Indian Wells, CA — Here at the Pacific Life Open on this wonderfully cluttered middle weekend, thousands of fans are milling into the side courts, the air is thin, the wind is blowing strong and top seeds like Rafael Nadal and Ana Ivanovic are grubbing their way through early round matches. Dozens more are practicing on the outer courts. It’s precisely the kind of tennis festival that makes this one of the sport’s great tournaments — a sublime showcase of so much that makes this sport authentic and compelling.
And so I strongly hope that Roger Federer is up for the task. As you may have read, he and his handler recently announced that for several weeks he has suffered mononucleosis. And I’m sure you heard word of his exhibition last Monday versus Pete Sampras.
Both of which make me scratch my head.
The genius of Federer has been explicated so much — his elegant game, exemplary behavior on and off the court, the way in which he conducts himself more like a UN diplomat than a rough-and-tumble athlete. I’m on-board on all counts. Federer has emerged as tennis’ Sun King, a benevolent ruler loved by all — and usually for good reason.
So why would he dare insult the sport’s code of sportsmanship by going public with news of his illness? It was nauseating to me to see Federer stand alongside the great Roy Emerson Monday night at Madison Square Garden prior to his match versus Sampras. Emerson, of all the Australians Federer reveres, is at heart the keeper of that nation’s flame in the sportsmanship department.
More than 40 years ago, Emerson seemed headed towards the first Wimbledon men’s singles three-peat in three decades. An injury incurred mid-match derailed his chances — and it’s something Emerson to this day will not discuss. As he has put it so succinctly, “If you’re hurt, don’t play. If you play, you’re not hurt. There are no excuses.” Surely Federer believes in this code. Surely he heard it as a teen when he was coached by an Aussie, Peter Carter.
Yet now Federer has given himself a public, sanctified excuse — a reason for past losses this year to Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, as well as a cloud of concern that will cover him for several weeks. Why he would do this is something I find mystifying, disturbing and, yes, downright unfair.
Federer vs Sampras IV
Topic two: Did you ever think you’d see someone play customer tennis versus Pete Sampras? That’s what happened Monday night. The sight of Federer smiling, holding back on shots, failing to press Sampras much until matters almost got out of control — to put it simply, what the hell was that? A friend told me it was similar to wrestling match: a staged, engaging event that satisfied the public. Never mind the lack of credibility.
Did you ever hear Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. This is how I felt as I watched Federer-Sampras. Definitely proficient, but scarcely authentic. I’d prefer watching two juniors trying to fight their way out of the qualifying. You want to see an inter-generational challenge match? Head to Youtube and key in the terms “Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver.” You will find off the charts intensity between the punkish 22-year-old Connors and the iconic 36-year-old Laver.
And yet, for all these beefs, my belief has always been that what the player does on the court is at least 51 percent of the dialogue. Joining thousands here and millions watching on TV, I’m eager this week to see Federer fight for his first title of 2008, eager to see him unveil all the tools that have made him such a majestic and pleasing player to watch. It’s time for Federer to toss the illness aside, quit smiling and sink his teeth into hardcore competition.
Joel Drucker is a writer for TennisOne, see more of his work at TennisOne.com.
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