The classic beauty embodied in Roger Federer's style of tennis mostly speaks for itself. During his peak years, Federer single-handedly drew legions of new fans to the sport because he seemed to be tapping into one of the purest forms of expression ever seen on a tennis court.
Certainly anyone who watched the Swiss maestro play in person or on television during that time could see that the man turned into a genius with a tennis racket in his hand.
Few needed the media to explain to them that Roger Federer was "good" at tennis.
Federer went on to make appearances in the semifinals of 23 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and, in the process, became a fixture on the professional tour. And as his star continued to rise, the media establishment could only hope to capture a sliver of his being and deliver it to the public.
As Federer approached some fairly important career milestones, the legions of fans following him only grew larger—as if the original 300 were suddenly joined by the rest of Sparta. Of course these fans thirsted for information about tennis's favorite son, and the media was more than happy to oblige.
This journalistic activity possibly crescendoed with an article by David Foster Wallace for The New York Times called "Federer as Religious Experience." In the piece, Wallace helps fans of Federer bathe in his aura through allusions of the player as something greater than human.
Wallace certainly doesn't hold anything back when framing Federer in these worshipful terms: "The metaphysical explanation is that Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws."
As good as Federer has been at tennis, the notion that he somehow falls beyond the purview of natural law is certainly a creative liberty. Nonetheless, the article serves as a good example of just how far the media has been willing to go in support of such a popular player.
While other journalists may have drawn a more clear line between fiction and reality, there has certainly been no dearth of articles proclaiming Federer to be one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the game.
It's this context that makes some of Federer's recent comments, which appear to be directed at the media, so perplexing. According to the UK's Daily Mail, Federer recently said:
What I don’t like is when people don’t understand why I’m not playing so well. So I come out like I did in Gstaad last summer and say I’m having problems with my back. It’s not an excuse and I don’t like talking about injuries anyway, people don’t need to know my problems.
So they see you playing and see you struggling and they think this is your normal form. On any given day I always know I can play great tennis but last year I couldn’t even do that. I could do it for maybe a set and a half. That’s when the confidence gets lost and that’s when maybe people find it hard to understand.
Interestingly, that isn't the first shot Federer has taken at the media in the last couple years. According to ATP World Tour, Federer was quoted saying the following in Shanghai in 2012:
Sometimes you’re just happy playing. Some people, some media, unfortunately, don’t understand that it’s okay just to play tennis and enjoy it. They always think you have to win everything, it always needs to be a success story, and if it’s not, obviously, what is the point? Maybe you have to go back and think, why have I started playing tennis? Because I just like it. It’s actually sort of a dream hobby that became somewhat of a job. Some people just don’t get that, ever.
Aside from making people wonder why the Swiss maestro even gives a damn, the comments do beg some analysis.
Federer said to Daily Mail that he wasn't willing to talk much about his back injury in 2013, but he then basically chastises the media for speculating rather than using facts that he did not provide.
That perspective seems a bit irrational, given that the media was likely only trying to reconcile Federer's continuing outward confidence with his declining production on the court. Additionally, Federer didn't miss any significant time due to injury last season, which makes the injury story sound a bit revisionist.
Regardless of Federer's precise health in 2013, it seems difficult to fault the media for marking a decline in Federer's production in recent years. In the last 16 Grand Slams, Federer has won only a single title, suggesting that his decline has been more pronounced than just a sore back in 2013.
If Federer's position that the media has harped on his decline is indeed true, the "unfavorable" coverage was likely caused by his lagging results and most assuredly not because there is some slant against the Swiss maestro in the world of international sports coverage. Federer enjoys the support of possibly the deepest fanbase in tennis history, and a savvy media has largely tailored its message to this group for some time.
Federer made the finals recently at Indian Wells and this effort yielded a pile of new articles in support of his "resurgence." One such example was a piece by Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times titled "Novak Djokovic wins BNP Paribas Open—but Roger Federer doesn't lose."
Here we find another author who creates metaphors comparing Federer to religion with a quote that reads, "Novak Djokovic proved Sunday at Indian Wells, in the men's final of the BNP Paribas Open, that Roger Federer does not walk on water." If anything, that fact was proven a long time ago with Rafael Nadal going 15-4 (including 6-1 on outdoor hard courts) against Roger Federer since the start of 2008.
To find a negative article about Federer at any moment of his career is actually extremely difficult. And despite the fact that Federer rarely discussed his injury during 2013, a great many of the articles written about him during that time certainly did provide at least a mention of a "niggling back injury."
For these reasons, Federer's interest in chastising a media establishment that has contributed significantly to the promotion of his career seems more than a bit short-sighted.
Rarely, if ever, did Federer try and rein in the media for overestimating his talent and influence during his peak years—even when the extreme range of that coverage was arguably a bit too effervescent.
If the media has indeed stepped over the line in covering Federer's golden years, which is debatable, one has to wonder why Federer would feel the need to intervene when the perception is less favorable.
A big part of life as a professional athlete, or as any person, is taking the good with the bad.
Federer demonstrated after the 2009 Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal that he sometimes struggles with managing setbacks in the public eye.
Unfortunately, his recent comments toward the media suggest he has not yet overcome that particular challenge.
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