The cross : Have we just said goodbye to the greatest tennis player in history?
Philippe Tetart : No one being comparable to another in absolute terms, the idea of wanting to crown someone at all costs in qualities that would allow him to be above others in his time and in history still holds journalistic lyricism. But I’m old enough to have followed his entire career and, in fact, Roger Federer is truly a legend, like Zidane or Maradona. He belongs to the pantheon of the greatest sportsmen. He’s not the Grand Slam record holder. But what makes heroes in sport is not only the results. And Federer capitalizes on him the necessary ingredients for this notion of legend. He was built on his track record but also on his genius: he is inimitable by his touch, by the unreadable nature of his game. That’s what those who have faced him say. And beyond that, what characterizes him is the ability to go into battle. He’s a fighter.
To have given of oneself for the nation. Understand the term nation for Switzerland, of course, but for the tennis nation, in the general sense. The world of tennis thanks Federer for this relentlessness. He never saved himself, he came back after the injuries.
Finally, he seems to care about others. It is in the media construction that we have made of it, of course. Nevertheless, he is a person who seems respectful, polite, altruistic, linked to charitable activities.
How long does one remain a “legend” in sport?
PT : It’s a safe bet that the density of his career and the way he will pursue it,
because he is only 41 years old, allow him to remain in the memories for a long time. As Zidane moved from one career to another and nurtured his legend. Today, in France, I am thinking of Yannick Noah, who certainly belongs to an older generation of players but who continues to hold his place in the French sporting landscape. For Federer, what will remain is this rivalry with Nadal then, a little later, Djokovic. From the memory of a historian, this form of confrontation in pairs and then in trios is quite unique in its kind.
Sometimes, however, he lost?
PT : His character was built as a hero or a fighter. When he cries during the lost final at the Australian Open, against a Raphaël Nadal who is almost embarrassed to have won (in 2009), it touches people’s hearts. It is then the question of collective emotions that comes into play. The champion is still grown in defeat. In the figure of the fighter that I mentioned earlier, there is the notion of resilience. The hero is never so great as when he is totally human, when he has the same weaknesses that we all have, but he has the energy to completely rebuild himself. Federer is crying. Nadal is embarrassed for his rival but also his friend. It is contagious because they show themselves as they are, that is to say men. Something that has been specific to the heroization of athletes for many years now is also the question of image management. And here too Federer has taken care of this image.
Why do we need idols in sport?
PT : In many ways society is hopeless. A society that is promised a future that is not the happiest, at a time when the great ideological transcendences have collapsed. The advantage that athletes represent is that they do not engage with them, partisan issues. By remaining neutral from a political or religious point of view, they offer the possibility of provoking enthusiasm.
To arouse admiration, must the athlete remain irreproachable?
PT : Paradoxically, the image of the bad boy can also be constitutive of the iconization of an athlete. Journalistic investigations into the consequences of Zinédine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006 showed that it did not tarnish his image. From the moment the myth is built, any faults, setbacks, ultimately reinforce the character. Take Cantona: known for its road trips, it is also adored for what it represents. This further forges the mythology that surrounds it. We can cite Georges Best, and his setbacks with alcohol, Maradona who, in many respects, had things to reproach himself for his drug use. These characters are also heightened by their flaws. They live in a universe that is not ours, but at the same time they are terribly human.
To return to Federer, we could retain his angry character, a bit demanding, when he sets his conditions for playing at such and such a time during a tournament. But he knew how to overcome his shortcomings, to become the champion he has become. That he earns a lot of money does not ultimately come into play. We do not hold that.