A few years ago at Wimbledon, during the peak of his reign, Roger Federer admitted that he liked to read the newspapers. He'd get up nice and early in London and buy a stack, just to see what was being written about him.
About 10 daily newspapers were (and still are) available there, so Federer could digest a veritable novel on his greatness. There wasn't much to say but "unbeatable," or "nobody ever played this well," so it tended to be pretty fun reading.
I wonder if Federer even passed by a newsstand last week after he was eliminated by Tomas Berdych. If there's a truism about storied athletes, it's that a tear-down process is inevitable, and we're at the heart of the Crush Federer movement -- especially after an interview session featuring dismissive remarks and the excuse of injury. These were some of the reactions, all from journalists with experience and perspective:
"The press conference was embarrassing, the words of a man in denial."-- longtime Wimbledon chronicler Art Spander
"The excuses fell from the king's sky like acid rain...so put-upon, so unlucky...to see Federer fighting reality so hard was disturbing."-- Matt Cronin, TennisReporters.net
"It strayed dangerously close to rationalization."-- Greg Garber, ESPN.com
"His reaction -- that he was dogged by back and leg injuries that hampered his movement -- was particularly ungracious."-- Neil Harman, the Times of London
"Federer's aura of infallibility at the All England Club? It's long gone, up the hill in the Wimbledon village, having a pint at the Dog & Fox." -- Mark Hodgkinson, Telegraph
"He was sour, sarcastic, self-pitying, the portrait of an ungracious loser." -- Linda Robertson, Miami Herald
"The day that Roger Federer says that the 'quarters is a decent result' for him at the All England Club, we really have reached the end of an era."-- Steve Tignor, Tennis.com
"It wasn't his back that failed, and it wasn't his leg. It was his nerve. That's how it is when a great champion's determination and courage begin to ebb. And, like the proverbial cuckold, he's always the last to know."-- Pete Bodo's TennisWorld
All in all, Mary Carillo concluded, "I heard him give a bunch of different interviews, and he kept bringing up the injuries, which is not like Roger. I feel bad. Berdych played the match of his life and had to defend his win."
It's worth noting that whenever a section of Internet comments came into play, fans rushed to Federer's defense -- passionately, almost savagely. How dare writers even question the great man, after all he has done? And there's much to be said for that stance. Can't we allow Federer a few moments of exasperation? He's never been a player to make irrational statements, take fraudulent bathroom breaks, call for a trainer to change the mood, or downplay the performance of an opponent. Surely he has played hurt before, without mentioning it, and it's not as if he was speaking angrily. For years, Federer's mannered honesty was something we greatly appreciated. As one reader noted, "This is the most gentlemanly player ever. He's been at the top for so long, people may unconsciously take pleasure in his fall from grace."
In the end, there is no definitive answer. Federer doesn't deserve to be the court jester, nor should he be reviled, necessarily, for aberrant remarks. We do know for certain that he is vulnerable, a condition he hasn't experienced since his tempestuous teenage years, and that he has drifted well out of character. If Federer loses a tough match at Toronto or Cincinnati, he'll once again enter a tough room full of unsettling questions.
As an unabashed fan of Federer's talent and a first-hand witness to several of his major titles, I'd love to see him win the U.S. Open and confront his critics with that deadliest of weapons, the scoreboard. I would hesitate to predict such a thing, however. Six months of hard evidence suggests otherwise.
Some other thoughts on Wimbledon:
Martina Navratilova is calling Serena Williams' serve the best she's ever seen, and that's a popular notion among insiders. Pam Shriver, speaking on BBC television, went as far as to call it "the single greatest shot in the history of women's tennis," but that might be a stretch. I'd suggest Chris Evert's two-handed backhand (changed everything, in every corner of the world), Monica Seles' version (unprecedented power), Steffi Graf's revolutionary forehand and Navratilova's volleys from both sides, with Billie Jean King's not far behind . . . When the imposing Marat Safin beat Sampras to win the 2000 U.S. Open, many felt it signaled the arrival of a new era, full of huge, big-serving guys who would take control of the sport through sheer power. The notion seemed plausible enough as the likes of Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek and Mark Philippoussis made their mark, but the real shotmakers -- Andre Agassi, Federer and Rafael Nadal -- maintained the sport's fine aesthetic. Now there's a new wave of big hitters, more graceful and deadly than ever before, with Berdych, Robin Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro (currently out with a wrist injury) leading the way. Federer seems unable to stem the tide, although he insists he can "handle those guys" when he's healthy. It would be nice to see Federer and Andy Murray keep up with Nadal in staving off the big-blast giants. There has to be life beyond the three-shot point.
Enjoyed hearing Murray so open in his admiration after losing to Nadal: "I love watching him play. He's my favorite to watch, and I hope he wins. He can take as long as he wants on any point, I don't care. I just love watching the guy play." . . . If anyone had a right to deride Wimbledon's lack of a fifth-set tiebreaker, it was John Isner, who was so mentally and physically thrashed after his 183-game marathon against Nicolas Mahut, he was hurried out of Wimbledon in the next round. But Isner likes the rule, and he's right. There's nothing like Wimbledon tradition, and it's something to be embraced, not overturned. "It's the way it's always been here," he said. "There's no need to change it." . . . Somebody show Andy Roddick a photo of Berdych as he posed with Nadal during the post-match ceremony. Look closely, Andy: No hat. Berdych took the damn thing off. Play in a hat if you must, but when you're down there in the presence of royalty, being photographed for the pages of history, reveal your countenance and especially don't turn the hat around backward. My friend and colleague Scott Price has a great way of describing what that look says to people: "Hey, I'm an idiot." And Roddick is hardly that. If he ever gets a chance to do that again, let's hope he shows up as himself.