Rotterdam Open: Of Federer, fans and the kindness of strangers
The lonesome warrior in the heat of tennis competition needs huge reserves of self-assurance and self-belief
It can be a lonely business, tennis.
Two solitary men take to a vast rectangle of a battleground where neither clock nor finishing line can call a halt, where neither team-mate nor coach can share the load.
Here there is no place to hide from the cheering or the silence. Here is gladiatorial sport in one of its loneliest forms, and never more so than for the vanquished. Think simply of the face, the posture, the isolation of the loser come finals day on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Then, in place of a single opponent with the single weapon, come the many opponents with altogether different weapons—pens, recorders, cameras, keyboards. Still alone, the tennis player faces ranks of journalists keen to analyse, often in a strange language or accent, their tactics, score-lines, errors and emotions.
For the writers who record these matches and moments, it is a shared opportunity to search out a unique storyline, and yet—for this writer at least—it can turn into something else: a recognition that we, too, ply our solitary trade in the full glare of the sun, no place to hide.
Questions asked and images captured, the writer also works in the personal world of the laptop, of words on the screen, of the search for a narrative built from the blood, sweat and tears of a tennis match.
The loneliness of the long-distance writer has, it seems, a peculiar affinity with this most individual of sports—except that, as John Donne wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself.”
The athlete who works in the splendid isolation of a tennis court may be the epitome of individual endeavour but every one of them draws on the support and effort of others. And it is probably no coincidence that the elite men in the game not only enjoy tightly-knit training teams but also strong, stable families and friendships who give emotional support and a broader perspective.
Together, such networks can dilute the stress of a life lived out of suitcases and hotel rooms, of hours of drills on unfamiliar courts in foreign climes. And so it is for the writer who follows in their wake.
In a recent strange city, the first small kindness came courtesy of a metro ticket seller. Confronted by a machine that refused each UK bankcard, a uniformed knight in shining armour emerged from his kiosk and loaded up the metro card with his own bankcard. In return, he took my cash—not one euro more than the 26 it had cost—and more thanks than his broken English could handle.
Next came rescue in the shape of a fellow writer when disaster struck during a news conference. Without a moment’s thought, she replaced the 10 minutes of vital conversation that vanished along with my dying Dictaphone.
One by one, others began to share news and anecdotes, exchanged names and Twitter addresses, brought a rhythm to the days and delivered coffee for the brain.
Later, a chance encounter brought with it the offer of help in visiting the Toronto Masters. It has happened before—at Wimbledon and in Rome, in a small interview room at Flushing Meadows and in the vast media centre of the O2—simply the latest in a string of gestures born, it always seems, out of a camaraderie between lovers of tennis.
And so back to the individuals at the heart of this tennis road-show, who play and win or play and lose, who answer the questions and pose for the photos, who sign the programmes and move on to the next match.
One in particular has mastered both tennis court and media room, has combined the role of ambassador with the kind of gestures that give him the biggest fan base in tennis—and the fullest rooms in news conferences.
Roger Federer spent his first afternoon in Rotterdam fielding questions in a pre-tournament news conference, signing for youngsters in Ahoy’s central plaza and meeting sponsors over canapes.
Along the way, he played an hour’s practice with Juan Martin del Potro to liven up a first-day schedule depleted by Davis Cup absentees—though Federer himself had also played the weekend tie.
He is, he nonchalantly admitted on Dutch TV, a “living legend”, before adding “it’s almost awkward for me really, but that’s kind of the sense that I get, what I hear a lot. I guess that’s what you get for being around 13 years.”
It’s a status that has brought with it huge crowds and huge demands. In practice, even the 25-minute, pre-match warm-up kind, his outside court was rife with security staff trying, and often failing, to keep the crowds at bay.
With practice done, Federer’s team gathered up the bags and left him to 20 minutes of fan-duty. He inched along the court’s edge, posed for dozens of photos with countless faces and signed programmes, shirts, tickets and more. Other fans were picked for their own meet-and-greet after his daily news conferences.
It is, of course, a master-class in PR, but on this scale, and after so many years, it evokes, too, the same kindness that permeates the tennis community. I wanted to find out more from the horse’s mouth: surely Federer must sometimes wish he could escape the crowds and prepare for matches without such pressure?
“Well I don’t mind many, many people watching. Like today, I actually enjoy it because I know people take enjoyment out of it, people that maybe have never seen me before, may never see me again, that it’s a big moment to see me practise, maybe. The tough part is you don’t want to disappoint fans not signing autographs afterwards but sometimes you just have to go and get ready. But people understand you have to go.”
It was largely with fans in mind that he also agreed to a super-tie-break exhibition on the evening that his scheduled match against Mikhail Youzhny was cancelled. Many fans had bought their tickets expecting to see Federer play and so he agreed to appear—albeit for half an hour and in the hope that “it won’t become a trend!”
But beyond the confines of the tour, there are others—most of whom know little either of tennis of Federer—who have benefitted from similar gestures. It was he, for example, who organised the “Hit for Haiti” initiatives. He volunteers little about his own wide-reaching foundation unless invited to—so I did just that.
“My mum’s from South Africa, and she’s always been a big influence on me, and it was nice spending so much time in South Africa when I was on vacation—but also seeing the poverty just around the corner was very difficult. My mum always reminded me, when I do have the opportunity, to give something back in some shape or form. It doesn’t always need to be financially, it can be time you donate going to a project.
“I remember also Andre Agassi saying he should have started his foundation a whole lot earlier. That quote resonated in my ears and I said I would like to start somewhat early, and it’s now been many years I’ve had my own foundation.
“My dream has always been to support kids in some shape or form. I try to give back through education because I believe that education is not something you can take away, and it can also be transmitted to other people.”
“I’m still learning the process—I’m not a professional charity kind of guy—but I do my very best and am so happy that so many people trust me. I have an exceptional group around me, making sure the money is allocated the right way…and when I’m not playing any more, I’ll have a whole lot more time to travel, see the projects and go and do more fundraising.”
It all comes full circle, then. The lonesome warrior in the heat of tennis competition needs huge reserves of self-assurance and self-belief, but he also depends upon—and draws confidence from—the support of others: and Federer is no different.
“It’s not easy all of a sudden coming and playing in the big events with huge attention from the media. That can play a lot of tricks on your mind. Fighting your own demons is a difficult thing, I had them when I was younger. Fear of the unknown, how confident are you, are you doing the right things, especially when you bring in the pressure, the travel, the tiredness. It’s important to have a good entourage around you, to see you through those times.”
And sometimes, it need only be the smallest of kindnesses—from strangers as much as from friends—that do see you through.