It's always struck me as shabby when a commentator or columnist ignites controversy and then slips away like Laura Dern in the last scene of Citizen Ruth. Last week, I took issue with Roger Federer's Wimbledon attire -- and, more specifically, the Nike taste-makers who determined Federer's dignity and humility required more edge.
The responses, pro and con, were as intense as they were numerous. So here's what we'll do. For those who have had their fill of the fashion/image discussion and -- quite reasonably -- would rather get back to tennis, click here. For those wishing to continue discussing Federer's fashion and image, read on.
It has obviously disturbed you and many others that Roger Federer appeared to have so little respect for someone with whom he has such a history as Andy Roddick that he walked on to the court at the Wimbledon final believing that he had "15" in the bag -- pun intended. But you will see at the 6:20 mark of this YouTube video that an official hands the jacket to the new 15-time champion and speaks to him at the same time, presumably asking him to wear it for the presentation. [Editor's note: The video has been removed from YouTube.] Maybe he can still be accused of some insensitivity or an error of judgment but possibly not on the scale that it is being represented. If any one of us had broken one of the all-time sporting records after a grueling contest, perhaps we wouldn't be thinking completely clearly in the brief moments between being handed the jacket and the start of the presentation. I totally agree that Nike is treading on very thin ice, but it would be a pity if a false accusation cheapened a great sporting achievement.-- Caroline, Henley, UK
• Thanks, Caroline. But this is my point precisely. Some of my objections come down to taste. I thought all the gold imagery was tacky. Some of you agree. Some of you disagree. Some of you feel that when you win 15 majors and are a shining beacon for the sport, you can wear whatever the hell you want. Fair enough. No accounting for taste. Or, as member of the Federer inner circle very gamely told me and joked about this issue last week: "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If it was all good, it would be boring."
What I really object to is the Nike agenda. Someone clearly determined that humility and modesty were insufficiently sexy or edgy. So they turn Federer into someone and something that he's not. Peter Bodo addresses it at great length at Tennis.com. The money line: "In the big picture, Roger Federer deserves to have a better image than that, and tennis certainly could be better represented as a sport that transcends all the socioeconomic associations and stereotypes Federer's recent costumes conjure up." (It's funny, Pete and I shared a house at Wimbledon, but I don't recall our ever discussing this issue.)
Anyway, a few of you made the point, "If Nike were paying you millions, you would wear whatever they put in front of you." I don't know about that. Federer has some leverage here. How great would it have been had he said, "You know what, guys? I'm not sure this is the message I want to be sending here. Let's try again and come up with something a little less ostentatious." (Check this out.)
How is Federer's "15" jacket any different than the winning Super Bowl team donning "SUPER BOWL CHAMPS" caps the second the game clock reaches 0:00?-- YeeMan Leung, Dallas
• A lot of you made the same point. I hear what you're saying but I'm not sure I buy the analogy. I think there's a distinction between a team championship and an individual record. "We're No. 1" is different from "I'm No. 1."
But beyond that, I expect more of Federer than I do of Lamar Odom or Sidney Crosby or a 19-year-old who plays for the Florida Gators. One of the great reasons we like Federer and hail him an ambassador for tennis is his humility in the face of dizzying success. Why on earth would Nike want to undercut this?
Sorry, but you went way too far on the Fed fashion hate. It's amazing how many people, especially male sports journalists, are threatened by the idea of a sportsman who likes fashion. Your Brüno reference is a prime example of the latent homophobia and ridiculously rigid ideals of masculinity that pervade this medium. After all, ripped Rafael Nadal, who plays an uber-aggressive game, can wear gold shoes with bulls embroidered on them and it's all good. I'm not surprised that you had a lot of mail concerning Roger's clothes -- he's been consistently belittled for his supposedly effete affectations by the media. I'm just sorry you decided to jump on the bandwagon.-- Susannah, New York
• As it is written: "A man can dislike a gold man purse without being a latent homophobe." I try not to ask for much in life, but one small request: Shouldn't it be possible to have an opinion without it reflecting a larger prejudice? Maybe when Serena Williams ripped Dinara Safina's ranking she was just expressing her thoughts -- and it wasn't "carryover bias from the Cold War." Maybe when Mary Carillo or Tracy Austin wishes Serena were more consistent, she just wishes Serena were more consistent -- and isn't a closet racist. What was it Freud said? Sometimes an opinion is just an opinion.
I don't particularly like the outfits Nike has given Roger Federer the past three years, but I'd wear them all at the same time while walking around in the August heat if Nike would pay me what they pay him to do so. Maybe they want to project the genteel image because they already have plenty of players with the tough-guy jock appeal, and only Federer can really pull off the gentleman image that can further expand their market segment. Maybe Roger should reevaluate whether the image they want for him is really the one he wants for himself, or maybe he doesn't really care that much about his image and only really cares about his tennis. Big deal. My dad likes gold. I don't. My dad likes seersucker. I don't think seersucker looks good on anyone above the age of 3. Different people, different tastes. Hardly reason to criticize Federer, just because we don't all love gold trim.-- Nikki, St. Louis
• I was nodding along in agreement until the end. Seersucker is good up until at least age 8.
Please don't slap Roger with the "tacky elitist" label yet. I appreciate your take on the infamous jacket, but please cut him some slack. Only two years ago, after his five-set victory over Nadal, a clearly frazzled Roger put his trousers on back to front! Can you imagine the moments after winning Wimbledon? Can you imagine how much was going through his head after this year's final? He clearly wasn't thinking straight. If he'd had a moment to sort out all the "crazy" thoughts going through his head, I'm sure he would not have donned the jacket. It was a mistake and one that I think has been unduly pounced on.-- Grainne, Aberdeen, UK
• Fair point.
Roger Federer is not a common man. He is the greatest player in history. Why should he dress like he's going to a Home Depot in Alabama? I don't get it. He's not human; he's superhuman. People who want him to dress more humbly so they can relate to him need to realize that they CAN'T relate to him unless they are the best in the history of their profession. Sorry to burst their bubbles.-- Baldemar Rios, Los Angeles
• Second only to the guy who instructed me to get my colon cleansed, this might have been my favorite letter. The image of Federer wearing that get-up to Home Depot is great. Do we have a cartoonist in our midst?
Wow, let the Federer bashing begin. We've seen brilliance scorned and ridiculed. You looked great in the gear, pay off your endorsers, cash your checks and stack cash for your family. Stay strong, Roger. Most of us can't begin to conceive of how you do what you do.-- Tony Harris, Baltimore
• I agree that we -- the media, fans, society at large -- have this unfortunate habit of building up stars, tearing them down and then rebuilding them. (Or not, in many cases -- see Clemens, Roger inter alia.) But there's a flip side, too. Just because you're successful doesn't bring inoculation against criticism or opinion. One column expressing displeasure with the way Federer's modest image is being corrupted by his sponsors shouldn't make you a "hater." Fans don't forfeit their rights to opinions simply because the subject wins. For all the thoughtful arguments pro and con, I was struck by how many people simply said, "How dare you write something critical of a great champion."
I agree with you on the "15" jacket, but the so-called purse is a gym bag and you know it.-- Pam, Amherst, N.Y.
• If so, I need to upgrade my gym.
I love the Fed, But you just hit the nail on the head. He demeans himself with all the pompous, gold-embroidered outfits, looking more like an Elvis impersonator.-- Carl Berkovitz, Los Angeles
• Only fools rush in (on short approach shots).
I'm a 17-year-old high school student and an avid tennis fan who loved the elitist touches on his clothing. And I have friends who agree. You wrote, "Did the Nike marketing data really indicate that kids would warm to all those elitist touches?" The answer is a very enthusiastic "yes." Think about it: Public figures should not have the same image as the guy down the block. Federer needs clothes that befit a Grand Slam champion and there is no shame in that. Roddick's baggy polo shirt disgusted me.-- Dony, Brooklyn, N.Y.
• Any teenager able to write this eloquently automatically gets published.
I've always been a Federer fan, so I don't mean to rain on his parade, but for all the talk over the years about his dignity and class, I'm starting to get tired of the way he's allowing himself to be portrayed. I don't have a problem with celebrating for breaking a record most of us thought would stand for a long time, but the gold-trimmed outfits (complete with a jacket and pants) and the excessive commercials from Nike and NetJet are a little too much. It's hard to imagine Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg, who were both on hand for his victory, allowing themselves to be viewed this way, especially in an economy such as this.-- Matt, Boiling Springs, N.C.
• Duck and cover, dude.
I agree the golden racket bag may have been a bit much. But how can anyone have a problem with the "15" on the sweater, which wasn't in evidence until after the match? Lighten up already.-- Marina, Irving, Texas
• I'm light, I'm light.
I'm going to call you and all the outraged fashionistas on this: The man plays extraordinary tennis on the greatest stages. He has earned the right to wear whatever he darn well pleases. Let it go.-- Bob K., Chicago
• Done. Let's agree to disagree and move on. Small quibble in the grand scheme of things. But if Federer comes to the U.S. Open, say, carried in on elephants whose trunks form the Nike swoosh ... well, it's back on.