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Why must our sporting idols be nice?

Desire to place the highly successful on a pedestal does no one any favours.

Roger Federer at Wimbledon
Is Roger Federer as nice as we think he is, or does he just win a lot? Photograph: Getty Images

I was at the O2 last week to witness one of the great spectacles in sport as Roger Federer dismantled Janko Tipsarevic in little over an hour, barely breaking sweat in the process.

What struck me however, apart from the incredible beauty of the 31-year-old’s game, was the sheer noise that accompanied his every move. Had someone told me that I had somehow lost myself in the arena’s vast upper tier for four weeks and emerged during one of The Rolling Stones’ sold out gigs at the end of the month I wouldn’t have doubted them.

I have watched Federer play in this country a number of times now and each time I do I am amazed at the incredible level of popularity that follows the Swiss everywhere he goes. As Andy Murray found out at Wimbledon on in July and again on Sunday night, patriotic fervour has nothing on Federer’s universal charm.

Elite sportsmen attracting widespread adoration is hardly groundbreaking or newsworthy, but the almost cult like following that Federer enjoys verges on the unnerving.

I have lost count of the amount of people who, like characters from the Gillian Cross novel The Demon Headmaster, have trotted out the same lines about how classy the Swiss is, both on and off the court- the words “humble” and “great” following not far behind.

I would, from a pure sportsmanship perspective, severely dispute this assertion but what is it about players, be it in single or team events that fans care so desperately as to whether or not they are nice human beings?  

It seems that we want to feel that despite all of the scarcely unbelievable successes our heroes enjoy, at the end of the day when they take off their boots and throw down their kitbag they are just like you or me.

In fact, the more successful they are, the more desperately this emotional link is sought after.

When Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene at the 1997 Masters, romping to his first major win at the age of 21, the story was of a charming college graduate with an unbreakable bond with his father Earl. When Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven tainted Tour de France titles, many journalists were prepared to ignore the doubts surrounding the legitimacy of his victory and chose to focus on the medical miracle. It was if they too needed to believe in something perfectly accessible.

If we revisit Federer for a moment, I am not for a moment comparing his conduct to that of Woods or Armstrong but I cannot be alone, for example, in noticing his crass speech after winning the Wimbledon title in 2009.

The victorious Federer, a then six time winner of tennis’ most prized trophy, tried to pretend, or honestly believed, that he knew how Roddick, a three time runner up, was feeling. The American’s bewildered facial expression said it all.

As Roddick began to come to terms with the fact that he had won the most service games ever captured in a Wimbledon final only to come up short again, Federer unfurled a new wardrobe already emblazoned with details of his most recent triumph.

Later in the year, as he let a two sets to one lead slip against Juan Martin del Potro, Federer was involved in a flashpoint with umpire Jake Garner and was fined for swearing in an exchange with the official.

His tears at the 2009 Australian Open - what now must be seen as a shamefully self pitying gesture in response to losing three consecutive major finals to Rafael Nadal. If there were "first world" tennis problems, Federer had them.

Yet despite all of this, the Swiss was still handed the ATP’s "Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award" for the year. The yarn of nicety was one too good to stop spinning.  

Andrew Castle often notes that Federer had a fiery temper as a teenage junior as he struggled at times to mould his incredible talent into a world conquering force. “What changed?” the former British number one often muses.

Well, winning of course. It is not difficult to be gracious in victory and, more often than not, Federer has his ATP brand friendly platitudes mastered perfectly. The BBC even used the clipped quotes from a victorious Federer to justify their assertion that Andy Murray would one day win a major title of his own.

But look deeper. When losing his biggest matches and in career defining defeats Federer has lacked all of the class that supposedly sets him apart as a human being.  That evidence is everywhere.

The reality Federer is no better or worse than the vast majority of players on tour, he just wins more than most. He breaks equipment and swears on microphone just like everyone else, however, because of his supreme level of performance across a decade, there are many who are desperate to set their man on a pedestal in order that they can identify with their idol.
The logic seems to be that if they can label him an all conquering everyman and hero, his remarkable string of achievements become easier to understand and digest.

It is the same emotion that compels many to begin writing Federer’s sporting obituary as if, at 31, he has spent 13 sedentary years since turning 18 mixing hit and giggle tennis with a rock and roll lifestyle. This desire to understand works both for and against the 17 time major champion.

Once a trust has been lost, as Woods and Armstrong have found in recent times, it is lost forever, but whilst an illusion of niceness and level headedness remains, fans will defend their heroes to the hilt.

It is for these reasons that I have always found figures like undefeated American boxer Floyd Mayweather the perfect antidote to this desire for niceness. His flaws as a human being, of which there are many, are such that no commentator would ever accuse him of being a crowd favourite but the 34-year-old is a phenomenal talent who knows how to put on a good show.

He invites Justin Bieber to guest star amongst his entourage and, at a time when the ATP try and encourage their combatants to talk respectfully about wealth and privilege to make them more accessible to the average fan, Mayweather takes his laptop around his $10m house to show off his array of supercars and female companions to US soldiers posted in Iraq.  

This may not be classy behaviour but it ensures that we enjoy Mayweather for his ability alone and do not get caught up in linking sporting wealth to moral fibre or personal likeability. After the wealthiest fighter in the history of the sport beat Miguel Cotto earlier this year to protect his perfect record as a professional, he spent 87 days in prison for battery. The lines between professional perfection and personal fallibility could not have been more starkly drawn.

Closer to home, the freedom afforded football figures like Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez after being written off as morally bankrupt at various stages of their careers, has  actually been beneficial. After all, it is hard enough being a world class sportsman without having to be everyone’s favourite personality too.

It is busting this compulsion to box our idols into a more accessible category that takes a massive weight off the shoulders of the athletically gifted and allows them to focus on what we love them for most.

Perhaps Roger Federer should shun his moral compass for the 2013 season and alienate some of his loyal fans with an ill-advised outburst. He might just relish the freedom.