Australian Open 2018: Not humility or fragility, Roger Federer's tears define his strength, reinforce his genius
Roger Federer's tears are an agent of disempowerment that takes the ‘meta’ out of metaphysical and makes him ‘normal’. In other words, one of us.
So much has already been written about Roger Federer that it presents writers with a challenge. Every possible aspect of his game has been thoroughly dissected. Even his tears. Especially his tears. In this age of redefining of gender roles, the discourse around sport still revolves around the male gaze. Women’s participation has erupted and revolutionised sport but the culture around it still insists on gender stereotypes.
Recall Mithali Raj’s epic reply to an inane question on who’s her “favourite male cricketer”.
In the hegemonic masculinity of sporting culture, the biological process of tears has a gender association. Tears of male superstars therefore are a huge problem. It is a confoundedly tricky problem with Federer because he is what he is, and every time the GOAT cries on court, the discourse must rise to defend the tear and contextualise it.
As Federer exercised the right to use his tear duct soon after bagging the 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne, a battery of theories have predictably emerged to explain the bawling. Some speculated on his retirement, while some discovered (for the umpteenth time) his “human side”.
This wasn’t the first time Federed had cried on court, obviously. For those interested, a laundry list is available on the Internet. Among the weeping genius’ most-talked about moments is the one where he let it rip on the Australian Open podium in 2009 after emerging second-best to his bête noire. On that occasion, Rafael Nadal actually put his arm around Federer and reassured him that he is a “great champion” after the Swiss had blurted out "God, this is killing me" before swaying away from the mic.
It prompted volumes on Federer’s fragility, fallibility and maddeningly, his masculinity. Andrew Corsello wrote in GQ that “a hundred years hence, historians will cite what next came out of his mouth as the most effeminate utterance in twenty-first-century sport.”
Mainstream sport writing may not always be such testosterone-fuelled, eloquent nonsense but it is nevertheless preposterous to find an overwhelming discourse that considers Federer’s tears to be a measure of his fragility, frailty and even humility, if not weakness. The red nose, screwy face and spasms of emotion have been explained as the humanising of an ethereal creature that inhabits a stratosphere. In other words, Federer’s tears are an agent of disempowerment that takes the ‘meta’ out of metaphysical and makes him ‘normal’. In other words, one of us.
It is easy to see why we do this because the normal impulse of human mind is to rationalise and make sense of it all. Federer’s genius is blinding. It is also a bit stifling. We feel powerless before it. We must find ways to bring the Swiss down to earth, if only to feel better.
Let’s consider another possibility though. Far from being a ‘disempowering agent’, Federer’s tears are the signifiers of his strength. Instead of making him ‘human’ or proving his fragility, nerves or boyishness, the tears reinforce his genius. It complements and explains his greatness in the most lucid way possible.
“I was just so relieved when everything was said and done — I think I felt the same way tonight. That is why I couldn’t speak, it was terrible,” he told Jim Courier and Hamish McLachlan after the match.
Later, at the post-match news conference, he opened up a bit more while answering a specific question on the display of emotion.
“... I hoped over time in the speech I would start to relax a little bit, but I couldn't. It was what it was. I wish it wasn't so sometimes. At the same time I'm happy I can show emotions and share it with the people. If I got emotional, it's because it was a full crowd again. No people in the stadium wouldn't make me emotional, I'll tell you that. This is for them really also.”
Federer isn’t given to vainglory or fake humility. In my two decades of watching Federer, it is hard to come across a single moment when he had boasted or fished for a compliment. He was simply stating a matter of fact, that he was “relieved” when it was over, and overcame by emotion because of it and also because there was a full house that expected him to win.
It is tempting to gloss over this statement as mundane. Federer is telling us exactly why he is the greatest tennis player ever, and one of the greatest athletes of all time. Federer’s genius lies not just in his kinesthetic sense or his preternatural abilities. There’s obviously that dimension.
Almost everybody must have read David Foster Wallace’s Roger Federer as Religious Experience in New York Times where he described the Swiss master’s “intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace...” in great detail.
But there’s something else that equally defines his brilliance. His tears show that Roger is a genius because he cares; even after 20 Grand Slams. This calls for some reflection. One doesn’t have to be a professional tennis player. Being a professional in any profession is enough. To carry that passion for so long, after so many years, achieving all that's there to be achieved and to still care so much... This, right here, is why Federer is Federer.
So each time we feel demotivated, prone to going through the motions and lacking passion in what we do, we may think about him. And suddenly, Federer isn’t just an athlete, but the most eloquent personification of inspiration that ever existed.
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