Sunday, February 15, 2009

Coming back from humiliation

I’ve speculated before that one of the differences between Nadal and Federer is that the former seems more comfortable in the world of men while Federer seems to envelop himself in a feminine cocoon controlled by his matronly girlfriend and his charity-loving mother. There’s nothing wrong with either of these choices, but Nadal’s may reflect an inherent advantage in the cutthroat world of professional tennis.

I concede that this may appear to be a somewhat sexist point. It is not. I believe that it is possible to validate gender equality while also acknowledging gender differences. And I believe that men who live in a world dominated by men are fundamentally very different from men who live in a more feminized world influenced primarily by the energies of women.

Certainly if I were choosing a life mate, I would want a man from the latter category. My favorite kind of man is one who plays with his hair and allows himself to be dressed by Anna Wintour. In my fantasy, Federer would make for a fantastic boyfriend, utterly selfless in bed, delaying his own gratification in favor of mine. We would get mani-pedis together and dye our hair to match.

That’s all well and good for a fantasy. In the real world, he is a professional tennis player who has risen to the top, which he dominated in his own fashion, until Nadal emerged.

Nadal is a different type of man. He is a man’s man. Some time ago I saw photos of him on vacation with his girlfriend. Together they seemed, well, content. But when his boys came into the ocean to play a game of water-football, Nadal came fully alive. He began to visibly enjoy himself. It’s not an accident that my nickname for him is “El Matador”. Nadal plays tennis with the same type of masculine ruthlessness that I admire in Serena. They both hate losing. And if they lose, watch out, because their revenge is always served cold.

I believe that there is no room for weakness at the top. And in this, I have been as critical of Vera Zvonareva's tears as I am now being of Federer's. But it was not until his display in Australia that I saw Federer’s tears as a handicap, a self-limiting quality that may prevent him from achieving his singular ambition of erasing Pete Sampras’ record.

Federer’s merciless double-bageling of poor Juan Del Potro, and his easy dismissal of Andy Roddick, both speak to his capacity for ruthless annihilation of certain opponents. But against Nadal, he became a sniveling little boy. Poor Nadal could barely enjoy his own victory. He had to stop his celebration in order to console the loser. That was a low moment for Federer, and I am not sure that he will recover. But I do know how he can.

For a start, he needs to hire the right coach. This business of doing it on his own is no longer working. Federer has long been credited with achieving his best results without any coaching assistance, a perspective that invalidates the tremendous foundation laid by his early mentors [the deceased Peter Carter and later with Pete Lundgren], or the invaluable contributions made by more recent ones [Tony Roche and yes, Jose Higueras.]

The right coach can assist Federer in developing and practicing a particular strategy for beating Nadal who remains the only opponent that he has not yet figured out how to beat consistently. Something seems to happen to him when he plays Nadal. It’s like Nadal has this kind of hypnotic power over him and the next thing you know, Federer has become sucked in to playing a particular kind of losing game. Under the guidance of the right coach he can break free of that.

But Federer also needs to hire the right sports psychologist. (You know I was going to go there.) A good psychologist also teaches a client how to win the mental game of tennis. I believe that Federer's problem is that he is almost too competitive. He has always been this way, and he learned early how to control the rage that accompanied his driving ambition to be the best. Now he needs to learn to harness the fear.

A good psychologist can help him learn how to channel his emotions and not become so focused on his goals that he loses sight of the process of getting there. And also how to recover, even from the experience of public humiliation. But I believe that to do this, Federer needs to grab hold of his cojones and declare his manhood. That’s how he is going to erase Sampras’ record. Enough of crying on Mirka’s ample bosom. Federer needs to rediscover his inner man.

(Part 2 of 2)

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