Roger Federer and the illusion of identification

The New York Times – the Paper of Record, particularly for the Federinas of the world – just can’t let it go.

The Sunday Times ran an opinion piece by former New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati – author of the forthcoming tennis memoir “Late to the Ball” – about how the booze-fueled pro-Fed crowd at the US Open final was really expressing its anxiety about Feddy – and themselves – aging.   (And here I thought the booze-filled crowd, whose venom was directed toward Fed opponent Novak Djokovic, was really expressing how booze contributes to uninhibited ugliness.)

Nonetheless, Marzorati’s piece underscores the way in which fans often identify with athletes. (They identify with performing artists, too, but there is something about the struggle the athlete undergoes and the strain s/he shows that intensifies the identification.)

This is not a new idea. In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” one of his most sympathetic novels, the aging Cuban fisherman Santiago struggles to land a giant marlin. He takes comfort and inspiration from the injured, aging New York Yankees’ center fielder Joe DiMaggio, who plays through pain and the vagaries of time. I myself have taken great solace and strength from the story of runner John Baker (1944-1970), who coached a winning running team despite suffering fatally from testicular cancer. (Bill Buchanan’s biography, “A Shining Season,” was made into an excellent 1979 TV-movie of the same name.)

But sometimes the identification can lead a fan to read too much into his idol. At such times, the affinity may be really more about the fan, and what he longs for the athlete to be, than it is about the athlete himself. Marzorati marvels at Fed “coolly thriving in a workday world of seemingly ceaseless disruption, intimidated by neither the youth gunning for him nor change, finding a way to balance work and life (four kids!), reveling in the provisional way of things now.”

Let’s be honest here: It’s amazing that Fed is No. 2 at age 34 – and at a time when his contemporaries (Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin) are just about all gone. And there are plenty of Web photos to suggest that he’s a hands-on daddy. But the idea that he himself is balancing work and life is a bit disingenuous, given the way Mirka (aka Mrs. Fed) is said to run the Federer famille and their staff with the precision of a Swiss clock. Nor is he the mom working two or three jobs to put food on the table for her brood. Talk about a balancing act.

Then there’s Marzorati’s notion that Fedovic (Federer-Djokovic) is the best rivalry in tennis. Better than Rafanole (Rafael Nadal-Djokovic)? I don’t see it, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about rivalries as they’re the subject of “Water Music” and “The Penalty for Holding,” the first and upcoming novels in my series “The Games Men Play.”) Yes, you can make a statistical case for the greatness of the Fedovic rivalry and its relevance at the moment that Rafa is in a tailspin.

But for sheer chemistry, passion, sexiness and machismo, it would be hard to top Rafanole. It’s a gladiatorial contest. (Whereas watching Fedovic is like dining with a couple that is about to divorce – cold, tense and somewhat antagonistic.)

And that brings me to the reason many of us watch sports, not because we identify with the athletes necessarily – I don’t have anything particularly in common with Rafanole –but because they take us outside of ourselves.