The (Post-Match) Crying Game
The sometimes gripping and seesaw Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had its moments, but none was more dramatic than the trophy ceremony. With idol Rod Laver looking on, Federer could not hold it together during the on-court presentation. I think most of us in the pressroom weren’t surprised to see him crack a little with history on the line, but I suspect a few jaws dropped, including my own, at the rawness of his reaction. I’ve been pondering the meaning of his very public display of emotion (PDE) the last few days.
To shed tears of joy or frustration in today’s sporting landscape is commonplace. Stiff upper lips have been overtaken by those that quiver. “There's no stigma anymore about being a man and crying,” said James Blake when talking about Federer’s PDE earlier this week. But even so, Federer’s sob-fest in front of 15,000 appreciative fans on Rod Laver Arena was a lachrymal outpouring of spectacular dimensions. Twice the Swiss star tried to begin his runner-up speech. Twice, he choked up and backed off, before saying “it’s killing me” and retreating away from the microphone to heave and blubber in the background.
For starters, let’s throw Federer a bone and acknowledge that he has All-Star Metrosexual credentials. Despite his unflappable demeanor, they are well documented. From his cardigans and monogrammed sport coats at Wimbledon to the tears that seemed to flow almost as easily as his Grand Slam titles (he wept after his first All-England Club victory in 2003 and three years later in Melbourne when Laver handed him the winner’s trophy), the Swiss star has never been confused for the crotch-grabbing, take-no-prisoners Jimmy Connors or the stoic, icy Bjorn Borg.
What to make of it then? Was it a sign that Nadal, who had beaten him five straight times -- thrice in Grand Slam finals on three different surfaces – had broken his spirit. Was it the disappointment of being so close to tying Sampras’ mark and seeing the swashbuckling Spaniard pull it out from under his nose? Was it bewilderment? Aggravation? Something else?
As Andy Roddick noted, it’s not easy to stand in front of a crowd and be polite when inside you want to curl up and die. The confluence of sadness, disappointment and frustration has derailed many. “When you have to go straight into the awards ceremony, it's not easy especially after losing a Grand Slam final,” said the three-time major finalist from the USA. “I've been on the other end of that with Roger a couple of times. So I don't think it's surprising or out of the ordinary.”
Part of the reason Federer could not dam the floodgates was the show of support and appreciation he received from the fans. He is well loved in Melbourne, and the comforting applause no doubt softened his unruffled exterior. As he later explained following his five-set defeat: “In the first moment you're disappointed, you're shocked, you're sad, you know, then all of a sudden it overwhelms you,” he said. “The problem is you can't go in the locker room and just take it easy and take a cold shower. You can't. You know, you're stuck out there. It's the worst feeling.”
But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe Federer was telling us more than he was hurting inside. Mats Wilander certainly had a different take. Speaking shortly after the final, the seven-time major champ from Sweden said such a display only comes from one place: a failure of effort. “To me it means you didn’t leave everything on the court,” said Wilander. “You basically gave up mentally. You’re surprised and disappointed in your own performance.”
To be fair, Wilander has been a frequent critic of Federer’s mental toughness and strategic lapses against Nadal, and his comments can sometimes come off-the-cuff. But the Swedish Davis Cup captain is a shrewd observer (and equally shrewd competitor in his day) who rightly noted that Nadal’s ability to win impossible points allows him to “invest in the future” and coax easy mistakes out of Federer in the points that follow. “He very rarely takes momentum away from Nadal,” concluded Wilander.
Maybe the outburst came from coming so close to history. Blake could empathize with Federer’s frustration. He related a story early in his career when he lost in the first round of several ATP Tour events and wondered what was worse: being on the cusp of making it to The Show or having no chance at all. “We joked about it and said you want to have that chance,” said Blake. “You want to be in that position and put yourself there.”
Perhaps being on the edge of tying Sampras created an unbearable pressure point. “I think every player at some point has felt like they've gotten to a certain level, and they feel like they could be one notch higher or they feel it would be so much nicer to get that,” added Blake. “Whether it's for me or getting that one Grand Slam, or for someone else. Whether it's to get into that Top 100 or they just missed it. And for him, he's dealing with such historical references to be basically the greatest of all time, that you can see how tough that is to be on the verge of it, and not quite get there.”
Some will call it a humanizing event, with the underbelly of Federer’s genius finally lifted enough to show that his 13 majors were woven not only from effortless grace but also with sweat, emotion, and now, tears. Others will come away with the feeling that Federer is a big crybaby. Either way, it was a supremely poignant moment. Even Toni Nadal got choked up after the match, breaking down briefly when asked by a small scrum of reporters about Federer’s pain. “I don’t like anybody to feel bad,” he sniffled in Spanish. “Especially Federer, because I admire the way he plays and the way he behaves.”
Perhaps it will compel the Swiss maestro to seek outside help and hire a coach. Maybe he’ll take Wilander’s advice and change his tactics or send some bravado back at the Spaniard. It’s too early to tell if this was the breaking point, akin to the loss at the 1981 U.S. Open that sent Borg into retirement or McEnroe’s 1984 Open win that capped his best season ever but marked the end of his major-winning days. Blake, for one, hopes it has no diminishing effect. “I hope people appreciate it and don't think any less of him,” he said of Federer. “He really is one of the greats of our sport in terms of his ability. But he's also one of the greatest guys. So I would never want to take anything away from him for that show of emotion. “
It would be a pity (to use common Federer parlance) if the monster the Swiss mentioned last year – the one he said he had created after winning so much – is now staring him in the face each time he looks in the mirror.
Fed Cup – Can the U.S. Team Sink Any Lower?
With Bethanie Mattek’s withdrawal from the U.S. Fed Cup tie vs. Argentina this weekend in Arizona, the Americans have called on 30-year-old Julie Ditty, whose claim to fame is having won more lower-tier USTA pro events than anyone in history. Ditty joins teenager Melanie Oudin, veteran Jill Craybas and doubles specialist Liesel Huber. It has to be the weakest U.S. squad in history (or at least recent history). The Gisela Dulko-led Argentines are now, incredibly, the favorites. Mary Joe Fernandez must be wondering why she took this job, and as my colleague Matt Cronin at Tennisreporters.net jokingly pointed out, she must be thinking of suiting up herself.