The rare bad loss aside, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rarely take much heat in the mainstream press. (No, snarky bloggers don’t count.) So it’s really quite remarkable to read critical remarks about both tennis Gods in the papers this week, their entertaining French Open final played less than a week ago.
Roger Federer pulled out of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle the day after that big match, explaining he needed to rest his groin. Barring the odd pull-out or two, Federer has been a regular presence on the German grass – winning the tournament five times and last year signing a “lifetime” deal agreeing not to warm up for Wimby anywhere else the week after the French. It sounds like both parties may have regrets after reading the statements the disappointed tournament director, Ralf Weber, made on Tuesday to the press. Via the tournament website:
“The withdrawal of Roger certainly was a shock. That came out of nowhere for us,” Weber told a press conference. “Everything was prepared for him from the private jet to the maid.”
Weber, who admits the tournament management is “totally powerless” in the case of a withdrawal, said he plans on discussing the matter personally with Federer at this month’s Wimbledon tournament. Still, the tournament wants to continue its relationship with Federer. “No player has done so much for our international reputation as Roger. He helped decisively in expanding the brand Gerry Weber Open,” said Weber.
“I will very soon talk to other top players to bring them in for the 20th Gerry Weber Open. And that included Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.”
The tournament has even offered a 20% discount to early-round ticket holders as a “gesture” to disappointed fans.
I feel Ralf’s pain, but really, isn’t it the risk every TD and tournament marketing department takes when they plaster the handsome mug of a top player on every poster, ticket and website they have? And it seems a little petty to mention the “maid”, however interesting it is for the rest of us to peek into the secretive topic of the appearance money and perks offered to the stars at the smaller tournaments.
(You know what would solve this: a grass court masters event!)
Moving on from secretive back room deals to the manufactured myths of sports publicists, The Sunday Times journalist and tennis neophyte Lynn Barber earned the wrath of Rafanatics when she dared drill their hero on such taboo topics as his perma-wedgie, tax situation and romantic relationship with Xisca.
Frankly, I’m amazed any underwear company should want to sponsor Nadal, given that his on-court behaviour always screams “My pants are killing me!”
I asked whether his contract stipulated that he should wear Armani underwear on court and he said: “I don’t have to but I am very happy to wear Armani because their underwear is fantastic.”
Then why is he always fiddling with it? “That is something I am doing all my career, something that I cannot control.” Has he ever tried to stop? “It is difficult for me because it bothers me all the time, and I play with different underwears — long, short — but it is impossible to stop.”
Lynn Barber may not know much about tennis, but she’s a seasoned, crafty journalist. I found this snippet on her Wikipedia page and it explained everything: “Best known for her interviews, she was once quoted by Will Self as describing her method as “start[ing] … from a position of really disliking people, and then compel[ling] them to win you over.”
Though she maintained throughout the piece that she wasn’t buying that Rafa was the “lovely lad” everyone (but Rafa) kept insisting to her that he was, I think he may have won her over just a little bit during this exchange, where she’s trying to figure out what’s up with Xisca:
I asked if he was going to marry The Girlfriend and he said flatly, No.
Rafa: “Not now, no. I don’t have any plans in that way.”
Me: “Do you mean you’ve split up?”
Rafa: “No. I don’t talk about the girlfriend in public, but I have the same girlfriend since many years.”
Me: “When do you meet?”
Rafa: “Her house is very close to my house, so when I am in Majorca I see her, and when she has holidays sometimes she comes to the tournaments, but she cannot follow the tour around because she has to do her work. [She works for a big insurance company.] She has her life and I have my life.”
Me: “Do you think she’ll wait for you? To get married when you finish tennis?”
Rafa: “I didn’t ask her to.”
Me: “But if you only see her — what? — 30 days a year, it can’t be a very fulfilling relationship?”
Nadal, for the first time in our interview, turns his full attention on me, a laser stare, and for a second I can imagine what it must be like to stand on the baseline waiting to receive his serve.
“But do you care about my relationship?”
Well, no, I have to admit, as the ace whizzes past me, of course I don’t give a toss about his relationship, I’m just trying to interview him. Somehow this breaks the tension, and we both laugh.
It made me laugh, too, imagining a grumpy, harassed Rafa (in his underwear on a massage table in Rome) wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.
Fans’ collective outrage over this relatively harmless article has been strong and crazy enough for Barber to tweet on Wednesday: “Why did no one warn me that being rude about Rafa Nadal is like being rude about prophet Mohammed? Terrifying hate mail from his worshippers.”
Ha! All she needed to do was ask. Question Rafa’s on-court stalling or Roger’s sometimes sour pressers, and an army of fans will rise in fierce defense. (Hey, there’s a reason “fan” often ends in “atical.”) It’s not just these two: I once snarked about Bernard Tomic’s bedtime and some guy threatened to “hurt” me. Imagine the fervor if the kid ever wins an ATP title!
Barber’s interview was more style over substance – it revealed nary an unknown factoid – but I think her main point should be taken to heart:
I dare say Nadal really is a lovely man (though I refuse to say lad). But the point I’m trying to make is, whether he is or isn’t I wouldn’t know, and you wouldn’t either. He lives within this tight stockade of team Rafa, and sticks to the script his minders have written for him. It must require great discipline to be so controlled, but then it must require great discipline to be a world champion anyway.
I’ve been lucky enough to be in the press room with Roger, Rafa, Nole and Murray, and be able to look them in the eyes and ask them some of those typical post-match press conference questions. (Unlike Barber, I wasn’t itching for a fight.) The experience of interacting with the top 4 in this setting, up close and without the glare of fan adulation to contend with, really changed my perspective on these guys. They became more like colleagues (in a very loose sense) than heroes. And while heroes have myths attached to them, along with noble narratives and characteristics, regular people – even our closest friends – are full of surprises, contradictions and yes, imperfections. I happen to enjoy regular people quite a bit.
Personally, I thought Barber took an interesting tact with her interview. I hope it encourages tennis journos to mix things up a bit more in the press room and tennis fans to be thicker skinned.