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Rohit at Australian Open: Men's tennis is a class act

Published on Jan 21, 2014 4:44 PM
 
Switzerland's Roger Federer (left) celebrates after victory in his men's singles match against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on day eight of the 2014 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Jan 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

Polls are not exact truths, yet they point to a collective thinking. In a 2011 poll by the Reputation Institute, 50,000 people in 25 countries were asked to rate the world's most admired, trusted and respected public figures. First place was no contest. Nelson Mandela. Third was a charitable genius. Bill Gates. Second was a fellow who lives in shorts. Roger Federer. Goodness me, a decent, trusted, great athlete.

Speed, intensity, valour, competitiveness, endurance, reflex, work ethic. We measure athletes on a variety of scales, but in a perspiring enterprise, whose primary aim is winning, the subject of goodness is rarely relevant. But the top men's tennis players - in a planet of a tight-lipped Tiger Woods, biting footballers and Twitter-silly athletes everywhere - are the pleasant exception.

Sure, they're occasionally grumpy, but this isn't the Burwood Ladies Embroidery Contest. Yes, Andy Murray did some sudden testing of racket technology by applying his instrument with some force onto the ground. At least, he then gave the racket remains to the crowd.

Yes, Rafael Nadal's look had homicide written all over it when the chair umpire penalised him for a second time violation on Monday. If he complained strongly about the timing of the call, at 4-4, deuce, against Kei Nishikori in the third set, he also admitted: "I accept the rules. Sometimes I am wrong. Sometimes I am too slow and I accept that. I respect the decision of the referee even if I am not happy for that."

If a footballer - or a club - ever accepted even partial blame so readily, and in public, a collective faint in the media room might occur.

Role model is an overstated, complicated term in sport, but the best men's tennis players don't cringe from the word "responsibility". Tennis is their sport and they have a duty to it. These are their fans and they appreciate the devotion. These are their peers and they warrant respect. Most athletes, in most sports, just don't get it.

On the practice court, Novak Djokovic hauls two kids over the fence, hits with them and then signs a wristband for one and on the shirt of the other. On court, post-match, he regales the crowd with an impersonation of his coach Boris Becker. Nadal this week admitted Federer is his preferred player to watch on television. Federer, on his part, when asked about his next opponent, Andy Murray, who is returning from back surgery, said: "What I'm hearing is that he's fine. That's very positive. That's what I was hoping for Andy, that when he did come back, he was 100 per cent."

Amid intensity at the top is found humanity. There is ego yet there is respect, disagreement yet no artless sniping, irritations yet few fractious moments. Even the parents mostly behave. Matches end with a handshake, occasionally a shared word, often an arm around the back, and after finals even rival entourages are congratulated.

For 11 months, they see each other most weeks, want to beat each on those weeks, yet are able to separate man from competitor. Old YouTube videos of Federer and Nadal in fits of laughter together - could we ever see Ronaldo and Messi like that? - and Nadal's parents kissing Federer in congratulation after he beat their son in 2010 are stupefying to watch even on repeat viewings. Maybe cricketers could take a look.

The greatest players, in most sports, reside in self-serving cocoons. Tennis players have been taught to break out of them. It is possibly the only sport which requires every player to appear for a press conference after every match. Win or lose, celebrating or weeping. Don't and you're fined. At grand slam events and on the ATP World Tour, the fine can rise up to US$20,000 (S$25,500).

Some Singapore sporting officials, who blithely issue blanket media bans at events under the guise of protecting players, might want to pay attention. This is how athletes learn to interact, this is how a sport engages. In a crowded sporting marketplace, it is an essential wisdom.

On the men's tour, it has taken time and ideas. In the late 1990s, says Nicola Arzani, the World ATP Tour's senior vice-president of marketing and PR, "we began the Stars Program to promote the game in different markets". Now every player must surrender two hours at every event to do TV shows, exclusive interviews, play with the kids, visit children in hospital or even partake in gimmicks like playing tennis on a Dubai helipad. If it is an advertisement for tennis, it is also an education for players in life outside a selfish bubble.

Yet even as rules become rituals, every sport needs a headman to set the tone. For tennis it has been Federer. As Arzani says: "Roger really does everything 100 per cent." Rarely, if ever, has a top athlete worn stardom with such sophistication and maturity. Since 2003, when he won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, Federer has won the ATP WorldTour.com Fans' Favourite award 11 times in succession.

Arzani tells a story of an interview Federer gave a major TV channel when he was in Shanghai last year. The presenter had flown in from Hong Kong and had been given 30 minutes. Except, once the interview was done, Federer hung around chatting for almost the same time. On hearing the presenter's father lived in Canada, he volunteered to arrange match tickets when he was next there.

Federer is not without fault and no statue of him is being ordered and no halo hovers above his head. Yet of all his legacies, perhaps this will be resonate longest. Not just how he played or how much he won, but how he conducted himself and influenced his peers. It is a dignity, after all, that has infected tennis' top echelon and the sport seems safe in grown-up hands. Proof lies in the duels fought by Murray, Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Djokovic. They ache to win as players, yet they know how to lose as men.