I was just starting my junior year of high school in early September 2003 as Andy Roddick won that year's U.S. Open. The fiery, often hilarious Roddick took the title in a year where old bull Andre Agassi came into the tournament as the number one seed. The 21-year-old Roddick took out the three-seed, Juan Carlos Ferrero, in straight sets in the final, taking over the crown of Open champ from Pete Sampras, whose 2002 triumph constituted the last match of his illustrious career. I was a fervent young American tennis fan, schooled on Sampras' serve-and-volley and Agassi's unmatched service return game. I watched that tournament excitedly as one generation of American tennis stars dissipated and the new vanguard--led by Roddick, but also including James Blake, Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri--looked poised to secure several spots among the top of the tennis world rankings.
And then, four months later, Roger Federer just started winning everything.
After his Sunday triumph in London over Andy Murray, Federer now has 17 major titles and seven Wimbledon championships to his name. The former number is tops all-time, the latter tied with Sampras and 1880s dynamo William Renshaw for most ever.
And I really, really dislike him for the following reasons.
1. Federer, with his crooked pug nose and stupidly coiffed hair, looks like the spoiled son of a business tycoon who has machinations on controlling the world's economy, and he would have already accomplished it, too, if not for that pesky James Bond.
2. Like any good jingoistic homer, I enjoy seeing my American compatriots find success playing my favorite sport. Federer--and, to a slightly lesser, extremely less annoying extent, Rafael Nadal--beat down an entire American generation until they constituted barely a blip on tennis' radar. There was precious little room for any American to gain a foothold among the upper echelons of a sport in which two men, Federer and Nadal, won 20 of the 24 major titles between 2004 and 2009.
This generation's best American hope of breaking that cabal at the top, Roddick, holds a career 3-21 record against Federer and has not won another major since the 2003 Open. He has come to the brink of his second major championship three times at Wimbledon and had his hopes extinguished by Federer each time. Andy played the match of his life in the 2009 Wimbledon finals against Federer and still lost in a 16-14 fifth set. I remember smashing a wine glass full of orange juice on a kitchen counter that morning out of frustration over the feeling that, if Andy couldn't win that one, he was probably destined to finish out his career as a one-major winner. THANKS, FED.
3. Federer was basically unbeatable (except on clay) in the 2004 through 2007 seasons. But his unassailable position at the top of the sport began to crumble a bit at the hands of Nadal, who nipped him in the classic 2008 Wimbledon final and then beat him in a major hard court final for the first time at the 2009 Australian Open. After that Aussie Open match, Federer turned into a total crybaby. WAAAAH. I HAVE TO WAIT ANOTHER SIX MONTHS OR SO TO TIE AND THEN SET THE ALL-TIME RECORD FOR MOST MAJOR WINS. I GUESS NIKE WILL HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL WIMBLEDON TO UNVEIL THEIR "CONGRATS, ROGER" COMMERCIAL THEY MADE ESPECIALLY FOR MEEEEEEE. BOO HOO.
Over the past couple years, Federer's whinier side has had more chances to make an appearance as Novak Djokovic and Nadal have stolen some of his major title thunder.
After Djokovic laced a gutsy (reckless?) forehand to save a match point before ultimately beating Federer in last year's U.S. Open, Federer disparaged the amazing shot post-match: "To lose against someone like that, it's very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go."
He also threw his Davis Cup compadre, Stan Wawrinka, under the bus after he faltered against the U.S. in Switzerland's loss to US (WHOOO!!!) in this year's Davis Cup: "I played well enough in doubles, but Stanislas not so much. He didn't have his best match in singles. It's a shame, because of that defeat, we weren't able to put the US under pressure."
These are just a couple examples of a side of Federer that is rarely examined because of the "winning cures all ills" mentality that you see all throughout sports. Plus, the guy wore a custom-made Nike jacket with a big "15" on his back to commemorate his passing of Sampras in all-time major wins after beating Roddick in that 2009 Wimbledon final. I don't care if sponsors prodded him into doing it. It was classless to upstage a worthy competitor in that way after such a hard-fought match.
4. The tennis media glosses over these instances and absolutely falls over itself in praise of The Great Federer, and this endless conveyor-belt of kindness got old for me back in, oh, 2005-ish. During Sunday's broadcast of the Wimbledon final, ESPN's commentators routinely mentioned Federer's poise and grace like they were watching Mikhail Baryshnikov performing in Opus 19: The Dancer or something. At one point, John McEnroe pointed out that Federer seemed to be "floating" back and forth on the baseline. An ESPN story posted yesterday by Greg Garber used words like "virtuoso," "delicate," "super-cool," and "exquisite" to describe his performance in Sunday's match. These are basically the most common words that tennis writers choose to plug into the "Federer Wins Again" Mad Lib they fill out after any major tournament he wins.
In his weakest moments, Federer can be a weepy, barky dink, but you'd never know it based on the way everyone who follows tennis can collectively find zero bad things to say about him ever. Their fawning over Federer reminds me of ESPN's flabbergast over why many people still don't like LeBron James even after he has cemented his status as the world's best basketball player and won his first ring. Both guys have said and done some pretty irritating, off-putting things in the past that many in the media choose to look past because of all the talent and all the winning.
5. My dad first took me out to Clear Lake Park in Waseca to hit some tennis balls when I was five years old. Dad was a pretty good player in pretty good shape at that time, and I was a little guy just learning the strokes, so most of our afternoon matches consisted of me huffing and puffing back and forth on the baseline while Dad stroked shots while barely breaking a sweat.
As I got older and our matches evened out in quality and talent level, Dad still usually had the mental edge on me, as he never shed that effortless style of play that made it seem like he was always two steps away from wherever I planned on hitting the ball. This style of play also included his "energy-saving" technique of not really making an effort for my occasional well-placed winners. Those two elements combined to piss me off on several occasions, as I busted my hump acting like a wall on the baseline, struggling to track down his hot forehands, while he never seemed to exert one iota of strength and agility more than he had to in order to win a point. Federer approaches each match, each set, each point like my dad used to, and that still pisses me off. This leads into my final point.
6. Basically, I don't like Federer for the same reason millions love watching him. For the better part of a decade, he has been a nearly unbeatable machine of a man with perhaps the most perfect all-around tennis game ever before seen. The one flaw he sort of had for a while, his backhand, has been minimized due to the insanely high quality of the other parts of his game--namely, his footwork, mechanics, anticipation, and ability to switch from defense to offense within the span of one run-around wheelhouse forehand.
I don't enjoy watching effortless perfection like many people apparently do. Tennis has a reputation among players of more strenuous games as a more leisurely country club-type sport, but as a guy who has played it for 20 years, I'll tell you that I sweat more, worked more muscles, and felt as close as I ever have to death during some of my marathon tennis matches than I ever did during any basketball game I ever played. (Might be part of why I was the 12th man on my high school basketball team my senior year, but I digress.)
Tennis is a damn tough sport to play, and the labor of a long professional match can be seen to wear on most players as they compete in the world's biggest tournaments. There are dozens of elements that go into the construction of even the shortest of points. But Federer never seems to lose more than a couple ounces of water weight during any match. When he raises his wristbands to his brow, he more often does so to fix a wayward strand of hair than to actually wipe away perspiration. To paraphrase--with a straight face--an oft-cited tongue-in-cheek quote about the way David Kahn goes about his business, Federer is playing chess out on that Wimbledon grass, while his opponents are playing checkers.