Brian Boyd: Federer happy to talk about drugs so why does nobody want to ask?
Wimbledon winner’s remarkable revival raises questions that only he seems to be asking
Roger Federer didn’t drop a set in the seven matches he won to capture the Wimbledon title on Sunday. Three weeks off his 36th birthday he is hitting his ground strokes harder and serving more aces than he did when he was 30. He is running rings around younger and fitter opponents.
He has reversed the natural ageing process and most likely will end the year as the oldest number one in tennis history. The hardest question he has had to face all Wimbledon is “Why are you so great?”
There is absolutely no evidence that Federer is anything but a clean athlete. He not only is the most graceful player the game has ever seen, but also the most efficient. His almost ballet-like movement and perfect technique means his body hasn’t been pummelled as much as other top players in the game.
But that isn’t the point. Federer needs to be subject to the same scrutiny as every other athlete who accomplishes remarkable feats. He has said himself “naivety says that tennis is clean”.
But blinded by his aura and celebrity status, the hard questions are not being asked of him. We believe Federer is clean, but such questions need to be routinely asked.
Federer is one of the most outspoken critics of how loose and easy the tennis world is with dopers. He is well able to handle any questions put to him about his late-career improvements.
Not asking him the question does the whole sporting world a disservice.
It is precisely because we’ve been burned before with swimmers, athletes and cyclists accomplishing the near impossible only to be later exposed as lying cheats, that we must now adopt a default position of scepticism and cynicism to any display of sporting brilliance. And there should be no exceptions.
Tennis is one of the most physically demanding sports there is. All players go through a natural dip when they reach 30 – this is exactly what is happening now to two of his 30-year-old opponents, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Federer himself experienced his dip. When he was 31 he dropped down to seventh in the rankings, failed even to reach a major final all year and saw his remarkable run of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals appearances end after a second-round defeat at that year’s Wimbledon.
Prior to this year he won his last Grand Slam when he was 30. But back in January at the Australian Open in Melbourne, he returned from a six-month injury break to outlast younger opponents three times in gruelling five-set marathons in the searing Australian summer heat to capture his first Grand Slam in five years.
He followed this up two months later by winning the “Sunshine Slam” of Indian Wells and Miami (two Masters tournaments in which all the top players compete). The last time he had managed to win these two tournaments back-to-back he was 24 years of age.
Something strange happened in the media room in Miami after he won the final. The press pack covering the tournament rose up to give him a sustained standing ovation. Federer – one of the more intelligent tennis players on the tour – realised that this is not how journalism is supposed to work. He castigated the press pack by saying: “You’re not supposed to clap”. But they kept on clapping.
And continued clapping all the way to Centre Court on Sunday.
Reverential press pack
To put this in context, what Federer is achieving this year (essentially winning most every tournament he has entered this year – and winning them easily against young, fitter opponents) is laughing in the face of sports science. That’s how great he is.
But in any other sport, the perfunctory question of how he seems to be reversing the ageing process would have been asked by now. But not in the ridiculous world of tennis with its reverential and embedded press pack.
The sport of tennis has never really shaken off its upper-middle class inbred status and sense of privilege. “Jolly good backhand, Roger” isn’t the form of critical analysis we need in 2017.
The haughtiness of tennis allows it to pretend that doping and cheating only happen in other sports.
None of the mainstream press covering Wimbledon saw fit to mention the fact that Federer’s opponent in Sunday’s final, Marin Cilic, failed a drugs test four years ago and was suspended from the game for nine months.
In athletics, they rightly bring up the fact that a current competitor has previously served a drugs ban.
Such is the absurdity of how tennis treats doping that the French player, Richard Gasquet, once got a drug ban overturned (he tested positive for cocaine) because he claimed that the cocaine got into his system because he had kissed a girl in a nightclub who had been taking the drug.
The situation has become so bizarre that Federer himself has to ask the questions about doping in the game. He is to be applauded for frequently slamming the authorities for not testing him every time he steps off a court – as any athlete putting in remarkable performances at an advanced age should be.
He has been open and honest about how alarmingly little he is tested. He has even mentioned the very curious fact that the doping official who always tests him when he is at home in Switzerland lives in the same village as him. Which is far from ideal.
But the most damning aspect of the tennis world’s attitude to doping is that by giving top athletes a free pass (one that Federer doesn’t want), they are sending out a signal to the next generation of players coming through that they can do what they want and never have to face the hard questions routinely put to athletes and cyclists.
The tennis world is awash with money. Federer received £2.2 million (€2.5m) for winning on Sunday. Add in the bonus payments from endorsement deals and sponsors and that figure goes up to about £5 million. For winning just one tournament.
This is motive enough for players coming up to dope.
Do we have to find out the hard way that, as Federer believes, “naivety says that tennis is clean”?