Roger Federer, Tim Duncan and the ESPYs

Roger Federer fails to win the ESPY Best Male Athlete award and has about as much buzz in the U.S. as Tim Duncan

When I spoke to James Blake on Friday he said he’d been to the ESPYs the night before. He mentioned hanging out with his friend Kevin Garnett but refused to say whether K.G. wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers this coming season. Can’t imagine why he wouldn’t tell us.

The ESPYs are the U.S. version of the Laureus World Sports Awards. The award is named after its creator, ESPN. This year Roger Federer was nominated for Best Male Athlete.

Needless to say, Federer did not win. The U.S. doesn’t like giving athlete of the year awards to foreign players. Sports Illustrated has given its Sportsman of the Year award to nine foreign players in its 53 year history and two of those awards were for off-the-field activities.

Last year they gave it to NBA player Dwyane Wade instead of Federer despite the fact that Wade has one NBA title to his name. Wade’s teammate Shaquille O’Neal, who has four NBA titles and is arguably the most dominant center in NBA history, has never won the award. Federer, meanwhile, had just won three of the four slams two years running and was dominating his sport as no other athlete has since his friend Tiger Woods took over the world of golf.

The ESPYs dealt with foreign players by creating a Best International Athlete award in 2006 and gave the award to Albert Pujols, a Dominican-born baseball player. Baseball is the quintessential U.S. sport and Pujols plays for the St. Louis Cardinals in the heartland of the U.S. How much more home grown can you get?

Admittedly ESPN is based in the U.S. and should reward its players but U.S. sports are increasingly international. At the beginning of the 2006 season, 27.4 percent of Major League Baseball players were foreign born. All but two of the ESPY awards were determined by online fan voting. One of those non-fan awards went to a pair of men in Northern Ireland who are helping to heal the Catholic/Protestant divide using the game of basketball.

This is a hint to the problem because Federer does not have “buzz” with U.S. fans. If you want to know why that is, all you had to do was to stay tuned to ESPN after the ESPYs broadcast last night and watch a show called Who’s Now: Determine the Ultimate Sports Star. The show pairs athletes off against each other in a bracket format and fans vote for the player with the most “on-field success and off-field buzz”. The eventual winner is the ultimate sports star.

A panel of sports experts debated the current pairing of Tony Parker and Federer. At one point, one of the experts compared Federer to NBA player Tim Duncan in terms on-court charisma and I almost fell off my chair. Duncan is famous for his vacant stare and stone face demeanor. Perhaps these guys never saw Federer break down in tears after winning a slam or scream after a brilliant point.

Duncan is known for a commercial in which he’s stopped by police and stares wordlessly into space during the officer’s interrogation. Federer can be seen in a print ad walking away from his private jet. Earlier this year he was featured in a Men’s Vogue layout shot by Annie Leibovitz. You see him posing in his high rise apartment in Dubai and hanging on to the mast of a speeding boat in the Persian Gulf. This guy is a worldwide celebrity yet that compares favorably to Tim Duncan in the U.S. and unfairly to Tony Parker mainly because Parker is married to Eva Longoria and the best Federer can do is call Tiger Woods his friend.

Who’s Now is a lame made-for-TV show but it makes a good point. Sport is entertainment and buzz is as important as skill. Federer will have to settle for his third straight ESPY as Best Male Tennis player unless he drops his girlfriend and starts dating Paris Hilton.

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