Poor Roger Federer! There he stood for all the world to see, struggling to keep the tears at bay and—prompted by an expectant inquisitor and cheering crowds—letting the grief pour down his cheeks.
It is not the first time he has cried at the end of a match. The emotion that he channels into his tennis while he’s playing has regularly overflowed as he celebrates the joy and relief of victory.
Some players need to pump their hearts up to bursting during a match, and revert to ‘ordinary Joe’ when it’s over. Some—like Federer, Agassi, and Borg—find emotional release when the match is over.
But Federer’s break-down in Melbourne was different. The pressure of expectation, the swell of the crowd’s admiration, the enormity of how close he came to winning if only he had served better, or converted one of those break points: if only, if only.
If only he could have been allowed to accept his runner-up trophy and stand back while the victor took the limelight. But that is no longer allowed in the sporting arena.
When did this change happen? And why are we so obsessed with forcing the last drop of emotional sweat from performers who have already given their all?
Once upon a time, the presentation ceremony followed a simple formula. Key dignitaries were introduced, organisers and officials were thanked, and the loser, followed by the winner, were announced and presented.
But then the microphone insinuated its way into the proceedings.
From the shadows appears the interviewer, ambling into the spotlight with platitudes and questions. And the players have to find up-beat, polite, and preferably witty responses that flatter their opponent, analyse their game, and praise the audience…it is as predictable as night following day.
The newest scene in this drama—premiered at the Australian Open—is the microphone-under-the-nose moment as players march the endless corridors on their way to the start of the match. You can imagine how this would be relayed in the media if the players—quite legitimately, in my opinion—refused to take part.
When this trend started, it was focused on the winner of a final. Then it was the winner of every round. Now it has reached the absurd formulaic stage-show we see at every presentation ceremony.
Both players must praise their opponent, then thank the crowd, the sponsors, the host city, their team, their family, the officials, and the kitchen sink.
It’s the Oscars played out on the tennis court—with exhausted, sweating protagonists trying to be poised, polite and multilingual. But even in lovey-land, the losers are not expected to stand centre-stage and make a speech.
One would think this was a desperate attempt by the media to make brief contact with remote and aloof stars. But in fact every player, after every match, is committed as part of their ATP contract to hold a press conference, no matter how late the match finishes nor how bad the loss.
Not only must they be “available”, but also respond to questions ranging from the political to the banal—and every nuance is noted, every irritation recorded and replayed ad infinitum.
Like Chinese whispers, the most harmless comments are distorted and reinterpreted as they appear in each medium: first in print, then on the web, then in blogs and finally back full circle to broadcasters commentating on subsequent matches.
There really is nowhere to hide. And often, these players are trying to communicate in a second or even a third language.
Tennis is just the latest sport to be afflicted by the quote-at-all-costs culture. After football, rugby and cricket matches, team captains are manoeuvred in front of logo-covered backdrops to illuminate why they won, why they lost and how they feel.
It is little wonder that coaches and managers resort to the “over the moon”, “at the end of the day” and “sick as a parrot” responses for which they are pilloried.
You see it on the Grand Prix grids and in the pits—microphone jammed beneath drivers’ helmets for a few words before and after these most adrenalin-pumped of events.
And it’s not just low-level cars.
Equestrian sports get the same treatment, as interviewers trot alongside highly-strung horses in an attempt to glean an erudite comment from a rider bouncing in and out of audio reach. The whole scene verges on farce.
The worst culprit of all is athletics—and most particularly track and field events. We watch sprinters pacing their lanes as they psych themselves up for the start.
We see 10, 20, 40 seconds of flat-out running. In the 100 meters, the sprinters probably do not even take a breath during the race.
But within seconds, there is the TV camera and the microphone, expecting some kind of conversation from a panting, oxygen-deprived athlete.
It usually begins with “You must be very pleased with the time!” The reply generally comprises broken syllables interspersed with heaving intakes of oxygen. The unfortunates who have just won a marathon might be doubled up with exhaustion, but that will be no defence in the face of the determined interviewer!
So maybe it’s time to take a step back and give some of these athletes a little breathing space.
Let Federer, as he did at Wimbledon, take his runner’s-up trophy and stand aside. He was allowed to preserve his dignity and shed his tears off-camera in the locker-room.
He will still carry out his responsibilities: answer the press’ questions at his postmatch conference, show up for the ATP formalities, do the charity gigs, make time for the fans.
And most players do. They know who pays the bills and, yes, they are paid well. But they give a great deal in return, including—more often than not—providing a great role model for those who follow in their footsteps.
Isn’t that enough?