Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Roger Federer: A Unique Outlier?

Of course it was bound to get re-stimulated -- the prolonged debate over whether or not Roger Federer is the G(TP)OAT, the Greatest (Tennis Player) Of All Time. No doubt tennis message boards are going to start crashing soon as supporters and opponents gear off in their respective corners, entrenched in their positions regarding who is the GOTA -- Greatest Of Them All. (Mohammed Ali, of course).

Already some short-visioned Nadal supporters have started insisting that Federer cannot be the GOAT as only Nadal’s presence across the net at a finals can determine Federer’s true status. I am confident that Nadal himself would have preferred not to have lost to Soderling and would have opted instead to make history by winning his fifth straight Roland Garros title. But he didn’t. Federer won. Case closed. Steups.

The argument regarding who is the GE -- Greatest Ever -- is rather pointless and silly in my opinion. Can we truly compare performances across different eras, with different regulations governing the sport, and different technologies determining available equipment? What statistical model can we come up with that could adequately weight all of these factors in order to standardize and thereby define greatness?

And how do we understand the construct of “time” in order to satisfactorily answer this question? How far back into the past do we go? How much can we really project into the future? Is “time” to be defined by endurance? Will the name Federer resonate 20 years from now? So many questions. So little blogging space.

Perhaps it’s time to generate some alternative questions, to adopt an entirely different perspective on analyzing the greatness that is Federer. I want to participate not in the kind of pointless back-and-forth screaming that characterizes most tennis forums, but in a meaningful engagement on the topic of greatness that looks at this issue from an entirely different point of view.

One such perspective has recently been put forth by the writer, Malcolm Gladwell. In his latest book, “Outliers”, Gladwell argues that when we attempt to understand someone’s greatness, we often make the mistake of interpreting their lives as ones of individual achievement, recasting their story until it takes on mythic proportions. Most autobiographies tend to follow this standard formula: An individual is born to modest or frankly impoverished circumstances, and through their own individual grit and talent, fights their way to greatness. Think of any of our current models of success -- from Oprah to Bill Gates -- and this is the stock formula that is used to understand their achievement.

But Gladwell argues that personal explanations of success are usually inaccurate or at best, woefully incomplete. To quote him: “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage”. In order words, success is a group project, nurtured in most cases by significant others who assist the talented individual in seizing hold of the right opportunities. Outliers are those talented individuals who gain access to singular opportunities for success. And they are usually the product of the contributions of a network of people and circumstances.

And so there would be no Federer if not for his disciplined German father and his sensitive South African mother. The influence of his sport-loving (hockey) older sister also cannot be denied. That the entire family enjoyed playing tennis is also significant. So too was the presence of an Australian coach named Peter Carter who happened to be married to a Swiss woman and who became one of Federer’s early mentors. But Federer is also the product of the national training center in Ecublens and his sadness and isolation among its French-speaking coaches and students. And his success is also the result of his courage to let go of Peter Carter when the time was right and seize hold of the opportunity to work with Peter Lundgren who was far more experienced in the world of the ATP and who was then working at the center in Biel. The list of opportunities and influences is endless. I cannot in the space of this column list them all.

And so I think that the debate over whether or not Federer is the GTPE -- Greatest Tennis Player Ever -- is evidence of our clinging to old ideas about success that views achievement as a simple function of individual merit, and which regards Federer's success as the result of his singular drive for greatness. The truth is that Federer is very much a product of the world in which grew up and the rules of society that allowed him the privilege of succeeding. There are many tennis players who are as gifted as Federer, some perhaps even more so. What differentiates him from them is his talent, yes, but also his access to opportunities to develop and live out his dream.


Karen said...

I am like you I am not into this debate about GOAT. I think it is just media driven and something to make fans of players go up against each other. That being said, as a Fed fan I am just happy that he finally won the darned thing. I dont care whether he beat a left handed player playing with a pogo stick. He won, end of story. Matter of fact I liked what Roger said afterwards, now he can go on to playing tennis and enjoy the rest of his career. I think that is what the rest of the ATP should be afraid of. I also liked your previous post about No tournament for young men. Is it not remarkable what JMDP said after his loss to Roger. He said that if it was best of 3 he would have won. Someone needed to tell the fellow that he has been beaten in best of 3 by Roger every single time that they have played. Dude needs to get a grip.

tennischick said...

lol. I was thinking of doing something with that JMDP interview but could not figure out an angle. It was a ridiculous statement.

Karen said...

Ridiculous does not begin to talk about it. You know there is another player that everyone was making a lot of hay about last year when he beat Roger and that is Gilles Simon (Mr. I can get the ball back many times). Last year when he beat Roger in Madrid he had the gall to talk about it not being a one win kind of thing. Now where is he now. People always talk about the women's tour and how the field is filled with head cases and also-rans, yet the same could be said of the men's tour. Outside of the top 2 (and I am sorry it is still only the top 2), we have Mr. best of 3 himself (Andy Murray), Mr. I cannot find my best game when I need it (Novak) and then there are the rest. JMDP (if it was best of 3...), Andy (I am still improving my game) and the others. Ridiculous and they have the gall to talk about the women's game.