Tuesday, August 28, 2012



I used to read blog posts about the mind games Federer plays with his opponents, and loathe that I am to accept it, I have to admit that his recent attempts to justify his poor results are indeed evidence of this. Let me be perfectly clear: there's no conspiracy, and the press are not helping him get results. If his opponents are afraid of him it's because of their results against him - at the end of the day he still has to hit the shots.

But blaming his losses in Australia and then Dubai on an undiagnosed case of mono is about the lowest I've ever seen Fed go. I give him credit for carrying himself appropriately during his reign as #1 - he could have been unbearably arrogant and surly with everyone all the time, as was say...John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Illie Nastase...but he hasn't. For this he deserves credit.

But what purpose is served by claiming his results were down to illness? First consider that every player on tour could be suffering from some sort of discomfort, injury or illness - never mind their personal lives which can easily impact their game. So the fact that Fed is announcing his injury, and laying the blame for his losses at this altar of self-pity, is counter balanced by the likelihood that his opponents over the last four years have also been carrying some handicaps. At the end of the day, we generally don't know, and rightfully don't care, because if you're fit enough to pick up a ball and racquet, you must accept the results regardless of your own mental qualifications thereof.

That he even thought to include in his explanation and additional explanation of why he didn't want to say anything before is further evidence that he recognizes how his assertions would (and should) be received by the objective observer. I doubt had Federer won in Australia and Dubai he'd have bothered to mention his illness. He did the same in his first match against Canas in Indian Wells last year - blaming the loss on a blister. Two weeks later he lost to the same man with no excuse - there may have been one, but even the casual observer would certainly have adjudged them ridiculous. After that second loss, he actually consoled himself (publicly) by saying it was better to lose to the same player twice, making it more likely that the loss is down to some esoteric circumstance of that match up that is unlikely to repeat itself, than starting to lose to all kinds of people.

But why bother with either explanation?

Much has been made of the effect that the aura of Federer has had on his opponents, and I have to say that in this I totally agree. There are any number of players who appear to have lost the match before they step on the court, and rather than continue fighting to the end, seem to accept their fate as inevitable. Where I differ with the lunatic fringe of the blogosphere is in the suggestion that that aura is the result of a media and public relations offensive that has lasted 4 years, in which his management, the tennis media and even some of his opponents are complicit.  The suggestion that you can win just by walking on the court is espoused only by those who have no idea how difficult it is to play professional tennis. At the end of the day, you still have to hit the shots, and it is only this that creates the true aura.

But there is certainly an aura - Borg had it for 3 years, Connors for a couple in the 70's, and Laver for many in the 60's, and Pancho Gonzales? Don't get me started. I doubt anyone would put their success down to media hype or anything other than their superior play, but for some reason Federer's detractors can't bring themselves to admit the obvious - the man has played great tennis for the last 4 years, and as a result he's scared the piss out of 99 out 100 players on tour.

But you can begin to depend on your aura, and I think this may have started to happen here. The US Open final of 2007 was Novak Djokovic's to lose - he had set points in each of the first two, and I can stone cold guarantee you that if he had won the first, that match would have turned out very differently. Federer didn't hit but one winner in that sequence, most of the set points were lost due to Djokovic's errors, including an inopportune double-fault or two. Bottom line: he choked, and he choked because he just couldn't handle the fact that he was about to beat the myth.

But what is more telling is not the fact that Djokovic choked those set points away, but the way Federer played those points - in fact, I think it's fitting to say that Federer's willingness to let his opponent self-destruct, rather than attack him in that moment was an indication that he recognized the power of his aura, and let it do its work.  Now it's anyone's guess if he would have taken a different approach in the second set, had he lost that first, but because it wasn't broke, he didn't fix it, and the Djoker proceeded to collapse again.

In Australia, Djokovic may have been helped by the natural antipathy he feels at being left out of that exclusive club of two - Federer and Nadal. Legions of fans appear to be at their disposal at all times and places, so much so that it wouldn't surprise me to see them one day walking on the shoulders of all their fans from the practice court to the club house without ever touching the ground.  And Djokovic clearly had had enough. Aided by the camp mentality so obviously purported by his family, who just can't understand how it is everybody doesn't love their little boy as much as they do, when Djokovic saw the finish line in Melbourne, he ran through it, rather than pulling up at the end like at the US Open.

Does this mean that the end is nearer for the reign of the Great Roger Federer - of course, but this would have been true whether he won or lost in Australia - after all, one cannot expect him to be so dominant forever.  And it is possible that Djokovic just may have finally done the one thing that other players who succumb to the impulse to beat the myth, can't do - he just went out and beat the player instead.

Maybe that's why Roger is trying so hard to explain away his bad results - maybe he has become too reliant on that myth. If that is the case, it is a problem that is easily fixed by hard work.  If players have found solutions to the problems you present, find new problems. But if Roger Federer decides to go the other way - to keep doing the same thing and hope to get (in his case) the same results, I think he's dead wrong.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Disclaimer - if reading about the GOAT debate would be considered hazardous to your emotional well-being, please STOP READING THIS POST IMMEDIATELY.

I've been trolling the blogosphere lately getting into all manner of the GOAT debate. Let me tell you, there is something visceral about the debate that makes it the kind of thing that, if you want to enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, you just don't bring up. The level of vitriol coming from debaters of many different perspectives on the topic is staggering.  Having said that, I'm not going to pretend I don't understand why there is so much emotional involvement in something as, in the grand scheme of things, benign as the GOAT. At its core, the emotion is really just a deep love of the game - and honestly I can't argue with that.

But apparently, in the course of forging one too many times into the breach, a few people have been more than mildly irritated with the "majors won" argument as the only measure of greatness we need to consider, the conviction with which I make it and the conviction with which I dispute all other measures argued.  Like everyone else who debates the GOAT, obviously I do love the game. I play it, I watch it, and I study its history for no other reason than I love it. The majors constitute the backbone of the tradition in the game, and the tradition is the only thing that links current players with the history, and as a result, I believe we can compare players across the history of the game by counting majors won. It is an imperfect measure - I never said it wasn't - but so too are the crowned jewels of the game, but because we love it, we accept those limitations.

To argue that head to head record, or proficiency on multiple surfaces, or talent, or any other specific measure of greatness is more important than majors won strikes me as both revisionist and cynical. A little bit like when Lucy yanks the ball away from Charlie Brown at the moment he's about to kick it. Everyone involved in tennis, from the players to the fans and everyone in between, follows the majors because they are what everyone follows. At its core, the most basic argument for the tradition of the game is, indeed circular, but somehow, it doesn't make that argument any less compelling.

All these other measures of greatness are either (1) encompassed in winning majors, (2) subordinate in value to the majors, (3) a means to achieving majors or (4) completely arbitrary.  As such, I don't think it makes any sense to bother with any other measure of greatness than majors won. But one of the arguments that I find the most pernicious is that somehow there is something wrong with seeking to identify a GOAT, or even the possibility that a GOAT can be determined.  

I mean, if you follow tennis, and the game is even remotely important to you, then you obviously have no problem with determining mini-GOATs like the best player in a match, the best player at a tournament, the best player over the course of a year, and ironically, the best player in an ill-defined period of time so fashionably referred to these days as an "era". I have no clue what an era is, but if you do, and you accept there can be a best of it, isn't it just a little disingenuous to somehow conclude that for the ultimate era (all time) the best cannot be determined? Why is that? If you use the same tools used to determine all these other mini-GOATs, which you accept, what on earth is the problem with determining THE GOAT?

Of course, that's a big if - and strangely, it seems the only way to dispute the most obvious candidate for the GOAT, is to dispute the validity of the measure used to determine it. My question is, in exchange for what measures? What measures are superior to those measures which we know, accept and already use for nearly every other competitive evaluation in the game?

What I have tried to guard against more than anything, in arguing majors won as the best measure of greatness, is the introduction of measures of greatness that contradict those that are already established by the game's traditions, because doing so would do the one thing that, as a tennis fan, I admit I simply can't bear to do - invalidate precisely that which makes me love the game. 

If that happens, then what the hell is the point? If you're wondering, that's why it's so important to me.