A very astute commenter pointed out that my statemenent about Maria Sharapova:
When you approach excellence, we expect more from you. It’s not enough to be the best at what you do, we want to be able to relate to you.
is exactly the reason that Federer is not popular in the United States. We have trouble relating to him because, the commenter said, he is “too cold, too distant, too unapproachable, too unloveable. Hardly relatable.”
She makes a very good point. Federer pales in comparison to Rafael Nadal and certainly Marcos Baghdatis and it’s much easier to relate to Andy Roddick’s current problems than it is to Federer’s calm, controlled, ceaseless dominance.
We see Roddick whipping himself and self-imploding during a loss against Igor Andreev or Marat Safin breaking rackets and we sympathize.
But I don’t find Federer distant or cold. Look, for instance, at his torrent of tears at the Australian Open victory. He comes across as a friendly, open guy on the court and in interviews. People have trouble relating to Roger because he stays calm in the face of a grand slam final while we are swearing and kicking the soda machine because it ate our money. We see Roddick whipping himself and self-imploding during a loss or Marat Safin breaking rackets and we sympathize.
It’s unfortunate in a way because Federer is one of the very few players in tennis who does exactly what all of the mental coaches tell you. Trust your game. If your game is strong enough to win the match, all is good. If you’re playing your best and the other player still beats you, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re not likely to develop new skills in the middle of the match, that takes months and years of practice, and getting upset with yourself just makes things worse.
Of course it’s much easier to be calm when you’re winning every match but it’s also that approach that helps you win. After the Nasdaq-100 win Federer said, “…I never panic, you know. I think that’s the key in the end.”
After his loss to Federer in Indian Wells, someone asked Ivan Ljubicic to name two things that set Federer apart from everyone else. His answer was, “return and movement.” My answer would be mental and movement.
Ljubicic probably has the widest range of skills next to Federer, though he’s not as comfortable at the net, and he doesn’t self implode. But he has a terrible record in five set matches and only once in the three tiebreakers against Federer at the Nasdaq-100 did he come up with a big play when he needed it – a 139 mph serve in the third tiebreaker. Still, it wasn’t enough. Federer responded with a service winner and an ace.
My co-writer, Pat Davis, pointed out that Bjorn Borg was also absurdly calm, more so than Federer. But we didn’t talk about him being boring because he had legitimate, tough rivalries. Federer doesn’t and so, since we’re not spending our time talking about the exciting finals at Indian Wells and Miami – they weren’t that exciting, we don’t have much else to do but to pick apart Federer and wish that he could offer us more because, clearly, his opponents cannot.