I’ve loved tennis all of my life. As a kid I went to Forest Hills with my pals and my mom to watch the matches in an intimate setting, and I took lessons when I got older to the point where I could compete, teach and appreciate the game.
At one point I had a party for my closest friends and looked at the people gathered there and realized that with but a few exceptions, I had met all of them through tennis.
In recent years I watched with some dismay as the game grew in lockstep to mass media requirements, and champions like McEnroe and Connors were idolized for their “emotion” on the court, which I saw mainly as a vulgar spectacle in which they whipped a bloodthirsty crowd into a frenzy.
While I admired their artistry, I particularly loved to watch players like Borg and then Sampras who competed powerfully but were not sucked into the egomaniacal requirements of puffing themselves up to “show emotion.”
But my favorite player in this regard is Roger Federer. As a corporate conglomerate in his own right, he has come to recognize the expectations and requirements of the mass media, but when he pumps his fist after winning a point it seems to be almost an apologetic gesture – like “I don’t need this, I have inner resolve, but if this is what you want, knock yourselves out.”
His combination of excellence and gentility have made him immensely popular, but at a steep price.
This past week, having already won an amazing 13 Grand Slam titles and appeared in a record 20 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, he was presented with an incredible opportunity to win one more, matching the great Pete Sampras, and also winning the French Open, giving him a “career Grand Slam.”
(The career Grand Slam consists of winning all of the four major championships, an achievement that was glamorized by the media when Andre Agassi won the French Open.)
Federer’s arch rival Rafael Nadal, who had denied him the French Open championship on three occasions and also beaten him at Wimbledon and in Australia, was upset in the quarter finals of the French this year.
Suddenly the pressure on Federer grew to unbelievable proportions, as he had “fallen short” so often recently, almost eclipsing his many accomplishments by his “failure” to win another championship.
To me it was almost painful to watch him play, his joy for the sport completely overwhelmed by the disproportionate egoic expectations of the fans, the media, and most important, himself.
This great person and champion suddenly found himself terrorized by the task so many had set for him as a benchmark for success—he struggled to win two matches in which in any other situation he would have probably prevailed quite easily, against opponents who seldom gave him any trouble.
Finally, within reach of the championship in the final match, somehow he remained in the moment, but even in the final game, you could see the anguish on his face. This was something he had to do because of his own and the world’s unbelievable expectations—not because it was natural or exhilarating as sport or self expression.
I had watched with horror as Federer, who had just lost a final to Nadal in Australia, broke down and cried in frustration and anguish after failing to tie Sampras’ record, and sensing that he might actually “fail” to deliver on a destiny that so many had set before him as a birthright.
How had this happened, I wondered?
How had such an accomplished individual been allowed to feel that unless he achieved this one additional feat, all of his past records would be rendered almost meaningless?
How had the imaginary benchmarks of millions who had never even played a professional match managed to dwarf this great champion’s personal qualities of humility and generosity?
And how had the media circus, corporate hierarchy, conventional wisdom and collective consciousness managed to create for this one humble man such an overreaching burden and set of expectations?
I pondered these questions as I thought about my own feelings of failure for expectations I had not managed to achieve in my lifetime—how my own ego and the internalized expectations of others has set a series of hurdles for me that I needed to clear and never could in order to feel fulfilled.
My heart fell when Federer lost the first point of the final game. And then the situation, the crowd, the weather and his own overwhelming skill took him home.
It was clearly an achievement of incredible will and mindfulness that let Federer finally slay his own demons and win the last point. Having tried and often failed to serve out a match where all that was at stake were bragging rights at Rancho Park, I could not even imagine how difficult it must have been to put the crowd and situation out of his mind and let his body perform.
I was happy as Federer was embraced by Agassi, applauded by past champion Borg, and praised by McEnroe, and graciously accepted the accolades of the crowd, addressing them flawlessly in both French and English.
And I could understand his tears. They were the tears of immense relief that in the court of public consciousness he had achieved what was expected, and now he could have peace.
Then I wondered – what if Nadal had won again? Would this great man stand here broken, after all that he has done in and out of the sport?
If he had lost, would his friend Tiger Woods, think any less of him, and call him less frequently?
Would his marriage and impending fatherhood be threatened by his own self doubts, after all he’d done?
Fortunately this one man was strong enough not to have to face these challenges. Now all he needs to do is win Wimbledon, so he can surpass Pete Sampras…
But in my life I haven’t “won” what I thought I would and should—and I still manage to beat myself up for the many things I felt I should have accomplished and never have, and I try each day to quiet the mental gymnastics that emerge to remind me of my supposed failures.
I think about a story Bruce Willis told of getting the job on Moonlighting and seeing the other actors and bartenders in the waiting room as he left, wondering what would have happened if one of them had been anointed by the producer to star opposite Cybil Shepherd.
I wonder how much whoever came in second to Willis (and might still be a bartender) might have spent on therapy.
Finally I wonder whether these mythic expectations of Herculean achievement are the basis of a life force within us, or its curse.
My recent reading of the works of Eckhart Tolle leads me to attempt to observe the workings of my mind -- and hopefully come to terms with such egoic fantasies and expectations in order to be in the moment -- and finally drop those unbearable burdens that have haunted me throughout my life.
But how would civilization fare if we all did that? Would mindfulness allow us greater freedom, personal expression and happiness? Or would it come at a price we would not want to pay – of less achievement, personal comfort, technology and God forbid, no professional sports?
To use sports vernacular, it’s a tough call. But at this point in my life I am happy for Federer that he will be spared any personal self doubt at his current age or when he reaches mine.
For me I want to finally achieve a sense of personal worth and fulfillment that doesn’t require external measurement, but only inward knowledge of having been the best I could be when I finally woke up.