Roger Federer and the New Zealand captain Kane Williamson’s press conferences after losing the Wimbledon and World Cup finals were lauded for their professionalism
Watching the press conferences was like a class on perspective, sporting loss and humanness
Transcripts of sporting interviews usually contain nothing but the spoken word. No mention of the speaker’s tone or volume. No reference to a frown, a nose-pick or the sneer of sarcasm. Read whatever you want into the words. But the stenographer makes one effort for the reader. Occasionally, they insert this after sentences:
Perhaps to clarify the mood or illuminate a line.
(Smiling) is littered all over Kane Williamson’s post-World Cup final press conference. The New Zealand captain is gutted, beaten, worn out, but there are eight mentions of (smiling).
What extraordinary manner of man is this?
Question: Kane, a final like this, which thrilled us to the end, how does it raise the profile of the sport that is followed so widely across the world?
Williamson: Yeah, everybody loved it? The English loved it more than we did, I think (smiling). It was a brilliant game of cricket. Always a little bit bitter when you are on the right side of the result.
The stenographer is obviously not Kiwi, else they would know: In New Zealand, they pronounce “better" as “bitter".
In another part of London, postcode SW19, after an affecting brawl on a court with manicured 8mm-high grass, the mood appears a little more raw. Individual sport has a different heat, it always seems more personal, and there’s no one to lean on, blame, cry with. Still, even here there are two mentions of (smiling).
Roger Federer is asked to compare the quality of this final with 2008, and it’s like picking at an old scab, but he understands why the question comes, because 2008 against Rafael Nadal was a skilful jousting in the long shadows which no one forgets. So he answers about the 2008 rain delay and night falling and he pauses.
Then he resumes.
“I’m the loser both times, so that’s the only similarity I see (smiling)."
Federer is wearing a white tracksuit, a watch and his lips are initially pursed. He speaks for 16 minutes, 41 seconds, in various languages, a linguist in play and pain. Roughly 10 minutes and 20 seconds of his interview are in English and he speaks 997 words, scratches his nose and doesn’t flinch or sulk at a single inquiry.
Williamson has the beard of an ancient mariner and wears the half-smile of a man who suspects an awkward joke is being played on him. If you want to give his and Federer’s smile a place, you might say it lurks between wry and rueful. Williamson speaks 1,786 words, across nearly 15 minutes, and is a portrait in eloquent decency.
It is Tuesday morning and I am watching videos of their press conferences again, sifting through their transcripts, reading lines and between them, because—like you perhaps— I am so taken by these men. Grace is a precious thing.
If you haven’t already, watch those videos, it’s like attending a class on perspective, it’s a study in sporting loss, it’s a series of verbal snapshots of pain, resolve, misery, humanness. It’s Williamson never using the word “luck" and gently pushing away a question about whether the ricochet off Ben Stokes’ bat was a rule that should change. He just answers, and answers, because it’s his job, because he’s a leader, because people want immediate insight, all of us admirers but also voyeurs.
Let’s make copies of these videos and send them to schools, to young athletes, coaches, administrators, parents, teams. Youngsters need to appreciate every part of sport, especially this, the professionalism of showing up and looking the questioner in the eye. The strength that it requires to be honest, to let people glimpse your despair and also witness your conviction. On their worst days, the great athlete is only beaten, not broken.
Federer insists that “for now it hurts and it should". He bares himself and says: “I don’t know what I feel right now. I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it." And yet, as athletes incredibly do, he finds positivity amidst the pieces, and says: “(You) take it on your chin, you move on. You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There’s just tons of it."
Someone who doesn’t follow tennis asked, why do people like Federer? One reason is his generosity, his sustained willingness to be a tennis evangelist, his refusal to simply play and leave but in fact speak and expound, advertise his sport and clarify his craft. If he plays 75 matches a year, that means 75 post-match interviews for print writers, in multiple languages, plus radio and television, not to mention one-on-ones, and sometimes pre-event interviews, everyone scrambling for his minutes, assaulting him with familiar questions, and yet he makes an effort to provide a worthy answer.
And so he does on this day, praising Novak Djokovic’s backhand, discussing his schedule, but mostly being a willing participant in this autopsy of his heartbreak. Like Williamson, he’s given enough effort this day but here is more. And so both of them sit there, great athletes tripped by fickleness, toppled by a tiny margin, undone by their own frailties, not gods, just imperfect men bringing dignity to defeat. There is no better way to meet it.
Williamson’s final question is from a journalist who states he’s standing to ask the question because he respects the Kiwi. Then he appears to ask, rather amusingly but sweetly, if Williamson thinks everyone should be a gentleman like him.
“Everybody are allowed to be themselves," replies Williamson amidst some hilarity. “That is a good thing about the world. And everybody should be a little bit different as well. Really difficult question to answer. That is probably my best answer, just be yourself and try and enjoy what you do."
Then he rises to leave but stenographer has the last word.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.