Roger Federer won three matches at the French Open this year, and withdrew before his fourth-round match with a young Italian star. Roger had to fight to win his third-round match against an opponent he had never played before, and it was quite early in the morning of the next day.
I am fully aware that Twitter is not real life, and that one could find any number of crackpot opinions on anything under the sun, including men’s professional tennis. That said, I wanted to push back against some narratives that I saw, to the effect that Roger had “disrespected” the tournament. This man has recently returned from two knee surgeries, and the long layoff caused by the global pandemic. He has only one French Open title, claimed back in 2009, when there was a surprise upset of Rafael Nadal. Federer beat the man who bested Nadal in that fourth-round match, Robin Soderling, in the championship final.
Even so, Roger has never been regarded as a favorite to claim the title at the tournament where Nadal has been so dominant. Roger has also said that his focus for this season—- at least to this point—- is on the grass court season, which is highlighted by Wimbledon. We must surmise that he thinks he can drown out the bitter taste of having championship point against Novak Djokovic in the final in 2019, and nevertheless losing the match. He would extend his own record at that event, if he were to win his ninth crown in 2021.
Even if the criticism comes from some ignorant overzealous Djokovic partisans, it does nevertheless testify to a tendency to treat our sporting icons like avatars, and not like people. And they are people subject to injury, weakness, and death, just like the rest of us. Moreover, there must be some part of them which does not belong to us, some part of their existence which does not lend itself to our demands.
The tournament director did not seem to be overly upset with Federer’s decision to withdraw. Most tennis leaders recognize that a severe injury at this stage would spell doom for Federer’s career. And in the end, do we want to see him in top form at Wimbledon, or do we not?
In related news, the Japanese tennis superstar, Naomi Osaka, also chose to withdraw from the French Open, after initially declining to honor her contractual obligations to show up to the media events required of all players. After some time, Osaka cited her mental health, and probable social anxiety, as the reason why she could not fulfill her obligations. It is entirely possible to believe that she did not express her problems and concerns in the best manner to the tournament organizers, but I would rather see a healthy Naomi Osaka, than one fined and shamed out of the tournament on a technicality. In this case, it is the tournament organizers who must prioritize the health of the players, over the media exposure, which will allegedly generate necessary revenue.
Some people claimed that there had been a double standard in the way the two players were treated by the French Open officials, but I don’t think that is true. Moreover, denying needed grace to Naomi Osaka does not necessitate denying the same grace to Roger Federer. Both are injured, albeit in different ways, and both are necessary to the full enjoyment of the game of tennis at this level at this time. Let’s not quibble about technicalities, when the good of the game clearly dictates giving these players a break.
Someone might say that I do not give an ordinary marginal player the same grace as I give the stars. That may well be true. Yet the marginal player is equally a person, as much as the big star. And in the end, the games don’t matter as much as our mutual enjoyment of the games together as people who watch them. Let’s not poison the special relationship between athletes and fans, by forgetting our common humanity. And let’s not engage in full-blown idolatry of either the athletes, or their sports, by thinking that the sport does not go on without the participation at all costs of its luminaries. Part of the joy of the history of sports is to know that the greatest performances are in the past. There is some part of thankfulness which depends upon the realization that there will come a time—- or it has already come—- when our heroes cannot give us the triumphs that they could deliver in youth, and in the height of strength.
Let our favorite athletes be people, and let us be thankful for what they have already given us.