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Did Roger Federer disrespect Roland Garros, or did he just add value to the tournament?

Roger Federer at Roland Garros 2021
Roger Federer at Roland Garros 2021
Musab Abid
EXPERT COLUMNIST

Roger Federer - the player usually associated with pristine adjectives like 'class', 'elegance' and 'royalty' - is suddenly being branded classless and disrespectful. Do we need any more evidence that this year's Roland Garros is the weirdest event in recent tennis history?

Federer, making his Grand Slam comeback after 15 months, notched up three wins in the first week to reach the Round of 16. That was probably more than what most of his fans expected on his least favorite surface, and even more than what he himself expected.

But just as everyone started daring to imagine whether he could be a legitimate title contender, the Swiss pulled the plug on his tournament.

Still, as far as mid-tournament withdrawals go, Roger Federer's wasn't the most surprising. At times during his third-round match against Dominik Koepfer, the 39-year-old looked and played like his age. He flailed his racket around without much conviction, refused to move more than a few steps in any direction, and in general looked like he'd rather be anywhere but on the court.

A neutral observer would've been impressed that Roger Federer still managed to win, and would've been even more impressed if he had played his next match at full strength. The man is 39 years old, is recovering from two knee surgeries, and is clearly not accustomed to the rigors of a claycourt Grand Slam. Playing the fourth-round match against Matteo Berrettini - let alone making it a contest - would've taken extraordinary levels of strength, even by his barely-human standards.

In his press conference after the win over Dominik Koepfer, Roger Federer openly acknowledged that as early as the second set he wondered how much he had left in the tank. He also expressed doubt about whether he would be able to recover in time for the fourth round, which was a perfectly understandable sentiment for anyone who watched the match.

Roger Federer didn't mention the word 'injury' at any point, but it was clear his fitness wasn't up to the mark. If he had played the fourth-round match against Matteo Berrettini, how much fight would he have been able to put up?

I don't know about you, but I'd rather not see a match at all than see one in which one player is only a shadow of his usual self. But evidently, that is not how social media is looking at Roger Federer's decision.

For the last 24 hours, Twitter has been awash with comments blasting Federer for what they consider a 'selfish', 'disrespectful', 'arrogant' and 'unacceptable' move. Here are a few tweets for reference:

There have also been a lot of comments bemoaning the lack of action from the 'establishment', that mysterious and all-powerful entity that supposedly protects Roger Federer at every step. And Roland Garros' statement, where they practically admitted they were lucky that Federer even deigned to play three matches at their tournament, has only added fuel to the fire.

The prevailing sentiment is that Roger Federer treated the French Open - one of the four biggest events on the calendar - as his personal practice court. He is being accused of disrespecting Roland Garros, the sport, and even his opponents (specifically, Dominik Koepfer).

He is also, in some extreme cases, being branded a saboteur extraordinaire. Apparently, Roger Federer gave Matteo Berrettini extra rest just to make things tougher for Novak Djokovic (who will likely be the Italian's quarterfinal opponent).

And let's not even get into the slurs of 'coward' and 'entitled brat' that are being handed out by the dozen. Let's just say that if Roger Federer was seeing his mentions on Twitter right now, he'd probably want to leave the platform forever.

What I personally don't understand, however, is why the withdrawal has become such big news in the first place. How could everyone have not seen it coming?

Let's back up a little here. Way back in March, after losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in Doha, Roger Federer had claimed that he "had no choice but to play on clay" if he wanted some match practice before Wimbledon. Then after losing to Pablo Andujar in Geneva, Federer said things like "I know I will not win Roland Garros" and "my goal is the grasscourt season".

Even after making a strong start in Paris, the Swiss continued to downplay his chances of survival. "I still believe there's no way I'm going to go really, really super deep here or go past the Novak section," he said after beating Marin Cilic in the second round.

Roger Federer had basically been shouting from the rooftops that he was playing Roland Garros primarily to regain some of his lost rhythm. And yet we can't stop wringing our hands at how he has supposedly blindsided everyone with his withdrawal.

Roger Federer is not the first player to withdraw from a tournament out of fatigue, and he won't be the last

Roger Federer at the 2021 French Open
Roger Federer at the 2021 French Open

Why did Roger Federer enter the Roland Garros tournament if he knew he wasn't going to last? The answer may be that he's both better and worse than he thinks he is.

We know Federer is a super-optimistic person, and it's not impossible to imagine that he expected to win his early-round matches without much trouble. That would've given him enough of a platform to put up a fight against the first top level opponent he faced, even if he was always unlikely to win.

Conversely, we also know that Roger Federer had no idea how his knee would react to a full-length Grand Slam match. It's easy to see why he might have expected to go out in the first or second round, which would have still helped him enter the grass season with a little momentum.

As it turned out, neither of those things happened. Roger Federer wasn't good enough to win any match easily apart from the first one, so his energy reserves took a beating. And he wasn't bad enough to lose before the first week either, so he had no option but to continue playing on.

Except that he did have an option. And he is not the first player to exercise it; there have been scores of mid-tournament withdrawals in the past, and there will be scores in the future too.

The question being lobbied at Roger Federer is how he could have withdrawn without being technically injured. But is there a rule that you can only withdraw if you have a physical injury? Why is it so much worse to withdraw out of fatigue than it is to do so over a specific ailment?

In both cases, the player in question wouldn't be able to give their best. And that's a good enough reason to pull out; nobody wants to see a compromised player making only a half-hearted attempt at fighting through a tennis match.

The Roland Garros tournament director Guy Forget did also mention that Roger Federer was experiencing "small discomforts and inflammatory pains". That automatically negates the argument that the Swiss withdrew without any concrete reason.

As for showing more respect to the tournament, does Roland Garros really deserve any different treatment?

For one thing, the tone of their statement about Roger Federer's withdrawal suggests they were more than happy to have hosted him at all. And for another, the way they bullied Naomi Osaka out of the tournament and followed it up by issuing a half-assed statement that didn't even allow room for counter-questions, reminds you of the word 'karma'.

In any case, Roland Garros has gained way more than it has lost from Roger Federer's presence at the tournament this year. His name in the draw alone helped them make a splash with their marketing campaigns, drove up TV ratings, and ensured they had a marquee match to fall back on even if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic dusted off their early-round opponents too quickly.

As hard as this may be to stomach for some in the tennis community, the net effect of Roger Federer entering a tournament is always positive. He is the biggest of big names, and at this stage of his career he can't damage or disrespect an event even if he tried.

Chris Evert put it best when she said that Roger Federer has earned whatever free passes he gets. Never mind the fact that withdrawing from a tournament for fear of not being able to give your best is not a 'free pass'; it is an incontestable right.

What of Dominik Koepfer you ask, the man who was deprived of a chance to play in the Roland Garros fourth round because of Roger Federer's evil machinations? Well, Koepfer didn't actually win the match he was supposed to, so I'm not sure he deserves anything more than he has got.

If Roger Federer had pulled out on, say, match point in the third round, then yes Dominik Koepfer would have advanced. But what self-respecting player would want to progress like that?

You lose a match in a knockout tournament, you should be out. And while the lucky loser concept does exist in tennis, that's for players who lose before the tournament starts; not in the middle of it.

Moreover, the lucky loser is picked out of all the players who lost in the last round of qualifying. For Koepfer's situation to be equated with that, the organizers would have had to list all the third-round losers in the tournament and pick one name through a lucky draw. How many would've been okay with something like that?

The truth of the matter is that people are always looking for something to not be okay with. Twitter - and social media in general - is a cesspool of hate and negativity at the best of times; you're more likely to find passionate outrage over a complete non-issue there than any kind of applause for an incredible achievement.

If Roger Federer is called classless and disrespectful by a section of people on Twitter, is it really that big a deal? After 20 Grand Slams and 20+ years on the tour, the man is above all that pettiness.

Edited by Musab Abid
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