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Roger Federer’s perfect imperfections

Roger Federer’s perfect imperfections
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First Published: Thu, Feb 04 2010. 10 22 PM IST

Champion: Plenty of goodwill, and not just his game, make Federer so perfect. Andy Wong / AP
Champion: Plenty of goodwill, and not just his game, make Federer so perfect. Andy Wong / AP
Updated: Thu, Feb 04 2010. 10 22 PM IST
Do not believe what you hear. Roger Federer is not perfect. Not perfect in shot selection. He played a high-risk drop shot at match point in the final and called it crazy. Not perfect in behaviour.
Stuttering against Nikolay Davydenko in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, he strolled leisurely to the toilet, hoping that the distracting sun would disappear from view.
Champion: Plenty of goodwill, and not just his game, make Federer so perfect. Andy Wong / AP
The slow walk earned him a mild rebuke for gamesmanship. His remark about Andy Murray’s burden of 150,000 years of history brought raised eyebrows. If any other player had done this the volume of disapproval would have been louder.
But Federer is forgiven. Even when he sounds gently immodest about why he wins, saying “there’s no secret behind it. I’m definitely a very talented player. I always knew I had something special”, the audience just titters.
Federer is given immunity because he has built a reservoir of goodwill. He has done it through old-fashioned good manners and by taking his ambassadorship beyond tennis. He is from another time, and some players will insist, from another planet. But he is not perfect. He uttered a four-letter word at the US Open last year but at least will not descend into boorishness like Andy Roddick does.
His talent has brought fame and he has worn it well. He expressed his solidarity with Asian tennis by once flying to Shanghai just for a day to inaugurate the stadium used for the Masters Cup. He has spent Christmas with tsunami kids, raised funds for them, played soccer in the slums of South Africa, and uses his foundation to assist in the education of children in Tanzania, Mali, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
Two days before the Australian Open, he called organizers, summoned players for a charity match and raised funds for Haiti. This was power used constructively at a time when his focus understandably might have been on a tournament he lost painfully last year.
Federer is not perfect. He will cry on court and some think this sissy-ish. But be grateful. At least he does not slip on a mask like Tiger Woods but is penetrable, revealing of his humanity, at least he seems authentic, not some advertising-agency concoction. If smugness is his biggest sin, it is bearable.
Federer is important because he is a poster your child can safely put up on his wall. He is the anti-Woods, the non-John Terry, he is the tabloid nightmare, the non-scoop champion. He has a wife who does not look part of the blonde, blue-eyed collection that dots the sporting landscape. He seems a “real person”, which is the phrase Indian player Leander Paes used thrice in 2 minutes while describing him.
His player’s box has the odd singer in it, and he wears the occasional self-important jacket, but he is not surrounded by sycophancy. At one of his matches this year, invited by him, were the parents of his old coach Peter Carter, who died in a car accident. Otherwise his retinue is thin and those who work with him have a similarly civilized manner.
Paes was requested by Severin Luthi, the Swiss Davis Cup captain, to practise with the great man on the day before the final. Paes, preparing for his mixed doubles final, unfortunately did not have time and apologized.
Luthi wrote back, not to say that Paes was missing a fine opportunity, but to wish him good luck and noted they would love to practise with him some time down the road. It was simple, classy stuff.
Federer is not perfect. He is no saint, that is only a headband around his head, not a halo. But he is a reminder to us that despite magical flights of fantasy on court, a man can stay rooted to the earth. Asked, for instance, if the Grand Slam events were his only focus, he demurred: “I try to respect every tournament that invites me to go play there. There are the fans who pay for tickets.”
Champions are human and thus creatures of faults and failings. But they are also, by virtue of position and privilege, expected to know better. Often they don’t, but we are becoming sadly immune to their indiscretions as if this is the norm in a rich, spoilt, fawning universe. So when Michael Phelps smokes a bong, Mike Tyson bites an ear, Marion Jones takes steroids, Thierry Henry handballs, John Daly drinks too much, basketballers bring guns to the locker room, we click our tongues and carry on.
In this particular universe, at this particular time, we need someone like Roger Federer. He is an imperfect man but in the most splendid way.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Feb 04 2010. 10 22 PM IST