French Open: A Letter to Roger Federer

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By Bill Simons

Dear Roger,

Kim Clijsters, the mother warrior of our game, touched our hearts for many seasons. Sweet and friendly, she actually once said she played tennis in order to make friends.

Recently, she tweeted one of your philosophical comments, which suggested, “Sometimes you’re just happy playing. Some people, some media, unfortunately don’t understand that it’s okay just to play tennis and enjoy it. They always think you have to win everything. It always needs to be a success story, and if it’s not, obviously, what is the point? Maybe you have to go back and think, ‘Why have I started playing tennis? Because I just like it.’ It’s actually sort of a dream hobby that became somewhat of a job. Some people just don’t get that, ever.”

Your point immediately drew feel-good praise. Chris Evert gave it a rave review and Caroline Wozniacki said, “He is so right, great quote … Sometimes you’re just caught up in what I’m doing instead of why I’m doing it.” One blogger offered the Einstein contention, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Roger, all this begs the question, can a game that is at the same time so joyous and so competitive actually become too fierce, almost soul-deadening? Has tennis gone too far? Have we gone too Lombardi? Has Vince Lombardi’s credo that “Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing” so infected our once-so-proper game that it now prevails as the sport’s prime ethos? Have we forgotten that, at its core, tennis is a game of beauty, fun, and recreation—an often sweet, surprisingly precise expression of our condition? Has the joy been drained out of an athletic endeavor that is simply about stroking a ball over a net?

On the one hand, Kim Clijsters did touch our hearts when she won the US Open. We smiled as she hugged her cute daughter and held that shiny trophy. But don’t forget all the injuries she endured, all those slow-burn years of training, and yes, don’t forget that evening she collected a nifty $2 million.

In other words, some insist that pro tennis is simply a fiercely professional Darwinian affair; a very international competition for the young, the fit, the talented, and tough; a sport whose appeal is based on success in an often cruel, risk-and-reward profession where players seek huge money in high-profile tournaments,  inevitably producing just one ecstatic winner and 127 losers with a wide river of tears.

Roger, you know more than anyone that the game sparkles with grace and athleticism, balletic movement, and shot-making splendor. Still, one wonders whether tennis’ appeal is ultimately entwined in the unsparing, decisive battle between two lone combatants, often with divergent personalities and backstories.

It’s said that NASCAR fans relish car crashes. Hockey fights draw roars. Football blood sells seats. So, too, struggling tennis players— twitching in the sun or dodging humiliating defeat—or players stretching long beyond their limits, touch something in us. All of life’s battles seem to be before us, down there on that unmoving rectangle.

Just hit the ball over the net. Enjoy the sport, it’s just a game. But it’s more, much more. And in today’s world of instant replay, traveling entourages, deep-pocket sponsors, stacks of stats, media mobs, and muti-million endorsements, we are a bit dumbfounded. So, we turn to you, Roger, our philosopher king, and humbly ask: How does our sport achieve a certain sanity—that elusive, but sweet, balance between boy and man, joy and job, sport and livelihood?

Yours in Tennis,

Bill Simons

Founder, Editor and Publisher

Inside Tennis