On Monday, Roger Federer took on Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Federer, the No. 1 tennis player in the world, had an 8-0 lifetime record against Robredo, a Spaniard ranked No. 15. In those eight wins, he had dropped only two sets. Just before the match, ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez caught up with the Swiss defending champion in the corridor leading to Arthur Ashe Stadium. "What do you expect from the matchup?" she asked.
It was an innocuous if not banal question, but underneath it was a thorny issue. If you're the best in the world at what you do, and possibly the best of all time, how do you address that state of affairs—honorably and to your benefit—in the countless public statements you are required to make?
Federer's reply was as smartly masterful as his tennis. For ease of analysis, I will number his statements. 1) "It's a tough one." 2) "He's got a similar game to me." 3) "One-handed backhand, you don't find that very often on tour." 4) "We know each other since we're 15 years old, junior times." 5) "I know it's going to be a good match." 6) "I hope to get a win."
Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 6 are indisputably true, and all but No. 6 are actually nonobvious and interesting. Depending on your interpretation of Nos. 1 and 5, Federer was either fibbing or seeking refuge in loopholes. As for the first statement, the question was indeed a tough one. And it was a good match in that it included lots of excellent play, mostly by Federer. It turned out to be far from competitive, though, the final score being 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the Swiss star's favor.
The history of self-presentation by dominant athletes isn't a complicated one. For most of the 20th century, it was pretty much theme and variations of the clichés enumerated by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham: "We gotta play 'em one day at a time. I'm just happy to be here, hope I can help the ballclub. I just wanna give it my best shot and, the good Lord willing, things will work out."
This was and still is annoying to sports writers, but as a strategy it made sense. Jocks may not all be geniuses, but they realize that boasting can lead to little good and a lot of bad: denunciations in the press, bulletin-board motivation and on-field cheap shots from opponents, resentment from teammates. Moreover, some level of humility is crammed down the throats even of the immortals. Federer loses sets with regularity, Joe Montana and Oscar Robertson missed their targets as often as they connected, and Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb got hits only one-third of the time.
That calculus changed with Cassius Clay. When the boxer knocked out then-champ Sonny Liston in 1964, he said: "I'm the champion of the world. I'm the greatest thing that ever lived. I'm so great I don't have a mark on my face." In marrying the braggadocio and put-downs of African-American traditions like toasts and the dozens to the self-promotional carnival hawking of pro wrestlers like Gorgeous George, Clay—who would become Muhammad Ali later that year—opened the door to an era of trash-talking, fist-pumping, bat-flinging, and achingly slow home-run walks.
In individual sports like boxing (see Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and track (Usain Bolt), immodest declarations are now accepted and, to some extent, expected. But in team sports—with a few outlying exceptions such as football's Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco—they are mainly confined to on-field or on-court trash talking and are rarely uttered in the presence of hacks with tape recorders. Even Michael Jordan, by consensus the best basketball player ever, took pains never to say that out loud. A good example of his characteristic spin is this quote from his book For the Love of the Game: My Story: "There is no such thing as a perfect basketball player, and I don't believe there is only one greatest player either. Everyone plays in different eras. I built my talents on the shoulders of someone else's talent. I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era. Without Julius Erving, David Thompson, Walter Davis, and Elgin Baylor, there would never have been a Michael Jordan. I evolved from them."
Mark his words well—they are brilliant. Jordan acknowledges he isn't perfect and is careful to refrain from Ali-like boasts, but he does tell us he is the contemporary embodiment of greatness. If you accept Jordan's evolutionary model, that must mean he is the best ever.
Golf and tennis, individual sports with country club origins, are traditionally bastions of modesty. Tiger Woods built his self-presentation on Jordan's shoulders—certainly in refusing to do or say anything that would jeopardize his inoffensive image or his endorsement ledger. His special contribution is the way he almost always frames his discourse in terms of whether he has played up to his own standards—"I didn't have my A game today"—thus managing to be at least semi-honest while not making invidious comparisons with other guys. Woods also has a characteristic and dispiriting penchant for jock-world qualifiers and tics. The reporters covering him must sometimes feel as if they're choking on pretty goods, pretty muches, bunch ofs, and Stevie gave me a great reads. Here are some of his gems after finishing the first round of this year's PGA Championship with the lead: "I played really well today. I hit just a bunch of good shots. … I felt pretty comfortable. … The fairways are plenty wide here, plenty of room out there."
A reporter tried to trick him into candor by asking whether he'd ever played as well as he could and still lost a major. Tiger wasn't biting: "There are times I've put it together and I've had some pretty good margins of victory. Just feel that overall my game over the years, it's gotten better and become more consistent. And when I'm playing well, I usually don't make that many mistakes."
Tiger's understated but deadly bite comes out only when some upstart tries to suggest his dominance may be eroding. At the end of 2006, coming off knee surgery, Ernie Els had the temerity to suggest that he might soon "start giving Tiger a run for his money." Since that pronouncement, Els has won three tournaments worldwide; Woods has won 16 PGA Tour titles in the last three years. Last week, Tiger stuck the knife in: "Ernie is not a big worker physically, and that's one of the things that you have to do with an ACL repair is you've got to really do a lot of work. I feel pretty good with what I've done, and I think Ernie—he could have worked a little bit harder."
Compared with his buddy Tiger, Federer is free of rancor. Indeed, I would say he's set a new standard of blending graciousness and humility with a candid acknowledgment of his own excellence. I'd imagine this has something to do with Federer's ignorance of American aw-shucks-ism, and partly with his superb English not being quite superb enough to allow him to comfortably dissemble.
In any case, the Federer approach was on full view in July, when he beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final for his sixth triumph in the tournament and his 15th Grand Slam title—the most ever. First, he slipped into a white warm-up jacket with the number "15" embroidered on the back—expressing both his questionable sartorial taste and his pre-match confidence that he would prevail.
He started by acknowledging his foe. "Don't be too sad," he told Roddick. "I went through some rough ones as well, one on this court last year." That was when his archrival, Rafael Nadal, beat him in five excruciating sets. "I came back and won."
Roddick, standing to the side, ruefully cracked that Federer had already won five times before that.
Federer laughed. "I won five, but still, it hurts. … Unfortunately, in tennis, there has to be a winner sometimes, and today I was on the lucky side."
Lucky—of course, it's the ultimate word in false modesty. But from Federer's lips, it sounded real. Yes, he had just set the record for Grand Slam titles, but only after losing to Nadal repeatedly—Federer had even been reduced to tears a few months earlier after losing in the Australian Open. During his Wimbledon speech, then, Federer was able to convincingly express two seemingly contradictory ideas: He was the greatest of all time, and the luckiest man on earth.