Alright boys and girls, ladies and gentleman, you have enrolled in Sportswriting 101, and the lesson of the day is how to ask questions in a press conference interview. A number of you impugned my question to Roger Federer after his take down by Rafael Nadal last Friday night. In specific, you didn’t like how I and other members of the media pushed him regarding his fallen status in the hierarchy of the top men players. But one of the first skills you must learn to effectively ask questions in a sports press conference is the stating of the obvious.
Federer is no longer the dominant player in the game as results over the last year have clearly indicated and as a reporter you have to state this clearly to Roger and see what his stance is on this change. The same would be taken with a sports player in a similar position, whether they be an online poker champion at a site like www.poker.dk; or a premiership football player. The questions are asked to see if Federer will admit to his new status or will he defiantly oppose it. The questions are asked to see if Federer will admit to his new status or will he defiantly oppose it.
So in the said press conference in Miami last Friday night, the first question asked by a reporter regarding Federer’s new status was this:
Q. Does this widen the gap, or you are more determined to get back?
ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, for me those are not big setbacks. I wish I could play better against those guys, but it is what it is. I’m the last guy who gets pulled all the way down and then can’t get up for the next tournament. (Then he talks about playing the clay court circuit coming up and how excited he is to do well). Yeah, I want to do well and want to do better. I got the opportunity in a couple of weeks already.”
So Federer will not admit here to dropping behind the top two guys. He basically is saying that getting blown off the court by Nadal is not significant. I respond with the following question:
Q. With the exception of Andre and maybe Connors back in the day, there haven’t been too many players winning slams after 29. What do you feel like you have up your sleeve that you’re going to be able to use to win some slams in the future?
ROGER FEDERER: Um, I don’t know. You tell me. I don’t know. I think I’ve done quite well over the last ten years. I feel like I’ve done more than some other players, so I feel like I’m–yeah, we’ll see how it all plays out.
We’ll see at 36, 39 how many more I was able to get or not. We’re not going to predict how many I’m going to get or not. I’m enjoying myself right now and I feel like if I’m playing well I can get those. That’s what I care about right now.
Now, I regret I came up with the phrase, “up your sleeve,” it connotes that Federer needs to use some type of trickery to win another slam or more. That was not my intent, but sometimes when you phrase a question off the cuff it goes a little awry as this one did.
But Federer’s response is interesting in two respects. First, Federer uses the phrase, “You tell me,” which he does again in response to another later question, and it indicates that Federer is getting angry or at least defensive. An athlete of Federer’s caliber and class usually doesn’t like to show these emotions to the press. It takes him off his throne and surely emboldens the press to ask even more probing questions. Secondly, Federer says he going to play to 39, possibly. Which is pretty amazing for any athlete who started his pro career at 17.
Reporters are not so much different than tennis players. When they see a player sweat in answering questions, scribes start smelling if not blood, a weakness in Federer and his logic, and they start to pounce. Federer is clearly refusing to budge an inch about his position in the game even after the evidence that just played out on the court that night suggested otherwise in a seemingly big and obvious way.
Q. After Rafa’s play today, do you think it’s going to start a new era with Djokovic and Nadal on the top?
ROGER FEDERER: Possibly. I don’t know. You tell me. Let’s see in five years. Look back. It’s not like Novak hasn’t been around. Guys all talk about it like the guy can’t play tennis. It’s disappointing.
Another mind-bender by Federer. Who ever said Djokovic couldn’t play quality tennis? The Serb has been criticized for maybe not having the heart or conditioning to be a champ, but no one ever impugned his game. Federer is starting to sound more illogical. The press microscope closes in.
PETER BODO (Tennis Magazine columnist, also the co-writer of Pete Sampras’s autobiography, “A Champion’s Mind.”): It took Pete a long time to get his last title, and some of the other guys also, before they made that final statement, went through a lot of stuff. Are you prepared and thinking about maybe having to go through all that and ultimately prove your point? Is that a challenge, or more of a hassle and a drag?
ROGER FEDERER: No, bigger hassle is being asked all the time these questions. I don’t know how many times I need to answer until I just say I’m not going to answer anymore. Up to you how many times I will have to answer the question until I’m sick and tired of it.
But I know that I can do many more things in the game. Sure it’s disappointing losing a game like tonight, but those are the matches I work extremely hard for in the off-season and practice, and I’m very excited by what to come still.
I don’t feel like I’m 35 like you guys make me sound I am. I’m still only 29, and I have many more years left.
This is officially where the press and Federer, who have always shared a pretty affable relationship, laid their gloves down and started duking it out more seriously. Which really doesn’t happen in very many sports press conference interviews. Bodo may have pushed Federer’s button by using the phrase, “before they made that final statement,” and invoking Sampras’s name. Federer and Sampras are presumably friends, but you can bet Federer does not want to be associated with the fall-off that Sampras endured late in his career. Federer also doesn’t want this part of his career to be known as “the final statement” period.
When a star player uses the term, “I’m sick and tired of it,” you know that the press and he have entered a different stage of their relationship, one where there won’t likely be as much openness or trust as in the halcyon days. Now Federer is being doubted and pushed in the press room when he has never before received such tough treatment.
Will Federer really not entertain anymore questions about the state of his slam chances? Will Federer from now on keep chilly discourse with the press when before there was a convivial and celebrated tone? Will Federer become more candid with the press (and maybe himself) or will he continue to view the press as an opponent? This all remains to be seen over the next five years or so as well as how many slams he will win.
What is certain is that the press had to push Roger Federer the way Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are now doing on the court. We had to take him out of his “comfort zone,” to use another sports term, so as to create a more realistic playing field. One that more closely resembles his drop from the Big Two in the game. We’re not out to defeat him in a competitive way. Rather we are there to make him feel the heat a bit and to respond to the changing landscape of the new pecking order at top.