“It’s not mine,” Roger Federer quipped to the crowd when a child’s crying disrupted play during one of his matches at the Australian Open. Amid intense competition, the winner of 19 Grand Slam titles was able to interrupt his concentration to the delight of the crowd and an appreciative smile from his wife Mirka, mother of their four children.
His immediate response rivaled one of the legendary anecdotes involving the former Russian glamorous tennis pro Anna Kournikova. A male spectator was supposed to have screamed out during one of her matches, "Anna, will you marry me?" Kournikova immediately wheeled towards him and responded: "You can’t afford me."
Has Roger Federer become a humorist? In on-court interviews after matches, he has been asked if he is a silky gazelle by the comedian Will Ferrell, and in another courtside response he said that he would take Mirka out to dinner that night if she had nothing else to do.
On the surface, tennis and humor don’t mix. There are tennis exhibitions that easily turn towards humor, especially those involving Yannick Noah and Mansour Bahrami. And Novak Djokovic has been known to do excellent imitations of his fellow players.
Humor is important. “Let us laugh together, on principle,” is on of my favorite quotations. But humor does not blend with all situations. In public speaking courses, humor is generally the last subject to be covered. Jokes are difficult to deliver. The wrong joke at the wrong time can be catastrophic.
President Obama’s roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2011 has been cited as an important reason why President Trump seeks to overturn all Obama initiated legislation. President Trump appears humorless, perhaps one of the reasons he didn’t appear at this year’s dinner, an event where the sitting president is supposed to make jokes, including ribbing himself.
At another Correspondents’ dinner in 2005, usually humorless President George W. Bush was interrupted from reading his scripted jokes by his wife Laura, who wonderfully satirized him in a speech that has become known as the Desperate Housewives presentation. Right speech, right moment.
Judging the right joke at the right moment is not easy. I remember sitting in a tea room in downtown Tehran with an Iranian ambassador who challenged me to an evening of joke telling. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, and I certainly wasn’t sure what kind of jokes were appropriate to tell an Iranian ambassador in a tea room in the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Roger’s humor is exceptional because we do not expect someone at the height of his athletic prowess to be funny. Most athletes are wound as tight as drums. Just as Roger’s strokes are effortless and flowing, with no hesitation, he has become a public persona who can joke even in the middle of matches. He is as at ease with himself as he is with his tennis.
People play tennis for many reasons. Some play for exercise, some for companionship, some for the competition. At age 36, Roger continues to play because he genuinely enjoys playing. His humor on and off the court testify to his enjoyment. While we observe Nadal’s determination, Djokovic’s athleticism or Murray’s psychodramas, we admire Federer for his presence as a mature adult at ease with himself, wonderfully enjoying playing what is just a game. Roger can joke on the court not because he has won 19 major titles, but because he is generally living in and enjoying the moment. That’s what humor is about, and that’s what makes Roger Federer more than just a tennis player. He’s not trying to overwhelm the opponent à la Nadal or please his mother à la Murray. Roger can joke because he’s having fun.