Over on tmz.com, they’re running a poll asking “who’d you rather, Rafael or Roger”? As of this writing over 14,500 entries have been calculated. Mine was among the 32% that voted for Roger. No doubt my daughter’s is among the 68% favoring Rafael. She thinks he’s hot, hot, hot! That’s a quote. I love me some Rafa and wish I did not have to pick. But if ever I am forced to choose between these two men – and it seems that we so frequently are – I will always toss my garters in the Federer pile.
But I have become intrigued by the question of what determines popularity. There is no doubt that there are some people who become and remain exceedingly popular while others seem to struggle to muster up a friend or two. What determines this? And is popularity a fixed state or does it change with circumstances? I’ll answer this latter question first as it is the easiest of the two.
Popularity changes. It waxes and wanes with time and circumstances. It ebbs and flows from one setting to another. Federer will always be more popular in Switzerland. Nadal will always be popular in Spain. In front of their homies, both will always be treated like royalty. In other settings, both men will lose out in a popularity contest against a lowly-ranked home grown talent. Akgul Amanmuradova is hugely popular in her home country of Uzbekistan. But I had no idea who she was the first time I saw her on TV.
Popularity is also affected by age. America is a youth-driven culture for the most part. A younger player will always attract an insane amount of attention and popularity – remember the summer of Oudin? – long before they deserve it. Fickle fans get tired of older players. Their attitude queries a version of ‘why are you still here, shouldn’t you be retired already?”
Faced with this fickleness, Federer has no chance of ever winning a popularity poll against Nadal. And Nadal will one day also find himself usurped by a come-upper, say the cute Japanese Kei Nishikori who has now committed to working with Brad Gilbert.
Research shows that physical attractiveness is a huge component of popularity. But so too is personality. There are many massively popular people who would never win beauty contests, but whose attractiveness lies in their mastery of wit or having a sense of humor that simply makes them likable.
Take any of the guys in the “Hangover”. Or Seth Rogan for example. Not a good-looking man. But even during his more obese phase, he probably got more action than most men his age. The same is true for tennis popularity. Better looking players are guaranteed to appear on the cover of tennis magazines.
But I believe that talent trumps all of the above. No matter how good-looking a tennis player is, no matter how witty and likable, if she or he can’t play and win matches, they will not rise to the top of the ranking. And thank goodness for that. Because if ascendancy in the ranks was based on popularity alone, the Williams sisters would never have achieved the stellar amounts that that have achieved. No, the top of the rankings would be reserved for the likes of Melanie Oudin and Anna Kournikova.
And then there are those cases where talent and good looks seem to coincide. And yet they do not seem to be accompanied by widespread popularity. As good-looking as she is and as much as she has worked hard to achieve, the world still does not seem to know Caroline Wozniacki. I’m not saying that she is completely lacking in popularity, but outside of her native Denmark, her fame has not spread in waves.
Kim Clijsters is far more well-known and widely beloved. And it’s not because of her beauty but because of an intangible quality that probably cannot be quantified. And interestingly, it’s a quality that both Nadal and Federer have in spades. I wish folks would stop asking me to choose between them, or that tmz had included an option for “both”.