• Chris Almeida and I chatted on Friday about Roger Federer.
• You have likely seen this image, an instant classic, of Federer and Nadal following the match. To use what has become a musty cliché, “there’s so much to unpack here.” Quick story: while we were filming “Strokes of Genius” in 2018, Federer and Nadal, independently, made the same point about their rivalry, They were grateful for the presence of the other. Sure, with no Nadal, Federer likely would have won a few more majors. And with no Federer, Nadal likely would have won more majors. But ultimately, they elevated each other. They became benchmarks to each other. They forced the other to innovate and problem-solve and diversify. There was respect; there was affection; there was also this firm sense of gratitude. And this image encapsulated the richness of this relationship.
• That image–Sports Photo of the Year, far as we are concerned—was taken by Ella Ling. Follow her at @ellaling23. Note her website. And note her rich body of tennis work and note that much of it is available for purchase.
You seem to understand sports more than I do. So can you please explain why I used to despise Fed and now I kind of love him? I always detested his pseudo aristocratic pretenses—Anna Wintour, that fawning DFW essay about his greatness. I hated that Barilla ad he did where he acted as though he knew how to cook—I’m sure he’s never cooked a meal in his life. It made me furious when he barely beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final to break Sampras’s record and then as soon as the match ended he pulled on a jacket with his new number of titles already on it. His fans drove me nuts—why root for someone who always wins? It’s boring! Most of all I hated how he always won. How he beat every player I rooted for (though he could never beat Rafa!).
So why do I love him now? I cared nothing for his “graceful” game or his “genius” in his prime. Is it because he struggled and kept playing? Or tried to when his body wouldn’t let him? At the tennis HOF in Newport they have this weird holographic thing of Fed explaining why he likes tennis and it’s irresistibly charming. I also wonder if I love him now in contrast to Djokovic. Fed busted his butt to keep playing as long as he could, while Djoker is willingly NOT playing tennis, willingly NOT pursuing GOAT status because of an absurd personal stubbornness, which is decidedly more arrogant than a jacket with a number of titles on it.
So, maybe I answered my own question, but thanks for listening.
Liking (and not liking) an athlete is so personal. It’s so often about so much more than wins and losses. What does this athlete represent? Fashion, sensibilities, carriage, values. You can have strong feelings about Federer—or Serena or Nadal or whomever—without ever having seen them actually play.
In the case of Federer…I’ll give you three suggestions and see if any of these fit.
1) There was‑-and is‑-a fundamental decency. Many of us witnessed this up-close and have personal stories. But it was discernible through a screen as well. Here was a world-class athlete who, at the most baseline level, exuded decency. He cared about his colleagues. He cared about the sport. He cared about the sport’s infrastructure. I’ve told this story before but I once struck up a conversation with a driver at the Australian Open. I asked her who was the most courteous player she had driven?
“Either Federer or Nadal.”
“Fair enough,” I responded. “But what about among all the players. Not just the subset of stars?”
“Oh, I’m talking about all the players.”
2) Federer was a benevolent despot. Yes, he cavorted with Anna Wintour and flew on private planes. But he also told dad jokes. And sang Peter Cetera. And played pranks. And knew the name of every doubles player in the locker room. He was at once an Ubermensch and an Everyman.
3) For all his excellence, there was a vulnerability to Federer. The crying is an obvious manifestation. But he also squandered match points in major finals. He had a losing record against both Nadal and Djokovic. He went nearly five years without winning a major. He never got enough credit for grit. You don’t win 20 majors on talent alone. But even with his massive download of talent, there were a lot of humanizing moments. In a perverse way, all these setbacks and heartbreaking moments, added to his popularity.
Since you brought it up: quick story about the jacket he wore upon beating Roddick…like you, I hated it. I thought it was a bit of unnecessary gloating. I thought it was tone-deaf given the tenor or the match. (Roddick is crying and you’re wearing a self-glorifying jacket?) I thought this was Nike at its preening worst.
I wrote about this and the response from Fed fans was furious. Both on Twitter and over email. “You call yourself a journalist?” “I hope he never talks to you again.” “You are a loser.” At one point I wrote to the Federer camp and said, “I just want to check in and make sure there are no hard feelings.” The response went something like this: “Are you kidding? We’re all good. If we all agreed on everything, tennis would be boring.” I always thought there was something really revealing the response. Federer wafted above clutter.
So much is rightly made of the longevity of tennis players’ careers, but I wonder if there’s much chatter among the tenni-gentsia about the longevity of players’ lives. It’s something I think about quite frequently, the fact that 54 years after the start of Open tennis, most Grand Slam champions of the Open Era are still with us (I believe only four major champions have passed away). I’m sure there are contributing factors—fewer body blows and head injuries chief among them—but relative to other sports, this seems like a really good selling point for tennis, not to mention just really good fortune for tennis fans.
Jason, Austin, TX
Funny you should mention that. “Data from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggests that tennis can help people live stronger and longer….After tracking more than 8,500 people for over 25 years, the data showcased that seven sports contributed to increased life expectancy for active participants compared to sedentary peers. Tennis was not only included in the seven sports that contribute to a healthier life, but it came in on top.”
Europe picked its [Laver Cup] team based on nostalgia not with the aim of winning the competition. Not a criticism as tennis is an entertainment industry but an obvious observation.
A few of you made that point. I dunno. The Russians couldn’t come because of the UK de facto ban against their vile leader. Alcaraz needs a break. Ruud? Check. Djokovic? Check. Tsitsipas? Check. Berrettini? Check. The guy who won two Majors in 2022? Check. Who was missing?
Problematic to me: Tennis Australia (like the USTA) is a stakeholder in the event. So you’re always guaranteed an Aussie. DeMinaur over Kyrgios because…why?
Long as we are rehashing Laver Cup….on Sunday morning I got a text from a former player: “I see they [are] making ND work for his $1 million!” What did he mean by this? While Nadal and Federer played doubles, it was Djokovic who did the heavy lifting. He played three matches; played them at a terrifically high level (remember: these were his first competitive matches since Wimbledon) and nearly won the Cup for Europe singlehandedly. All credit to him. Federer got the send-off. Nadal revealed how meaningful Federer was to his career. But Djokovic was a big winner as well.
Love all that you do (both for the sport, as well as my own personal entertainment). Haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, but I think a great fix for the Laver Cup’s competitiveness issue would be to steal a page from the NBA All-Star game. Have the captains, Borg and Mac, pick their teams. Would love to hear (read!) how you think that would play out. Rafa vs the Djoker, doubles vs singles, etc, etc.
Keep up the great work!
Thanks I do think we should start by acknowledging that the Laver Cup is a win, a force of good, an indisputably positive addition to the tennis landscape. That said, I do think the “Europe versus the World” is flawed. Yes, because of the imbalance. But also because of the “Who cares?” In golf, the Euros are kindred spirits, either marooned in Europe or toggling on the PGA Tour from Scottsdale to Torrey Pines, thousands of miles and multiple time zones from home. In a global sport like tennis you don’t have this. Is, say, Diego Schwartzman more or less of a teammate to Taylor Fritz than Matteo Berrettini? You might as well split into teams A-L and M-Z. Europe versus the rest of the world is a distinction without a difference.
I like the NBA idea. Let the captains draft. I also like the idea of including women. Inasmuch as Laver Cup stresses tennis lineage and virtues, doesn’t dual genders make the list? If we insist on the silly Europe/non-Europe division, a world team with Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur and Jessie Pegula et al would help distribute talent. And the fallback, “Let the women start their own event—see what the market bears,” strikes me as ungenerous and short-sighted. When has tennis ever won by saying, “We need to make the tent smaller”?
Reilly Opelka was awesome this weekend as a commentator for The Tennis Channel’s coverage of the Laver Cup. He needs to be a regular commentator on your channel from now on (when he’s not actively playing), as he is one of the best new talents in tennis coverage that I’ve heard in long time.
Lot of positive feedback re: Opelka’s debut as a Tennis Channel commentator. And sitting alongside Martina for Roger Federer’s last match ain’t exactly easing into it. The best advice that Tennis Channel (excellent) producers give to former players: talk on the air the way you talk in the green room. Casual. Conversational. Uninhibited (within reason). Don’t sell out your colleagues or breach ethics, but give folks a peek behind the curtains. Some players (Andy Roddick and Chanda Rubin spring immediately to mind) have mastered this. Opelka appears to be well on his way.
Del Potro should be eligible [for the Hall of Fame] in 2024 since he played one match this year and last played in 2019 before that. Barty played two tournaments this year, won both, one of which was a Slam. I think she’s a significant factor. Same for Serena even if she only played four in singles. So I think those two go in 2027. Federer in 2026. Agree?
Sounds about right. Again, Serena and Federer are not going in together.
a) A Hall of Fame honcho took exception to last week’s use of the word “mushy.” But this was meant in the best possible way. By putting in intentionally vague language— “no longer a significant factor”—the Hall retains some discretion. If a player “unretires” to play in doubles—say, Serena at Wimbledon 2023 to compete with Venus—it would not have much bearing on the ticking of the clock. Del Potro could be eligible as early as 2025, no?
b) The ITHOF deserves a lot of credit for becoming so relevant. It wasn’t always thus. When, say, Lleyton Hewitt won Wimbledon in 2002, I don’t recall anyone saying, “Welp, he’s headed to Newport.” Today, it looms large, as evidenced by how much chatter it generates among you guys.
c) Shout out to Kim Clijsters—who now has a formal role at the Hall. She essentially said that, as a European, she didn’t entirely grasp the concept at first. Then her (American) husband explained the significance and she was all-in.
d) Quiet part out loud: the ITHOF is an absolute tennis treasure. (Specific shout out to the library.) But, like any institution, it has costs to cover and financial obligations to meet. And the annual ceremony doubles as a fundraiser. The idea that the Hall would opt to go a year without a ceremony—or combine Federer and Serena into one ceremony—is not realistic.
Hope all is well. Aside from your weekly column, I read Jimmy Traina’s column every morning. He’s a sports media data nerd in a good way, and I like how he posts the viewership numbers of big football and basketball games and compares them to the same games from the year prior, just to prove a point about fandom and viewership.
You always say that tennis will be fine (of course it will; thank you Alcaraz!), but it would be great to back that up with the viewership numbers which support your claim.
My suggestion would be to add the viewership numbers to either your 50 Parting Thoughts or the mailbag the week after the slams are over. I’m interested in those numbers and I think other people are too. The numbers are publicly available. I’m sure you have someone who can grab those numbers for you because I know you’re crazy busy during the slams. But in the event that you don’t have anyone, I’d be happy to gather the numbers and email them to you for posting…if you think they’re worth posting.
You had me at “Jimmy Traina”—though there is an extraneous “sports media data” in your descriptor. Seriously, we love Jimmy. And we love your suggestion. We will do that in the future, but if you want a good follow on all matters sports TV ratings, Austin Karp (@austinkarp) is your man.
That caveat is that T.V. executives and PR hacks twist sports viewership data much the same way mimes contort balloons. Give me the right (misleading) metrics and demographics and points of comparison and I can make an early-round Botic van de Zandschulp* match look like the Super Bowl. At the 2021 U.S. Open, we were coming out of a pandemic. Serena didn’t play. Federer didn’t play. Nadal didn’t play. Is it that big a surprise that this year—after Serena Williams announces her retirement and plays four (!) night sessions—ratings are up dramatically year-over-year for the first week of the 2022 U.S. Open?
* Botic van de Zandschulp is a wonderful, underrated player. And, like “middle school gym teacher” or “glockenspiel” or “Peoria,” he has become an easy fill-in for making a larger point.
One Federer milestone stands out in my mind — his 23 consecutive semifinal or better finishes at majors. I suppose it would be an esoteric record if he hadn’t won a boatload of them, but it’s a streak that no other male player, even his two great rivals in the GOAT debate, has come close to matching.
Teddy C., NYC
Very good. I feel like we did something similar a few years ago on underrated tennis achievements. (Sampras’ six straight years finishing No.1….Venus and Serena in doubles….Pat McEnroe emerging from his brother’s shadow to carve out a separate identity….Caroline Wozniacki’s marathon time, while in the throes of a WTA season.)
Hall of Fame question we were debating: Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova? They both get in, right?
That’s a leading question. But, yes, they both get in. Hard to break precedent here. You have players getting in with one major (and, in a few cases, none in singles). How do you block the door for two players with multiple majors? Azarenka not only won a pair of majors but reached three U.S. Open finals, won the Sunshine double, got to No.1. (It would be weird—or a breach of duty—to vote against her.) And Kvitova never reached No. 1, but she, too, reached the final of other majors, did plenty of other winning and absolutely maxes out the good-of-the-game meter.
I’m all for taking a closer look at players. I’m all for elevating standards. I’d like to see categories expanded, not contracted, so people like Vijay Armitraj or Sue Barker or Oracene gain admission. If you want to hold the line at, say, Jelena Ostapenko, I’m listening, But Azarenka and Kvitova are way above the threshold.
• The DropShot Tournament Series today announced that ticket sales have officially opened for its inaugural ATX Open, taking place from February 27-March 5, 2023 at Westwood Country Club in Austin. The ATX Open will be the only professional tour-level tennis tournament held annually in Austin and the largest women’s professional sporting event in the city. One of five women’s-only WTA tennis tournaments in the United States, the event will provide fans old and new with world-class tennis in an intimate setting, allowing for a personal, up-close experience.
• Leif notes: Truly a “new generation…of party people.”
• Way late here but RIP Jim Pagels, a tennis fan and frequent source of data.
Take us out, Michael of Asheville:
With imitation/flattery, and a loving dash of parody, I’m cleaning out the amateur Notes App from the 2022 Laver Cup:
• Roger Federer has played his last competitive match. He capped his career surrounded by rivals, teammates, friends, family, former opponents, legends of previous generations, members of the media, and fans. Admirers, all. Rolex’s ad agency aside, a dwindling few of those are left even suggesting he’s the GOAT. Can we all agree he’s a lock for GROAT?
• We won’t dwell on it—and it hardly matters—yet is bears brief mention here. As much as we point to the history-changing competition and defeats from Nadal and Djokovic (plus significant losses to Delpo, Murray, Theim, Berdych, others) as the forces that “humanized” him, isn’t it bittersweetly on-brand that Roger’s final match was a loss that could have/should have been a win? Including, of course, a match point, on his serve.
• Tip of the RF-emblazoned cap to Felix, Frances, Jack, and the rest of the World. Jarring, though, to see Tiafoe shouting “I am him!” moments after playing a (big) role in what was, by definition and execution, a team victory. If he captures big titles in the years ahead, one hopes for a little more awareness within the endearing exuberance.
• Spare a thought for Stefanos Tsitsipas. After a blistering performance against overmatched Diego Schwartzman on Friday, the Greek couldn’t convert four match points versus Tiafoe. And imagine the sliding doors decider between Casper Ruud and Taylor Fritz that would have positioned the Norwegian to do one better than his runner-up appearances in Paris and New York, in a marquee event.
• Was it just us, or was that net cord at Laver Cup even looser than the rules of eligibility? We’ll save longer discussion about Laver Cup 2.0 for another column, while noting the event’s integrity took a little hit with the “tweak” to the rules that allowed Fedal to play doubles, and only doubles. While there is no more noble reason and no better time to do it, still, the rule is: a team of six and one alternate. Knowingly fielding (courting?) two players unfit or unavailable for the full competition pushes the proceedings into exhibition territory. Doing so after “asking Bjorn” strains credulity. That the gambit ended in a loss softens the blow. I guess.
Have a good week everyone!
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