Mailbag: Should Federer Be Criticized for His French Open Withdrawal?

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It is Mailbag Day from the friendly confines of Roland Garros. … Last week, most of the questions were not about tennis, but, rather, Naomi Osaka. This week: Roger Federer and his self-imposed exile ...


I am sure that you will have all angles covered, but there is a big difference between withdrawing due to injury and doing so because you want to preserve your body to play on a more favorable surface. Before Roland Garros, Federer even stated, "The season starts for me on grass." If that was the case, then why enter Roland Garros? To play a few matches to get fit? One wonders if he knew he would withdraw all the time. Nobody, not even Federer, has earned the right to do this no matter how much revenue he generates for the sport.

• Last week, a few of you asked about Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal and one response was, “She’s an independent contractor, free to do as she sees fits.” Same applies here. (You could spin this as one of the benefits of having no union.) Federer can come and go as he sees fit. He said before the tournament that he wasn’t here to win and came for the match play. He got what he came for. And note, too, that there are only two weeks dividing the French and Wimbledon this year.

Is this the pinnacle of his sportsmanship? No. Does it undercut the integrity of this event and reduce the French Open to a Wimbledon tune-up? Yes. Would it be nice if Federer had pulled prior to match point, so his third-round opponent (spittin’ Dom Koepfer, the Yellow Wave) could have advanced, and the fans would have had a proper fourth-round match? Perhaps. Should he have cited a specific injury, so it didn’t come across as peevishness? Perhaps. Was part of this motivated by his displeasure over the scheduling, playing a middle weekend night match, while Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were in bed by curfew? Likely.

We also need to recognize context. We want the great playing as long as possible. Federer is 39 and coming off knee surgery. Serena Williams is 39. Nadal is 35. Something has to give here. Serena played a match at last year’s French Open, won, quit and didn’t surface till Australia. Nadal had pulled out of here midtournament in 2017. If this is the tax we pay for having the titans prolong their careers, so be it.

Professional tennis player Roger Federer

Novak would have gotten hammered by you guys if he had pulled this. Just sayin’….

• I can’t argue with that. But thought exercise: if Djokovic were 39 … and coming off multiple knee surgeries … and an underdog to begin with … and announced before the tournament that this was his plan … and less involved in the tennis politics?

I just wanted to highlight that one of the most fascinating things I have noted over the last 24 hours has been the reticence of the PTPA. The Grand Slams quite obviously overstepped in their response to Osaka's statement. Anyone could see that! This would have been a great opportunity for the group to press their case as well as reach out to the women on tour. I think the lack of a statement/response on their part is quite telling...

• For the record, Djokovic has spoken about the PTPA.

How can Tennis Channel tout their "first ball to last" coverage and then not show the [Coco] Gauff and Federer match live. I realize that you cannot criticize your employer but Tennis Channel needs to do a better job of explaining what matches they are not going to show and where they are available. It seems to me that by not really having "first ball to last" coverage, Tennis Channel is weakening their brand for the short-term financial gain of selling some matches to other channels.
Pat Long

• I can criticize my employer within reason. But, honestly, this is on NBC/Comcast. Tennis Channel would happily have aired the Gauff and Federer. But, for years, those rights have gone to NBC. And NBC made its programming choices and put Federer on a subscription streaming network.

I've seen many articles including the tagline quote from Venus Williams that the press "...will never light a candle to me.” I'm pretty sure, from reading/watching the interview where she said that that she meant the press couldn't/wouldn't ever hold a candle to her. A pretty simple slip up, but completely different meanings. Any chance you could clarify this?
Roger Jones, Waterbury Center, Vermont

• Clearly she meant "hold a candle." We all got a laugh out of Venus Williams’s response to how she copes with the press conferences. To me, the key to her answer was “copes”—i.e., what she uses as a mechanism. Fair enough. And good for her for that level of supreme confidence. Plus everyone likes to dunk on the media. And, for centuries, artists from Prince to Beethoven, have had a similar response to critics.

But I feel like this can’t go entirely unchallenged. The idea that people forfeit the right to have valid opinions unless they can equal the talent and experience of the figure in question? That takes us to an ugly place. You’re not allowed to dislike a meal unless you are a professional chef? You can’t honk at cabdrivers who drive for a living? Have an opinion in an art museum or when leaving a theater. (“I don’t see your a-- on IMDB!”)

For that matter, imagine a woman of diverse interests—say, Venus Williams—attending an interior design conference. A veteran and accomplished designer is onstage. Venus raises her hand to ask a question, maybe even a pointed one. The designer responds: “You cannot hold a candle to my body of work; your observations and analysis are not relevant.” Of all people, wouldn’t Venus Williams understand the value of people taking an interest in a sector, even if they themselves are not A-list practitioners?

Again, I get it. Venus is great. She should cope in any way that works for her. The athlete-media relationship has been the source of particular scrutiny this week, so it was a charged question and in a charged environment. It’s easy to hate the media—and that hate is sometimes deserved. But after the initial chortle, the content is a) pretty scary and b) straight from the autocrat’s handbook.

When are we getting live transparent televised tournament draws by the way? Why are they still done in the tournament director's dark room?

• Yeah, I don’t get this. Tournament draws are not rigged. (The thumbs on the scale come from other sources, like scheduling and wild cards.) But why wouldn’t tournaments hold these openly and transparently?

Truth bomb: The majors may well be ardent protectors of the first amendment. But there’s another reason they came down so hard on the side of press conferences. Note the BNP Paribas logo (Dunkin' Donuts, if you’re the New England Patriots) in the back. Note the water bottles beside the players. Note the social media clips from these sessions. They are of great value to the events—for content, for sponsorship, for shareable social. There’s no reason why the draw ceremony shouldn’t be similarly presented. If it adds to a feeling of greater transparency, so much the better.

Federer cowardly quits the French Open and TC announcers praise him to the skies. Why does he get a pass? Anyone not named Roger would be pilloried. He’s not injured—he just admittedly cares about a different tourney more than he does Roland Garros, and is treated like he just cured cancer. Osaka, meanwhile, bails on a press conference and the majors try to burn her at the stake. How can they possibly be okay with RF? How can anyone?
Paul R.

• I reject that. First, please point us to the “burning at the stake.” Most people—myself included—did no such thing. Again, until there is a collective bargaining agreement, players can act this way. They make decisions based on what’s best for them. I’m not sure I buy the Osaka/Federer, analogy but I think there IS consistency here: Both made a decision based on their health and comfort (one mental, one physical) and not the health/comfort of the event.

Have the four Slams issued a sternly worded letter to Roger Federer, threatening him with suspension/expulsion? Naomi Osaka ditched a press conference to preserve her health. Federer is ditching the entire tournament to preserve his health. Osaka also paid a $15K fine. How much was Roger fined?
Helen of DC

• It does bear mention: I can’t recall Federer getting more heat from the public. People I recognize as voices of moderation are coming hard for Federer. 1) What a pity it would be if this were his final Roland Garros moment. A late-night match that didn’t air on U.S. TV followed by a criticized withdrawal. 2) Again, this is where a collective bargaining policy would fit in. 3) Federer’s agent is not in Paris, which might have emboldened organizers. 4) What if Federer had lied? Instead of a general explanation, he picked a body part and said, “My [knee] is feeling sore and I need to listen to my body.”

I’m stunned. Fed entered a tournament he had zero intention of finishing. Spare a thought for Koepfer. How cynical…avoids a certain defeat at the hands of the best player the game has ever seen and makes sure Nole has to face a very fresh [Matteo] Berrettini. Simply stunning…. I’m super disappointed with Fed on this one. Just not a cool move at a Slam without any overt injury like the Finals with the World Tour Finals a few years back when his lower back was locked up just before the Davis Cup Final. Not cool.

• I don’t have a ton of sympathy for Koepfer. If he wanted to advance, he should have won the match. I actually have more sympathy for Berrettini, who now loses rhythm and plays Djokovic cold.

What is going on with Garbiñe Muguruza? Her loss in the first round was even more shocking to me than Dominic Thiem's was. She has had a good year and made it to multiple finals, including in Dubai where she beat Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka to win the title. I thought she was on track to have a great summer. She's also a former champion at Roland Garros where she beat Serena in the final. She seemed unusually timid and unfocused in her opening round match in Paris. What does she need to do differently and do you think she can get back on track?

• She’s far from 100% physically. Unlike Sabalenka and Andrey Rublev and Félix Auger-Aliassime and the other unfashionably early departees, I wouldn’t read much into this one.

Enjoy the final business end, everyone!

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