Column: Emperor Federer and the naked truth

February 16, 2012, 11:56 PM | Staff Column | Nigel Graber
When Roger Federer criticised Stanislas Wawrinka last week for his poor form in the Davis Cup doubles, it was nothing new. The Swiss has had his foot in his ungracious mouth for a few years now.

The man has rocked up at Wimbledon looking like a bottle of gold-topped milk, so it seems a little ironic to learn that the emperor of tennis has no clothes.

Back in 2003, when a floppy-haired Swiss first found slam success with his liquid-whip forehand on the lawns of SW19, it seemed the tennis world was being introduced not only to a player of incomparably fine shotmaking but also to a gentleman.

Today, the former is in serious doubt – or at least the incomparable bit – and the latter is simply, unarguably, plainly wrong.

The trouble is that Roger Federer acquired his halo during the period when he was winning. And, between 2003 and 2007, before he encountered stiffer opposition in the shape of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, he did a lot of winning.

Steamrollered

In the mid-noughties, the Swiss steamrollered the likes of Baghdatis, Gonzalez and Roddick to claim a dozen of his 16 slam titles. It's interesting that Wikipedia even divides his career into two sections: 2003-07 and 2008 onwards.

Now, as we all know, being a gracious winner is a breeze. The problems start when you stand on Centre Court holding a plate instead of a cup and speak first, rather than second.

Let's spell it out: over the last five years or so, Roger Federer has proved himself to be deeply arrogant, self-regarding and ungracious in defeat.

Unfortunately, the media have made a rod for their own backs. They created the 'gentleman ambassador' tag at a time when it seemed perfectly reasonable to do so. They dressed him up in clothes even more emperor-like than anything dreamed up by the fashion gurus at Nike. To undress him now would be iconoclasm to the nth degree, a Swiss roll the size of the Matterhorn. They'd look mighty dumb.

Which is why, when Federer utters his latest ill-considered, barbed remark, the refrain from commentators and the media is always a giggly, "Well, if it were anyone but Roger, we'd all be saying how arrogant that sounds".

But it is arrogant, and here's the evidence. Last weekend, the Swiss team got pulverised on slow clay in the Davis Cup by the US. Federer's efforts, in losing to Isner in the singles and to Bryan and Fish in the doubles, looked pitifully half-hearted.

Off-key

His remarks about Stanislas Wawrinka, his partner, though, were truly off-key. As anyone who's ever played this game knows, one of the worst breaches of etiquette is to blame your partner.

Not that that stopped Roger. "I played well enough in doubles, but Stanislas not so much," Federer said. "He didn't have his best match in singles. It's a shame, because of that defeat, we weren't able to put the US under pressure." Wawrinka, sitting right next to Federer, looked like the guy who farted in the lift.

No matter that Federer lost his singles in four sets, while Stan played five very tight sets against a higher-ranked opponent.

But Federer hasn't always needed to open his mouth to look like a fool. That Wimbledon blazer in 2006, and the monogrammed cap, blazer, pants, jumper, bandana and crazy, quilted bag of 2007 all said one thing: 'I'm going to win and there's nothing you can do about it'.

By 2009, the Wimbledon finals crowd was holding its breath, half expecting the Swiss maestro to soar over the Centre Court roof aboard a monogrammed Pegasus accompanied by a heavenly choir in an ethereal swirl of dry ice.

The reality was almost worse. Nike's '15' jacket that he paraded in front of the guy he'd just outlasted 16-14 in the fifth rubbed Roddick's nose firmly in the turf. The jacket came from his bag – did he think he had the match in there, too?

Roddick must have had to prise his teeth apart with pliers, but he still managed to say, "Congratulations to Roger – he's a true champion and deserves everything he gets. It was a pleasure playing today in front of these great champions…"

Tetchiness

But let's wind back to 2007 when Roger's tetchiness first crept in. When Federer went down to Guillermo Canas twice in quick succession, he insisted the Argentinian's drug ban should not have been lifted. Would he have been so quick to offer his opinion if he'd won? He described a loss to Djokovic in Montreal as 'insignificant' and fired a ball angrily into the crowd against Murray in Cincinnati.

Since then, Federer's crimes against humility have been almost too numerous to mention.

Roger's never been above a little bit of hypocrisy. Let's scoot forward to last year. With Murray struggling with an injury at the World Tour Finals in London, Federer told the Scot that champions play and win even when they're injured. He even claimed not to have been fully fit when he won his five WTF titles.

“I’ve been unlucky towards the end of the season – I’ve had a back issue; I’ve had a quad issue,” he said. “I guess I’m tough in taking hits as well with my body. I know how to handle them.

"My body, even if it’s injured, can still play really well, whereas maybe other players, if they are injured, it doesn’t work any more. Many matches in my career I’ve played hurt as well but was able to somehow find a way to at least compete or sometimes even to win.”

Just the year before, though, it seems that those back and quad issues were very much impediments to his performance after he got dumped out of Wimbledon by Tomas Berdych.

Federer said: "I've been feeling bad for the last two, three matches. I am struggling with a little bit of a back and a leg issue."

He claimed to have picked them up playing Lleyton Hewitt in Halle, Germany: "That never quite really went away. It came back a little bit after the first-round match and then went away again and just kept creeping back sometimes during the matches. When you're hurting, it's a combination of many things. You just don't feel as comfortable. You can't concentrate."

In a sentiment that would become familiar to seasoned Federer watchers (the 'the match is always on my racket' of later years), he added, "I had my chances. I was just not playing well enough. When he had to, he was able to come up with some good stuff. But I definitely gave away this match."

Berdych was unimpressed. He countered, "You can say that he was unlucky or you can say maybe the opponent was a little better. I don't know if he is just looking for excuses. I think every time when he played, he was 100 per cent ready."

Hypocrisy

There was further hypocrisy on show as Federer upped the ante before those 2011 WTF finals. With Murray fresh off three outstanding ATP victories, including a 6-0 final-set thrashing of Nadal in Japan, the Swiss said, “I’m not taking anything away from what Andy did, but was Asia the strongest this year? I'm not sure. Novak wasn't there, I wasn't there and Rafa lost early."

Federer, of course, had conveniently overlooked the fact that the highest-ranked opponent in his own autumn triumphs in Paris and Basel had been eighth-ranked Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.

It was in 2010, though, just as Federer's game slowed down, that he compensated with some fast-paced gracelessness. In a left-handed compliment, he praised Nadal for being a 'great clay-courter'. He claimed surfaces were being slowed down and remarked that the faster courts at Flushing Meadows could prove challenging for Rafa.

Since there's no record of any slam changing its surfaces since 2001, when Wimbledon switched to rye grass, it seems Federer was trying to defend his own turf and discredit Nadal's achievements on faster surfaces. These barbed remarks towards Rafa must hurt his Spanish rival, who consistently refers to Federer as 'the greatest', even though Nadal holds a commanding 18-9 head-to-head lead over him.

The disparaging remarks towards Nadal continued unchecked after Rafa's French Open final victory over Federer in 2011. His very first comment in the presser afterwards concerned how lucky Nadal had been on the close calls.

Federer then took up his familiar 'it's all on my racket' refrain: "Obviously, I’m the one that’s playing with smaller margins, so obviously I’m always going to go through a bit more up and downs; whereas Rafa is content doing the one thing for the entire time.

"So it’s always me who’s going to dictate play and decide how the outcome is going to be. If I play well, I will most likely win in the score or beat him; if I’m not playing so well, that’s when he wins."

So, if Roger plays well, he wins. That's why, in his four French Open finals against Rafa, Nadal leads 4-0 and by 12 sets to three.

Five-set epic

Fast-forward three months to a US Open semi-final defeat against Djokovic, a five-set epic lasting almost four hours. The Serb saved a match point with a brutal forehand, a shot that Federer dismissed as 'lucky' in his post-match press conference: "To lose against someone like that, it's very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go."

Djokovic once mused that he'd like to share a beer with some of his rivals once they've retired to talk about "what we all went through". Federer was never likely to accept that invitation from the Serb, and after his comments on Djokovic's work ethic and playing style, it will probably never be extended.

"Confidence? I mean, please. Some players grow up and play like that," said the Swiss. "I remember junior matches, being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. I never played that way. I believe hard work's going to pay off, because early on maybe I didn't always work at my hardest."

The statement, if undeniably offensive, sounds plausibly honest in an artisan kind of way. Then you examine the stats and see that Djokovic won 83% of his first-serve points against Federer's 67. He fired 48 winners and 35 unforced errors, while Federer's numbers were 49 and 59 respectively. Novak converted six break-point chances against Federer's three.

Vitriol

But Federer has always spat his most-vitriolic bile at Britain's Andy Murray, another player against whom he has a losing record. A comprehensive list of below-the-belt jabs would run to several pages, but here are the edited highlights.

“I can mix up my game too well for him to get under my skin,” said Federer in 2009. “Everybody has his own game and you can’t change the way you play. It’s just something you’re born with. If you want to be a top player, you need to have offensive skills.”

When Murray withdrew from Federer's hometown tournament, Basel, with a gluteal injury after requesting a last-minute wild card, Roger said, "I never saw him as a potential opponent anyway because I’m too focused on what I have to do. I'm sure it is somewhat disappointing for the tournament director after going through all the headaches with the wild cards.”

Murray reached a (then) career-high ranking of three in 2009. Federer said, “It’s nice but is there a big difference between being number three and number four in the world? I don’t think so."

That same year, when the Scot was named as the favourite for the Australian Open, he shot back, “Good for him. I mean, it doesn’t help him a whole lot. He’s never won a Slam.”

After Murray's fourth-round exit at the US Open that year, Federer couldn't resist saying, "Maybe, US Open, you could think he crumbled there under pressure, being in the finals the year before.”

Pressure

Federer, who once delighted in reminding the Scot that he carried the British grand-slam hopes of 150,000 fruitless years, said before Murray's 2010 Australian Open final, “He’s in his second grand-slam final now. I think the first one’s always a bit tougher than the second one, but not winning the first one doesn’t help second time around.

"He’s also playing me, someone who’s won many Grand Slams and been able to win here three times. I know what it takes and how to do it, which is definitely an advantage. I don’t feel like the pressure’s really on me having to do it again, because I’ve done it before. I think he really needs it more than I do. I think the pressure’s big on him. We’ll see how he’s going to handle it. It’s not going to be easy for him, that’s for sure.”

After losing to Murray in Dubai in 2008, Federer stuck a verbal knife right into the heart of the Scot's game: “He’s going to have to grind very hard for the next few years if he keeps playing this way. He tends to wait a lot for the mistake of the opponent.

"He stands way far behind on the court and that means you’ve got to do a lot of running. I gave him the mistakes today but I think overall, over a 15-year career, you want to look to win a point more often than for an opponent to miss. That’s what served me well over the years but, who knows, he might surprise us all and do it for 20 years.

“I don’t think he’s changed his game a whole lot since I played him in the Bangkok final [of 2006; Murray's first ATP final]. Not that I’m disappointed, but I really would have thought he would have changed it in some ways.”

Global poll

In the summer of 2011, a global poll of 50,000 people found Roger Federer to be the world’s second-most-respected person, sandwiched between Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates. The public's exposure to tennis is limited and often second-hand, and the press have ensured that Federer is still dining out in his 2007 dinner suit, so this is hardly surprising.

It's time for the media to admit the naked truth: that Federer's claim to be the greatest of all time seems increasingly hollow. More damning is the public image spun on the loom of the press of a gentleman ambassador. Today, this looks an even dafter ensemble than the gold-lamé manbag and Sergeant Pepper warm-up suit that he once paraded with such smug self-belief on this great sport's most-hallowed patch.
Staff Column | Nigel Graber
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add comment | 1555 comments
If you think Mandela is a reformed terrorist then your entire article lost its validity for me.  You obviously cannot stand Federer. Yes, he may come off as arrogant at times, and I also agree he does not take defeat well, but some of Fed's  quotes were used totally out of context.   There is a reason he was voted fan favorite 4 years running - also more than once by his peers for good sportsmanship. You sound VERY bitter.  
February 17, 2012, 12:44 AM
By Franklin

Great column, Nigel. This is balanced look at how Federer is the furthest thing from a gentlemen since he's had to face losing.

My only criticism is your comment on Bill Gates which is completely unfair and gives an outdated perception of him. Gates is a great person with incredible generosity that is many leagues above most with such wealth. His jaw-dropping donations to charities have literally changed the world.

In fact, there's is an interesting comparison to be made between Federer and Gates. Federer was falsely perceived to be a gentlemen for most of his career but now he is being seen for what he is, something quite the opposite. Gates was wrongly perceived as greedy for most of his Microsoft years but now people are realising he is one of the most generous and caring people on the rich list.
February 17, 2012, 12:53 AM
By Mark

very biased article.

Federer is not perfect for sure.  But who can be?
February 17, 2012, 01:13 AM
By koalaxie

This is not about being perfect, just compare his attitude to the majority of top players... he is worse than all of them in the department of being a gentlemen when suffering a loss.

There's no doubt things were different years ago but being a gentleman when all you know is winning, means very little.
February 17, 2012, 01:15 AM
By Mark

This is so true! have been waiting for someone else to say this for years!
February 17, 2012, 01:35 AM
By clarkkc

One thing to say at the moment: ....   cmonandy
February 17, 2012, 02:20 AM
By adb..OH

Brilliant Nigel...and beautifully written. Fed truly is an ungracious fud. This needs to be read by the wider public.
February 17, 2012, 02:42 AM
By netcord

WHERE'S AK400??? Very Happy

Great article Nigel, but - "In the summer of 2011, a global poll of 50,000 people found Roger Federer to be the world’s second-most-respected person, sandwiched between Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates. Given that some might see one as a reformed terrorist and the other as a totem of greedy capitalism, it could make for a tainted trio."  nah

Apart from the fact that I have great respect for both Mandela and Gates, and therefore consider Federer as being totally unfit to even lick their boots, I'm always suspicious of polls.  They can so easily be rigged, and presumably this global one was carried out on the internet, so was anything in place to stop hundreds of deluded Fed fans from voting more than once?

This, by the way, is Fed's signature, which I found on his website.  Says it all, really.

                                                   
February 17, 2012, 03:48 AM
By Aileen

This is so hyperbolic and biased that it's hard to take it seriously. I understand your point but it's so one-sided that it can hardly be considered journalism. But, hey this is your blog, so I guess there don't have to be standards, right?
February 17, 2012, 04:14 AM
By Pramila

Nigel, I like it except for the inclusion of the poll results.  I agree with Aileen's argument.

On Andy's withdrawal from Basel:  I'm sure it is somewhat disappointing for the tournament director after going through all the headaches with the wild cards.

What year was this?

Because Fed did a more grievous tournament withdrawal in 2011.  Halle is Fed's favorite pre-Wimby event so much that in 2010 (or earlier), Fed signed a contract with Halle for continued commitment so they must have jacked up his appearance fee.   That year, he lost to Hewitt in the finals.  That's fine because Fed was still in the finals guaranteeing tickets etc.  In 2011, after losing to Rafa in RG in a 4-setter, Fed withdrew from Halle which surely lost a ton of money.   Andy had an injury reason for Basel but Fed was not injured - not physically.   Did he think twice about the Halle director's beyond-headache disappointment?

February 17, 2012, 05:31 AM
By NDMS

add comment | 1555 comments