A splash of humor, a dash of cynicism, and a twist of skepticism

james poyner

james poyner
Summit, New Jersey,
May 14
A former journalist and stock analyst, I now do custom cabinetry and photography. I also occasionally vent verbally, a throwback to days in the newsroom.


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JUNE 7, 2009 1:54PM

Federer Reawakens My Inner Sportswriter

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En route to his first French Open title, the one Grand Slam title that had eluded the greatest tennis player ever, Roger Federer was awaiting the serve of his opponent, the little-known Swede Robin Soderling, when a wacko leaped from the lower-tier stands onto the red clay and ran straight for the Swiss ball machine. Perhaps Federer instantly recalled the infamous video of one-time women’s star Monica Seles being stabbed in the back while on court by a deranged German fan in 1993 for he instinctively darted away from the oncoming man, clad in what looked like a red satin soccer shirt and jeans.


You couldn’t help but react in horror when the exhibitionist actually caught Federer for a couple of seconds. Even though the intruder had first waved some sort of team flag at Federer like a maniacal matador, the actual physical contact was not funny. Did he have a knife? Was he going to strike the Sultan of Slams? Were we going to witness yet another senseless act of violence against a celebrity? No, the man tried to wrestle some sort of goofy red hat onto Federer’s head. Federer wriggled free as security personnel raced toward them and chased the clown around the court for a good 15-20 seconds before one slammed him to the clay with a shoulder tackle worthy of Dick Butkus.


Federer’s look of stunned disbelief morphed into one of disgust momentarily before Soderling gave him the thumbs-up sign to be sure he was okay before serving for his second game in the second set. Federer, after a blowout 6-1 win of the first set, resumed play as if clowns dressed in red accosted him every day. About two hours later Federer had a 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4 victory to add to the resume.


Federer Will Be the Jack Nicklaus of Tennis


And so what we witnessed was an important bit of tennis history, of sports history in general. By winning his 14th Grand Slam title, Federer not only tied the record held by Pete Sampras but separated himself finally as the best player ever by winning the one title that Sampras never could. Only six men have ever won all four Slams over a career, the last being Andre Agassi 10 years ago. How fitting then that it was a beaming Agassi who presented him with the trophy at Roland Garros.


At the risk of setting off a rash of protests from golf fanatics, I’ll posit that singles tennis is the most difficult individual sport of all, requiring almost the same physical stamina of soccer with the motor skills of basketball but in an individual format. The psychological toughness required at the highest levels of tennis is unparalleled because there are no teammates to rely on. You live and die by your own creativity in shot selection, your own fitness, your own native athleticism that allows you to hit a ball that routinely now travels 135 mph on serve. So often the victor and loser in a big match are separated by only a handful of points.


Despite having been a sportswriter for a large daily for about three and half years in Dallas 30 years ago, I was never what you would call a sports fanatic. However, I’ve always considered the high point of my short career to be covering what was once the biggest tennis event other than a Slam, the World Championship of Tennis in Dallas. The culmination of a tour of events underwritten by sports billionaire Lamar Hunt, the tournament typically brought most of the game’s biggest names to town. The year I covered it the field included John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and a new kid named Ivan Lendl.


My Run-in With McEnroe


I had the distinct pleasure of getting McEnroe’s goat at the event. McEnroe, still very much in his enfant terrible stage, had behaved liked the jerk he was back then in an easy win early in the week. When the Dallas crowd justifiably booed his gauche behavior of slamming balls into the crowd when he disagreed with a line call, he swore in the press conference afterwards that he would never play in Dallas again.


In my lead in the following morning’s paper, I wrote that Dallasites could only hope he made good on that promise. As luck would have it, my sports editor wanted me to interview him for feature piece in the next edition. When I approached him after a practice session and requested an interview, his immediate response was a cheerful “Sure!” Then he furrowed his brow and said, “Wait a minute. What did you say your name was?”


“Jim Poyner with The Dallas Morning News.”


“POYNER?” the scrawny 22-year-old screeched, turning an angry red in the face. “POYNER? I…I…I read what you wrote in the paper this morning! You’ve…you’ve got PRETTY A LOT OF NERVE to ask for an interview!”


With that, he stormed off toward the locker room. “Pretty a lot of nerve.” I’ve never forgotten that phrase. That non-interview ranked right down there with getting shoved against a locker by Reggie Jackson, another guy short on class in his heyday.


A Mature McEnroe Was Perfect To Call the Match


McEnroe, of course, has grown up in the ensuing 28 years; and he is my favorite tennis commentator. Every now and then, though, he is still capable of mangling the King’s English—but not on Sunday, when he called the historic match. McEnroe has wisely surrounded himself with twits Mary Carillo and Ted Robinson who make even a burp from McEnroe seem brilliant. As a commentator, McEnroe was uniquely qualified to observe Federer’s seemingly impossible quest at the French Open, having lost in the final in 1984 after being up two sets to love against Lendl, who would go on to win seven more Grand Slam titles.


Federer made it to this year’s final after losing three finals in a row to the only player who can beat him consistently on clay, Rafael Nadal. Some tennis historians may be tempted to put an asterisk on Federer’s win because Nadal was upset by the eventual other finalist, Soderling. But, after coming back from two sets down against Tommy Haas in the fourth round and surviving another five setter in the semifinal against Juan Martin Del Potro, no one could deny Federer’s mental resolve after being humiliated by Nadal in last year’s final that included a rare 6-0 whipping. Too, Federer was facing the man who had manhandled Nadal in the fourth round and survived his own five-set semifinal.


In a light rain that threatened to delay completion of the match and possibly give Soderling time to regroup mentally, Federer served for the match and nearly buckled to the monkey on his back when he gave Soderling a break point by hitting a forehand long up the middle of the court. However, Soderling, clearly showing the fatigue of a long two weeks, moonballed a forehand then two points later dumped a fairly easy serve from Federer into the net to allow the Artful Roger to shed his feet of clay and collapse to his knees in ecstatic relief as his weeping mother and beaming new bride, pregnant with their first child, looked on.


On the next commercial break, NetJets ran a brilliant ad showing Federer struggling to pull a baggage cart toward a plane. Two baggage handlers offer to help, but Federer says, “No thanks, I got it.” The camera shot widens to reveal the cart loaded with all of his Grand Slam trophies.


“Pretty soon,” observes one of the baggage handlers, “he’s gonna need a bigger plane.”


Be There or Be Square


If Roger makes it to the Wimbledon final later this month, you’d be a fool not to plant yourself in front of the tube with a nice breakfast that Sunday to see if he can set the Grand Slam record of 15 titles. Even if you don’t know a tennis ball from a basketball, you may well not get another chance to witness such an event for at least a generation.


During the trophy presentation, the Swiss national anthem was played, during which a television camera held a closeup of Federer on the victor’s stand. Slowly, slowly a tear traced down his left cheek, but far different from the tears he shed at last year’s ceremony when Nadal felt compelled to comfort him with a hug.


During Soderling’s brief speech in English, the runner-up said, “Yesterday my coach and I were yoking (sic) and saying that nobody can beat me 10 times in a row, but we were wrong. Roger, you are the greatest player in history, and you deserve this title.”


In his speech, Federer, who speaks four languages fluently, seamlessly went back and forth between French and English, thanking his parents and wife for their support and acknowledging how glad he was to have Agassi there as someone who truly understood the accomplishment of the day. He hoisted the silver trophy aloft again with the traditional kiss.


Then the rain intensifed as even the heavens wept.


federer trophy 3 


A kiss a long time in coming.                                 (Reuters/Regis Duvignau) 



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Nice post. But I couldn't disagree with you more about Mary Carillo, who I really love.
. . . and usually a lot sharper (if quieter) with her insights than the great Mac.
Kerry, this is what drives me crazy about Mary: She tries to call the outcome of match every time one player gets a service break. So many times she ends up looking like a twit when a player makes a comeback. The other thing that bothers me about her is that you'd never know she had been a pro tennis player based on her observations. I think too often she states the obvious. I like Mac because he'll discuss what a player is doing or not doing in terms of strategy like a coach. He's very John Madden in that respect.
There already is a Jack Nicklaus of tennis. His name is Rod Laver, a man who won two seasonal grand slams, to Federer's zero, who won on both grass and clay, and didn't need the premature exit of his nemesis to do so, a man who played and won against hall of famers like Roy Emerson (12 majors), Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Stan Smith, not the Sloderlings of the world, a man who was unquestionably the best tennis player in the world for a decade, unlike Federer, whose been Nadal's inferior for the last three years, and finally a man who won his first seasonal grand slam in 1962, the last year he was admitted to the majors until 1969, when he won his second seasonal grand slam. Since he spent that entire period at the top of his game, it is hard to imagine him securing less than 20 grand slam titles were pros allowed to play as they are now.

Actually Laver is more like the Babe Ruth of tennis. Unlike Federer or Sampras, he did things noone else in the history of the game has come close to doing.
I see where on my post you said that Laver's two single season grand slams (in which he defeated at least 4 hall of fame players, multiple times) was a "minor distinction." If that stunningly uninformed comment doesn't discredit you point of view on this question, nothing will.
Jim: Not knowing poop nor twitter about the game of tennis, and caring even less, let me say that I enjoyed reading your discursive tale. That's what makes good sportswriting, as far as I'm concerned -- a highly technical story, with decades of history, told so that someone who doesn't know a service break from salami sandwich can enjoy and feel he understands, if only for a moment.
Jeremiah: Thanks for dropping by and giving tennis a chance. Hope you have breakfast at Wimbledon.
"McEnroe has wisely surrounded himself with twits Mary Carillo and Ted Robinson who make even a burp from McEnroe seem brilliant"


I think the very best thing about Federer is his ability to modify his game and make it look effortless. His ability to contain his emotions is incredible, which is why he probably has so many teary moments after his matches.

I never like to get into the Best of All Time argument, but prefer to discuss only what I've experienced as a fan. I much prefer the emotional players, the angry players, the Macs ... I like being in on their passion.
Irritated: I agree with you that Federer has a very cerebral aspect to his game, very analytical, able to solve problem opponents (except for Nadal?) on the fly. His female analog, I think, was Steffi Graff and maybe Justine Henin. Miss them both.

Wimbledon will be really disappointing if Federer somehow doesn't make it to the final.

Thanks for dropping by.
Wonderful Article!

I see Federer as a very intuitive (yet highly intelligent and well preparred) player.
Thank you for this! I love Roger and am so glad he's up there with Sampras as one of the greats. I didn't enjoy watching Sampras but Federer - that's a whole 'nother ball game! Great post.
I'm a HUGE Roger Federer fan, and cried when he won on Sunday. I thank god that there is a sports star out there who makes you feel good about the fact that we place these people in such high esteem. He is refreshingly honest and candid in his assessments of his and other's performances (some people have mistaken this for hubris, but I think he calls good "good" and bad "bad" and doesn't put on any pretense) and he is such a joy to watch. I don't like Rafa as much (perhaps I just can't get past his nonstop ass-picking) but he is as classy as Roger. In sports, there is no equal to what's happening in tennis right now. Makes you feel good about the world when you watch.
Don't you love it when great tennis inspires bad poetry???

Ohh ... Rafa
I'm with you on Federer, I'm with you on Mac, but I think you're grossly unfair to Mary & Ted. Mary's witty and often insightful, though maybe not as penetrating as Mac -- who can sometimes not merely mangle English but revert to boorish form. Ted knows he's there to be second banana, and he plays the role well -- except when it comes time to translate remarks from the French, which he does competently and without pretense. Maybe you were thinking of Dick Enberg...
Someone has to say it: Jack Nicklaus? Arguments to be made here, to, and he's still young, but I'm going to say Federer has a contemporary in the sport of golf, and his name starts with T.

That said, yes, I agree that Federer is the best ever. I would disagree that Tennis is the most difficult singles sport -- that would be Mixed Martial Arts.
The French was a lot of fun to watch this year. I was happy for Roger Sunday. I love watching tennis on television. Tennis, the NBA and the World Championships/Summer Olympics in Track and Field are my favorites to watch because they showcase the greatest athletes in the world.

Federer is definitely the most consistently successful player of the open era, but he's going to need to avenge his 2008 Wimbledon loss and get that 15th slam to make it truly official. And Nadal does still have him. Rafa is 5-2 against Federer in slams finals. Also, Rafa beat Federer in four straight French Open finals before Sunday, not three.
Carol0fCarol: You're right about Federer. He can change weapons on the fly, unlike any player in recent memory. It was amazing how quickly he adapted to Andy Roddick's 140-mph serve.

dcvdickens: I always admired Sampras for his consistency, which largely rested on his huge serve. But you're right about him being kinda boring to watch. The points with Sampras typically were very short.

knightwriter: Glad you stopped by. Rafa's pants are a hoot, aren't they. He is the only guy, though, who has been able to get into Roger's head and stir things up; otherwise, men's tennis would be a little less exciting. Wimbledon promises to be awesome this year, with Andy Murray The Great Brit Hope and the 15th on the line (hopefully against Nadal) for Roger.

Clay Ferris Naff: See my response to Kerry's comment about Mary. I just can't get behind her. You're right about Ted knowing his place, but, damn, I could do that for half the money. I'd even be willing to drag out my college French books and do some brushing up!

Adam: Thanks for the comments. Maybe I should qualify my statement by saying tennis is the greatest singles sport that doesn't involve beating the crap out of somebody. Hee, hee. It's true we shouldn't take for granted that Federer will win his 15th. Rafa has his number (even though Roger did beat him in Madrid on clay this year). But getting over the hump at the French has got to be a big mental booster for Roger at Wimbledon.

Edgar: I knew I was right about Federer losing to Nadal three times in the final, but I looked it up to be sure. Roger lost to him in 2005 in the semifinal. That was Nadal's first French Open win--against Mariano Puerta. Roger lost to him in the final in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Thanks for dropping by.
Pete Sampras in his prime was on another planet.

You'll notice that no one - least of all the author - engaged your quite pertinent observations about Rod Laver, the actual greatest player in the history of the game. He won the Grand Slam twice in one year, and a third time over the course of a year-and-a-half. He and Rosewall were virtually unbeatable as doubles partners for something like 15 years. And as you pointed out, Laver played against other legends, not top ten-occupying clowns who will be forgotten within a decade.

I always love to tell people how Rosewall liked to show off by scattering a large handful of Australian silver dollars across the opposite side of the court, go to his serve line and hit every single coin with a serve, in order starting from the rear of the far court and working towards the net. If either Pete Sampras or Roger Federer can EVER do something like that, I *might* begin to buy into their hype. Otherwise they will remain for me what they are - two walking backboard-and-cannon combos winning tournaments in a field of players bereft of even a whiff of greatness.
Great tribute to Federer. I've always felt he was the best men's single's player ever, but this seals it for certain. He now ties Sampras in total, but with the French under his belt, he has clearly shown his mastery of ALL surfaces, something Sampras couldn't do.

Your comment about the crazed fan ties in closely with why I've always felt he was the best. The best tennis players make the miraculous seem ordinary. Watching Sampras, it was always amazing to me how effortlessly he seemed to hit those deep forehand winners on the run, up the sideline. But with Sampras, you could see the struggles sometimes, when his opponent was able to make the match into a game Sampras didn't want to play. Not so with Federer. Other than against Nadal, Federer is seemingly effortless as he adjusts to every other player on the tour, and beats them at their own game. Even against Nadal, it's really only been on clay that Federer has had any problems.

I don't think there's been a man ever who has made the game look so effortless. There is really no one in the world who can present a challenge to Federer on a good day, with the possible exception of Nadal, and even on a bad day, Federer is simply on the same level as the best men in the world. He has always been a class of his own, since he started on the tour ... this French win just finally cements that status.

thanks for correcting my error, James. I forgot that the 05 match came in the semis.

Nadal's still 5-2 against Federer in Slam finals, though.
I invite Mr Anderson over to my post: Roger Federer the Greatest Player of All Time: No Way, where my exchange with Mr. Poyner actually incites him to misread quotations that he himself brought into evidence. It's pretty rich.
Jeez, no conciliation about Laver and Federer from anyone?

Laver had two grand slams. I don't know if you truly consider it a minor distinction or not, but to me it's pretty incredible. Remembering Federer's reaction when he was presented with an Australian Open trophy by Laver, I'm guessing he thinks so too. And I think it's relevant that Federer hasn't managed a grand slam.
However, there's a strong argument that tennis, more than most sports, is hard to compare over time. You can only judge a player against their opponents; not only may one player have more skilled opponents, but their playing styles interact differently. And if you stop looking at the grand slam and start looking at Federer's other accomplishments, I think he surpasses most great tennis players. Can't we just agree they're both amazing?
Lyle: Like Tiger Woods, Federer, with his win in the French, clearly has emerged from a period in which everyone was beginning to wonder if he was the greatest. What certain folks on this feed don't want to entertain is the notion that a player in only the Top 20 today likely would crush a wonderful player like Laver in his prime. The differences in conditioning, training, and tactics in today's tennis make the game of yesteryear more resemble badminton. Laver's chip-and-charge style died out with the retirements of Sampras and Rafter for a reason.

Now the question is: How many more titles can Federer manage? With so many talented "no names," as libertarius likes to call them, out there, he has his work cut out for him. Soderling was frightening in the way he handled Nadal. Federer has suddenly made men's tennis fascinating again--even though America has no horse in the race at the moment. (Roddick and Blake have repeatedly broken my heart.)

Thanks for dropping by.
Eliza: Okay, okay I'll say it. Laver and Federer are both great. As far as winning all the Slams in a year is concerned, it's a helluva lot harder to do these days with one more surface to contend with and a slew of bionic players produced by today's tennis combines, especially in light of the ridiculous amount of tournaments players must enter today. To think Laver, even in his prime with the latest in racquet technology, could win a Slam today against any number of powerhouse players is a bit far fetched. Uh-oh, I can hear libertarius screaming already. But your point about the difficulty of comparing players across eras is very well taken.

Still, I think any player with any credentials and a sense of history--such as McEnroe, for instance--readily concedes that Federer likely is the greatest of all time even if he never wins all the Slams in a single year. If he adds a 15th title, only libertarius will be left to argue otherwise.
I agree re Rafter/Sampras and the serve-volley game. It still works on grass, to a degree, where the bounces matter so much, but its not a style that will ever win the French in the modern era. Sampras was a bit more talented, in that he had a baseline power game that surpassed most anyone in the game, but that didn't serve him well on clay. Federer has all the tools to win on any surface, as he's proven, and I truly think his best tennis is ahead of him still. Its worth remembering that Federer is only 28, and Sampras won his last US open at 32. Federer could yet even win a seasonal grand slam.