11 years ago, at the 2007 US Open, Roger Federer donned a severe, all-black outfit that earned him the nickname 'Darth Federer' from the American media. That soon became a thing, to the extent that the tournament organisers started playing the Imperial March every time the Swiss took the court for his matches.
It was a fairly ridiculous piece of theatre, and was lapped up by everyone only because Federer's dominion over the sport at that time was nearly absolute. He had no challengers except for Rafael Nadal on clay, and was widely considered the emperor of the sport. Darth Federer? Why not Genghis Federer and Roger - The Hun and Zeus-erer too.
It was fine as long as it was all fun and games. But if the comments of journalist Eric Salliot and the recently retired Julien Benneteau are anything to go by, Darth Federer is a very real phenomenon that is engulfing the tennis world in a shroud too evil to describe.
"One doesn't say anything to Roger Federer," Salliot said ominously during a French radio show this week. Perhaps a bit of context is required here. Benneteau, in a chat with Salliot and fellow ex-French player Sarah Pitkowski, talked at length about the influence that Federer wields in tennis. Benneteau believes that the Swiss unjustly gets away with numerous conflicts of interest " specifically related to the Laver Cup " which are unbecoming and unacceptable.
"Federer said nothing about the new Davis Cup in November. (But) when the date of September was mentioned, he woke up and opposed Pique," Benneteau said. "That's where I find the international tennis bodies incredibly weak. It's an exhibition, and there are no sporting selection criteria. It gives $750,000 to Nick Kyrgios, and (it is decided that) yes, those are the rates (for the Laver Cup)."
Salliot went a step further and claimed that Federer was actively meddling with the tennis calendar, which could spell doom for some of the smaller events. "He has every right to organise an event. But in the middle of the season, it could hasten the demise of some ATP tournaments," Salliot said.
When the likes of Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Jack Sock, and Kevin Anderson were frolicking around Chicago a couple of months ago, producing highly entertaining tennis and never-seen-before camaraderie, little did we know there were such disturbing undercurrents to the whole shebang. But are there any undercurrents to the Laver Cup? Everyone knows that the tournament, in which Federer's management company and Tennis Australia have significant controlling interest, is first and foremost a money-making enterprise.
Call it an exhibition, a farce, or Federer's retirement plan, but the Laver Cup can't replace any serious tennis competition that's already on the calendar " simply because it doesn't add to any player's legacy. You don't get any ranking points for doing well in it, nor does your title count increase if your team ends up triumphing. But if the tournament does take away a bit of fan interest from the events that are held at the same time, would it really hamper the sport?
Let's take a moment to think about this. Last year, tennis became the toast of the sporting world as Federer and Nadal joined hands to form the mother of all doubles partnerships. Clips of the two arch-rivals fist-pumping and joking around on the court were replayed over and over again, and even fans of other sports tuned in to watch how the unlikely alliance would fare on the court.
This year, the spotlight was a little dimmer due to the absence of Nadal, but the Federer-Djokovic doubles match still grabbed a lot of eyeballs. Then there were sights like Federer giving coaching tips from the sidelines to Zverev, Sock and Kyrgios taking turns to showcase perfectly choreographed celebration moves, and John McEnroe letting fly a nostalgia-inducing tirade against the umpire " all of which combined to generate a staggering attendance of 93,584 over a three-day period.
Considering the ever-desperate need for the ATP tour to win new fans and carve out steady sources of revenue, the Laver Cup objectively trumps every other event held during the post-US Open mid-September slot. And considering Federer is a part of the ATP tour, his conflict of interest is tenuous at best. Benneteau also talked about another conflict of interest though " that of Tennis Australia and its chief Craig Tiley being involved in the Laver Cup management.
"He's the Australian Open tournament director. And the man is paid by Roger Federer's agent for the Laver Cup. Over the last two Australian Opens, Federer played 14 matches, because he was champion and finalist. And he played 12 or 13 of his matches in the night session," Benneteau said.
Now, this accusation is a lot more serious than the Laver Cup one. If what Benneteau claims is true, then Craig Tiley has been deliberately giving Federer easier conditions to play in so that he can keep winning the Australian Open " just because he and the Swiss have common business interests.
But here too facts paint a different story. I had done a bit of research on this after the 2018 Australian Open, and discovered that over the last four editions of the tournament, Federer and Djokovic have been given exactly the same number of day matches. (If you're one for perverse tabular calculations, you can see the detailed breakdown of the Australian Open schedule here).
Benneteau specifically brought up the Djokovic vs Monfils match this year, which was played in oppressively hot weather. But as many would agree, extreme conditions normally play right into the hands of the infinitely fitter Djokovic, especially over someone with a history of health issues like Monfils. As things turned out, Monfils ended up wilting in the heat, giving the Serb a comfortable victory.
But Salliot had a completely different viewpoint. "There's one player who has issues with Federer getting preferential treatment. And that's Djokovic," he said.
Except that Djokovic doesn't have an issue with any of this. "At the end of the day, in a way, he (Federer) deserves the special treatment because he's six-time champion of the Australian Open and arguably the greatest ever," Djokovic said when asked to comment on Benneteau's claims.
"If he doesn't have it, who is going to have it? People want to see him play on the centre court, and they want to see him play in showtime, the best hours, which is 7:30 at night in Rod Laver Arena¦ You have to understand that Federer is a driving force of tennis in terms of revenue, in terms of attention. Julien and guys like him are also benefitting from tennis, because of Roger, because of what he has done for the sport."
So there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. While the facts actually show that Federer and Djokovic have received similar schedules at the Australian Open, Djokovic believes that even if they hadn't received equal treatment, it would have been justified.
John Isner went to the other extreme, suggesting that Federer (and the other top players) weren't getting enough of the preferential treatment that they deserved. "If anything, maybe they should get more special treatment because those guys, the top players, have made other players below them (earn) a lot of money," Isner said. "He (Roger Federer) is men's tennis in my opinion. He deserves everything and more that he's ever had."
"Federer is men's tennis." When have we heard that before? Just about every time a big event rolls around, and the Swiss' incredible drawing power comes to the fore yet again. I have visited the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open, and I can say with certainty that Federer's name inspires more excitement among the fans than any other.
People line up in hordes just to watch him practice. They chant his name till their throats run dry when he makes his entry on to the court. They bring the roof down every time he hits a winner, and look like they are going to faint in happiness every time he wins a match.
This year at the US Open, the ticket prices for the men's semi-finals fell by about 40 percent the moment Federer lost to John Millman. And this was despite the semi-final lineup having names like Nadal, Djokovic and Del Potro.
But you don't have to take my word for this. Benneteau himself, despite all his complaints about Federer's influence, acknowledges the unrivaled popularity of the 20-time Grand Slam champion. "He is the only one who can bring 15,000 people to Bercy at 10 am, if they scheduled him that early," Benneteau said.
So why wouldn't tournament organisers take advantage of that? Tennis tournaments are businesses at the end of the day, and can't be blamed for doing everything in their power to increase their financial output. And the more people that Federer can be showcased in front of, the better it is for tournament revenue.
That said, what does have to be guarded against is any competitive advantage accruing to Federer, or any other top player, by virtue of being scheduled on a particular court. There's no evidence to suggest that a player's chances of winning a tournament increase if he plays in front of a larger crowd, but there is a possibility that he may benefit from the fact that the main court typically has a roof (and consequently no rain delays).
From 2019, however, the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open will all have two courts each with retractable roofs. That means all the top players will have equal protection from the rain.
There are still other points of contention that have been brought up lately with respect to the Federer 'privilege', and those do hold some merit. Last month Jean-Francois Caujolle, the former tournament director of the Paris Masters, revealed that he had always wanted Federer to win at Bercy and so he specifically changed the court surface to suit Federer. And in Benneteau's radio show, Sarah Pitkowski lamented that Federer is hampering the progress of the game with his pig-headedness.
"On-court coaching is something that was also considered on the ATP side. But apparently, one player banged his fist on the table and said, 'As long as I'm playing, that's not going to happen.' And that's Federer," Pitkowski said. "There are things that are not even tried because Federer is still on the circuit. And that's troublesome for the development of the game."
The first thought that came to my mind when I read Pitkowski's and Caujolle's comments was: Why does anyone listen to Federer at all? He may be the face of men's tennis, but he is not God. If he suggests something, or opposes something, it shouldn't be accepted blindly; instead, tennis authorities should go ahead and implement their plans anyway.
That's what would happen in an ideal world. But in the imperfect ecosystem that we find ourselves in, everyone is a fan of Federer. They are all lining up for him " either to watch him play, or to acquiesce to his suggestions " with not a single word of protest from any active player or official. Does that say more about Federer, or about the decision-makers of this world?
It's not particularly healthy that so many powerful entities in tennis are constantly fawning over Federer. But it will be even less healthy when Federer retires and all the perks associated with him are taken away. Doing everything possible to keep him happy is not right, and won't even ensure that he will be tennis' cash cow forever, but it might at least guarantee that he remains an integral part of the sport for a few years more. And that, seemingly, is enough for the short-sighted tournament directors and policy-makers of today.
All of this makes you wonder whether any player has ever found himself in a situation like Federer does right now. Sure, the man has earned his privileges, and the preferential scheduling that he and the other top players get is just plain old business. But could he have anticipated that every word he utters will, through no fault of his own, come to be treated as gospel?
Darth Federer. I doubt anyone imagined 11 years ago that an innocuous little outfit would be a harbinger of things to come.