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."