Roger Federer is best known as a tennis player, perhaps the greatest of all time. His record of 17 Grand Slam titles is unmatched in the sport’s history. But besides his one-hand backhand, elegant dress and phenomenal court movement and presence under pressure, his recent performance at the U.S. Open bears witness to another quality that warrants attention and, hopefully, simulation.
No, we do not mean his reaching a semi-final in a major tournament at the age of 33. Ken Rosewell was a finalist at Wimbledon in 1974 at the age of 39. Nor should we be overwhelmed by the fact that Roger is playing at the same time he is parenting four young children. Roger and his wife travel with enough staff that I’m sure he doesn’t lose sleep changing diapers the night before a big match. Tennis moms have been doing this for years under much more trying circumstances. Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open one year after giving birth to her daughter as an unseeded wildcard. Holding up her daughter at the victory ceremony, a beaming Clijsters said “We tried to plan her naptime a little bit later so she could be here today. It's the greatest feeling in the world, being a mother,” an overwhelmed Clijsters told the cheering crowd in what was appropriately labelled “the mother of all comebacks”.
No, what caught our attention were the moments after Roger’s magical victory over Gaël Monfils in the quarter-finals and after his loss to Marin Cilic in the semis. Down two sets to love and two match points in the fourth set against the Frenchman, Federer managed to come back from the precipice in a heart-stopping resurrection in front of 23,000 screaming fans and millions around the world. After the return of serve of Monfils sailed long, Federer walked to the net, raised his arms, shouted “Yes” and let out a primal scream.
What kind of scream? Certainly not the foreboding in Eduard Munch’s painting of the same name with its blood red sky and enigmatic figure in the foreground. And not, I believe, a typical tennis scream. Monfils, after his victory over Gregory Dimitrov in the previous round, turned his back to his vanquished opponent, faced the fans behind him thumping his chest and screamed in an Alpha male gesture similar to Novak Djokovic’s ripping off his shirt in triumph to expose his impressive abdominals in an obvious male manifestation of domination. No, I interpreted Federer’s scream to be one of extreme satisfaction at the moment. He was definitely not Alpha male as he graciously walked to the net and congratulated Monfils nor during the post-match press conference at which he expressed his pleasure at playing such a match and the pure joy of being so warmly supported by the New York crowd. As Roger said: “I have rarely felt the public so warm”. (Disclaimer: Do I have to say that I am from New York to justify Federer’s tribute to the crowd?)
Federer’s obvious joy and scream were not just about winning. He was overwhelmed by the moment. He doesn’t have to play for money or more titles. As he said after his next match, “I don’t need an 18th Grand Slam title to be happy”. He thoroughly enjoys playing and the bigger the stage, the bigger the stakes, the bigger the thrill of the match. And that joy permeates his relationship with his opponents. He does not have to dominate them; he just wants to play his best tennis. (A former Danish tennis player Torben Ulrich, now writer, musician and filmmaker, was well-known for a similar attitude.) While winning is obviously important, it is the very act of trying to play his best that allows him to be gracious in victory as well as defeat. Federer walked to the net facing Monfils while screaming since his joy was a shared moment; Monfils turned away from his opponent in a solitary moment when he screamed.
Federer’s graciousness was also evident after he lost to Marin Cilic in the next round. After the defeat of Novac Djokovic and default of Rafael Nadal, Federer had a glorious path to the Open title. He played a dismal match against the Croat, losing in three sets with none of the mastery he had shown over the summer. He had never lost to Cilic in five previous matches and must have been hugely disappointed at his performance. Yet, at the post-match press conference, he expressed some disappointment while smiling and congratulating his opponent. “He realized a great performance,” Federer recognized. In both his victory and defeat, Federer paid tribute to his opponents, basked in the pleasure of victory while placing the defeat in a larger perspective. After all, he has said, I earn an enormous amount of money playing a game I thoroughly enjoy.
Can diplomats learn anything from this? There is competition in the political world. Countries win and lose wars. Negotiations do have winners and losers. At the WTO, for example, delegates are invited or not into exclusive Green Room discussions. You are either in or out as a rotating member of the UN Security Council. But diplomacy is not only about W (wins) and L (losses). Most “victories” in diplomacy happen when one side “gets” 51% of what it wants. And, certainly not to be forgotten, if the “victors” are not gracious in the diplomatic competition, they are sowing the seeds for future conflicts – see the harsh demands at the end of WWI leading to WWII. Federer knows he will have to face the same players in other contexts. Does he really want to give them further ammunition to beat him?
Roger Federer is best known as a tennis player, perhaps the greatest of all time. I recommend that his graciousness after victory and defeat be required study at all diplomatic academies.