the sunshine of a pure and unmanufactured moment of great human power manages to pierce our cynicism, despite the increasing commercialism and wretched excess that continue to make so much of the Olympics (as a staged, corporate entity) unpalatable on a larger level.

However, we know that for all the ways in which sport unifies us, it — like culture wars in our home nation (whichever nation it may be) or in severe conflicts beyond our borders — divides us as well.

What’s great about sport is that, unlike politics and military affairs, its own differences don’t lead to physical wars. (Not generally, at any rate.) So Federer and Nadal fans have Twitter wars until the end of time — no big deal, right? No one REALLY gets hurt, right? On a certain level, sure.

However, do we ever stop to think about the notion that refusing to accept another person’s truth in a moment of tribalistic righteousness is precisely what holds the world back and prevents it from being that better place we want it to become? Does it ever occur to a tennis fan that by being a little less tribalistic — and being a little more conscious of the need to reach out to rival fans or people with sharply differing perspectives on tennis — that one can make a person’s day and inject a little bit of healing into another life? Nadal and Djokovic fans, once in a while, tell me that I’m the most empathic and reasonable Federer fan they know. I mention this not to tout myself (insert PseudoFed reference HERE…), but to show that, ya know, reaching out to fans in public/internet realms can soothe feelings and make other people feel that, “Hey, not all Federer fans are jerks — the world isn’t that bad a place.” That’s worth it, oui?

Oui. At least to me. (#OuiTweets)

Last year, the shared and simultaneous successes of the top four male tennis players (all winning one major) made for a contentious year on Twitter. I tried to speak to those tensions here, and that desire to see more reconciliation among tennis fans remains as firm as ever.

We now arrive at the most immediate point of discussion, the stimulus for this essay.

What was so fascinating about Wednesday, Sept. 4, at the U.S. Open was that it marked a day in which large swaths of Twitter (and by extension, tennis fans) either reaffirmed or newly revealed at least a part of where they stand on issues. The very fact that Federer — a magnet/lightning rod kind of figure in terms of web comments and web traffic — was removed from the picture enabled Wednesday to become something more than a day that revealed what the future of global tennis fandom will be like on the internet. Wednesday revealed the extent to which sport, and the media’s coverage of it, cuts deeply for many of us, perhaps more deeply than we’d like to imagine.

Richard Gasquet’s five-set win over David Ferrer was and is symbolically potent for so many tennis fans across the globe. Cognitively, this was and is obvious, but when we live in our heads for a long period of time, we can miss the emotional impact of events and how certain outcomes hit different people at different times.

It naturally occurred to me how deeply Gasquet’s win managed to elicit profound joy from lovers of single-handed backhands and what one would ostensibly refer to as “pretty tennis.” Why is this the case? I, as a Federer fan, was already inclined to view the world — the world of tennis, that is — through such a prism. However, it never occurred to me how deeply Gasquet’s win would also upset those who feel that the one-handed backhand is romanticized to such an extent by the mainstream press that it is valued as a point of, verily, MORAL SUPERIORITY over and against the two-hander.

Where am I going with this? It will quickly become apparent.

Federer-Nadal has become so polarizing for tennis fans not just because it’s one of the great rivalries in the history of sport (Red Sox-Yankees, Barcelona-Real Madrid, Lakers-Celtics, North Carolina-Duke), but because, when you think about it, the mannerisms and trajectories of the two players have been so different. It’s not just the fire and ice, though that’s obviously a core difference. It’s not just the hot-versus-cold in a Marshall McLuhan “medium is the message” context. It’s not just the “warrior versus paintbrush-wielder” dynamic, though that is also part of the mix. It’s also the tennis aesthetic. Two-hander versus one-hander. Oft-injured player versus player who has never retired from a match. Slow player versus quick player. We know these things, and yet it’s hard to keep track of all of them at the same time.

The point to emphasize, though, is that Federer and Nadal represent such different flavors of excellence, such unforgettably contrasting versions of mastery (Nadal obviously in the still-present tense, Federer undeniably more in the past), that it is hard for both sides to fully acknowledge everything good about the other.

It is and has been the United Nations conflict to top all United Nations conflicts in the recent globally-shared experience of tennis.

The Gasquet-Ferrer match elicited, in a way that snuck up on me, all those familiar feelings and antagonisms… but with neither Roger nor Rafa being on the court.

Wednesday’s afternoon quarterfinal was truly a portal into the wider world of tennis fandom because it revealed aesthetic preferences and the deeper, inner hurts (and joys) of fans without the presence of the sport’s two centrally polarizing figures. It was as though, on two sides of the world, various tennis fans lined up across from each other after the conclusion of Gasquet-Ferru:

On one side stood fans who were largely (not ENTIRELY, mind you — remember the “yin-yang” example above in which our strongest identities do not EXCLUDE the not-as-dominant parts of our personalities and selves):



“Pretty tennis” lovers.

“One-handed backhand” purists.

Federer fans.

Wawrinka fans.

Anti-Spanish (sad, but quite true and real, as magnified by many Twitter reactions to the Robredo-Nadal match).

Haters of supposedly “boring” and monochromatic baseline-grinding tennis, referred to as “brick wall” tennis in short.

On the other side, lamenting the outcome of Gasquet-Ferrer, stood fans who were largely:



Nadal fans.

Two-handed backhand fans.

Fans of players who often win with their fight, resolve, inexhaustible determination, and unconquerable will.

Fans who feel beaten down and made to seem inferior when novelists or famous artists write guest essays in the New York Times waxing lyrical about how classical players with one-handed backhands represent All That Is Good And Right And Pure And Honorable And Worthy In Tennis And Sport In General.

It’s time to wrap things up, tennis fans of the world. The main point should be clear: People are different. This is what we have to live with in our earthly sojourn. We don’t have to love all styles or modes of living the same way. We should all hate killing and war and child poverty with equal fervor, as should we also hate discrimination, oppression and prejudice with equal levels of disgust and abhorrence.

If someone’s human dignity and rights are not being violated, though, it should be all good. We don’t have to enjoy Federer and Nadal equally. We’re not supposed to give our hearts and minds to one-handed and two-handed backhands in equal measure. No — that’s not real democracy, and it’s not what this essay has sought to address.

Democracy exists when wholesome differences — legitimately honest ways of seeing and solving, of striving and struggling — are respected, even as various sides compete themselves or relish competition by others, hoping that their side wins out. It is that presence of respect amidst the competition which matters.

Respect emerges when a Federer fan finds it in his or her heart to acknowledge Nadal’s total mastery of craft and to see Nadal’s blowout of Tommy Robredo last night as “not boring” in the same way that Federer’s excellence-filled blowouts from 2006 and 2007 were not boring.

Respect is found when a Nadal fan — so naturally invigorated by passion, by corazon, by fire — can look at a poker face such as Federer and not immediately ascribe unwholesome or deficient moral characteristics (the phrase would be “undue and/or morally defining arrogance,” in case you were wondering…) to that person.

Respect is found when the tennis purists and classicists of the world can recognize court coverage, hustle, defense, and stamina as genuine tennis weapons, just as much as a one-handed backhand or a balletic volley in tennis whites.

Respect is found when injuries, and how athletes handle these most difficult dimensions of their careers, are not used as portals for easy condemnations of character and knee-jerk suspicions of various forms of cheating in the absence of hard evidence.

Respect is found when those who understandably feel beaten down by incessant choruses of How Classic Tennis Is The Only Right and Proper Form Of Tennis can concede that many of us here in the province of “OneHandia Classicville” are not trying to be morally superior about tennis. We just have an aspirational ideal to strive for, pursue, and love. Aspirations are necessary and vital parts of the human condition, for when we lose ambition and aspiration, we stagnate and die.

Tennis fans, we all deserve our own place at the table, the one embodied by the fulfilled promise of Federer and the fulfilled promise of Nadal. We all deserve our place at the table, enfleshed by the hope that Gasquet might one day become consistently great or by the hope that David Ferrer will win a major. We all deserve our place at the table, one in which dirtballers and lawnmowers and grunters and yellers and fighters and artists and thinkers and ball-bashers and one-handers and two-handers won’t all like each style the same or go to parties with each other…. but can walk away from each Twitter jousting session with one very precious thing:

Respect for The Other.

When human beings can find that, our world — so broken and torn by tribalistic passions and overwhelming ideological forces — will find peace.

Allez, human beings. Vamos, tennis fans.


About Matt Zemek

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

2 responses to “A Place At The Tennis Table”

  1. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    Matt, first I want to say how much I wish you wrote for tennis as your full time job. It would certainly improve the offerings. This was beautifully written. It also gave me a chance to read the piece you did after Wimby 2012. I guess I was so busy celebrating that I completely missed it somehow. I wish I could see the players with the equanimity that you do for my own mental health but alas, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. I completely missed that Fed’s comment about Murray became a thing. If I had one piece of a negative thought it was how differently Murray’s tears at losing were received versus Fed’s tears at AO 2009. But then, there are certain narratives to be supported. Anyway, thanks for the great writing.

  2. athena1949 says :

    Well done, Matt. As a Sesame Street movie once said, “Peoples is peoples.” How boring it WOULD be if we were all alike, if all tennis was alike. We know that chimps are born with xenophobia, and I suspect it’s innate in humans, too. But the mark of civilization is to rise above our programming. In the Museum of Tennis, surely we can appreciate all the magnificent serves, shots, rallies, volleys, etc., housed within its walls.

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