Why we love to love Federer

sourced from – ‘The Indian Express, Edit Page Feb 1st, 2018′

Yet another ethereal Federer triumph sends feel-good vibrations rippling across the globe. Roger Federer wins and weeps, he talks about his fear of losing and how much the title means to him, he is gracious about his fallen rival. We can’t get enough of the nice-guy-finishing-first narrative. Charming, well-spoken, multi-lingual, sensitive and sophisticated — both Federer and Rafael Nadal are at the receiving end of such widespread and over-effusive adoration not just for the quality of their tennis, but also because they fit the modern template for how successful men are supposed to conduct themselves.

It is fashionable in many quarters today to pillory the bad-boys — Virat Kohli and tennis’s Nick Kyrgios to name a few — for their boorish, self-aggrandising, in-your-face behaviour. They appear to be misfits in the modern template of understated, unruffled, ostensibly self-effacing success. Donald Trump is scorned for his uncouth behaviour, offensive tweets, limited vocabulary, and rabble-rousing antics. That he came to power immediately after the elegant, eloquent, worldly-wise Barack Obama (the Federer of world politics if you will) makes his presence all the more jarring.

For those of us operating in the real world this is all very confusing. Sure, we’re privileged to witness these once-in-a-century talents during our lifetimes but why must our admiration for Federer and Nadal be infused with nice-guy references, glorifying qualities like humility, vulnerability and emotional expressiveness? How do we square these qualities with our lived experience of what it takes to prosper in today’s world?

A closer examination of these icons might help clear the fog. It is clearly not the case that either Federer or Nadal are exemplars of chivalry and humility. Both have prickly egos that detest threats from pretenders to their thrones (Federer’s caustic tongue has targeted Novak Djokovic on more than a few occasions, while his wife has openly heckled Stan Wawrinka during a match; Nadal’s fury at perceived slights from the likes of Robin Soderling has led to much bad blood).

Both are ruthless when it comes decimating opponents on the court but exude warmth and emotional intelligence once the battle is over. Both strut like peacocks in custom-made outfits, sporting their personal brand logos, intimidating opponents with their sartorial splendour and high self-regard. At the core, both possess a cunning and talent for deceit that they release in just the right doses at just the right times (seen in Federer’s strategically timed medical breaks and Nadal’s well-known time wasting tactics). As a result, they are able to retain a gentlemanly aura while slaughtering opponents mercilessly in tennis’s gladiatorial arenas.

Federer and Nadal appear to have cracked the code for the modern-day human ideal because they have found a rare equilibrium — between sophistication and savagery, self-love and empathy, ruthlessness and generosity. Perhaps what we ought to admire about the two icons is not their humility and emotional warmth, but their near miraculous ability to reconcile wildly opposing instincts and project an equilibrium that reflects the changing sensibilities of our times. In India, M S Dhoni performs a similar high-wire act.

We appear to seek niceness and humility in our icons but these are terribly overrated qualities in the real world. We advise our children to imbibe these “good values” from our idols but we are probably giving them the wrong counsel. To succeed in sports, politics and hyper-competitive modern life requires an element of narcissism, near-maniacal self-belief, a finely-honed killer instinct, and the right amount of deceitfulness. To trample on the dreams of others, to physically and mentally dismantle them in full public glare, to take life-and-death decisions every day, requires tremendous mental toughness.

We want to believe that heartless animal instincts are punished while human “refinement” is rewarded so we partake in a public hypocrisy that glorifies false ideals. Kohli and Kyrgios use their over-the-top antics to intimidate their rivals. Trump’s unfiltered behaviour may be severely at odds with modern-day norms, but his ability to disorient the opposition and garner real rewards may be higher as a result (as witnessed in his victories with regard to composition of the Supreme Court, tax laws, environmental policy and the stock market).

To rise to the top, some element of personality disorder and self-delusion is perhaps a requirement. When confronted with too much of these qualities — we call it sociopathic behaviour (Trump), when faced with too little — we call it meekness (Manmohan Singh).

Federer, Nadal, Obama, and Dhoni manage to get the balance just right. Perhaps it is this ability to reconcile contradictory instincts in a palatable equilibrium that makes them icons for our times.

by Satyam Viswanathan
The writer heads Future Ideas at the Future Group

 
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