Genius proposes, SI disposes

Much of the tennis community is seething after Sports Illustrated crowned Dwayne Wade as their Sportsperson of the Year, snubbing Roger Federer: resultswise, a clear-cut favorite for the award with three Grand Slam trophies, 12 titles, a 92-5 win-loss record and a runaway world no. 1 ranking. Many readers commented on the unfairness of the award on internet forums and blogs. The rationalizations that followed the announcement range from the pragmatic to the ridiculous:

1. Tennis does not sell as many magazines as the NBA: This is true. Tennis is down in the dumps and is seeking all the scraps of publicity that it can get. The situation is so bad today that when Federer is featured in Vogue, commentators drool about it during a tennis game. A Roddick-Sharapova story has to be manufactured, and insinuated repeatedly until it becomes tiresome. From a practical point of view, I understand. From a tennis enthusiast’s point of view, I am irritated: Why should we care what Federer wears, when he can use his racquet to routinely create angles that have writers scribbling about Mozart and Picasso?

2. Federer cannot sell as many magazines as Dwayne Wade: True again. As is pointed out by the apologists, Wade is charismatic and has a backstory, in addition to being a fine basketball player. Federer appears too much like a normal guy playing abnormal tennis. Most Americans have not heard about him. Never mind that, even after Wade’s end-season surge for the Miami Heat, their respective records do not even merit a comparison. Wade had six incredible weeks in a team sport. Federer had eleven incredible months in an individual sport (with long stretches without a travelling coach).

3. Federer will not visit Bob Costas and attend the presentation ceremony. Wade will.: Ridiculous. No explanation necessary. As Patrick McEnroe fumed, “Don’t insult our intelligence.”

4. SI does not award tennis players, unless they are Americans: Only three tennis players have received the honor before: Arthur Ashe (1992), Billie Jean King (1972), and Chris Evert (1976). Ashe received it for his humanitarian work. All three deserved their awards, but neither King nor Evert had a year like Federer’s 2006. Neither of them reached all four Grand Slam finals.

Rod Laver, who completed the Grand Slam in 1969 did not win the award, when tennis was arguably more popular than it is today. Steffi Graf, who swept all four Slams, and the Olympic medal, in 1988 did not win the award either.

5. SI awards players for good work outside their sport: Fair enough.

6. SI sometimes awards players for a body of work: Often cited examples are Lance Armstrong and Arthur Ashe. But this excuse is blown to bits by the fact that they didn’t award Sampras’s body of work, which was arguably as important as Armstrong’s. So, is it surprising that they chose not to award Federer’s body of work, which constitutes the most dominant three-year stretch in the Open Era? See rationalization #1 above.

All the practical and economic implications of this high-stakes award are understandable. But, how about doing two things:

1. Rename the magazine to “American Popular Sports Illustrated”

2. Rename the award to “Sportsperson of the Year in a Popular American Sport”. This proposal was made by Patrick McEnroe in this radio interview.

That way, the fluorescent pink elephant at the dining table would become visible to everyone. At least, devout followers of other “peripheral” sports would go about their business without wondering whether SI was perpetrating a fraud. At least, we wouldn’t feel cynical if we decided to treat the SI award with the nonchalance that we reserve for populist awards such as those awarded by People Magazine. SI will get its sales, and we will be free to look elsewhere without expecting handouts for our favorite players.

It will be a pity when Federer stops winning, his rise and and fall all but unnoticed in the popular media in the US. When that happens, SI will probably throw him a bone by putting him on a cover page or two, thus paying lip service to his genius.

Addenda:

1. Rohit Brijnath gets it right, when he chooses his sportsman of the year based on the amalgam of “the athletic and the aesthetic.”

2.Yet, idiotic ideas abound, and make life interesting. It is amusing to read the comments that Charles Bricker received from fans across the world – UK, Australia, India, and his neighbors the Deep South. Fans, who are annoyed at him for suggesting that Federer has a negative effect on the sport and for cynically implying that he visited the Tsunami-hit village of Cuddalore to improve his image amongst American audiences. How petty is that, Mr. Bricker? And how supremely ironic, that on the same page, Google Ads linked to a tennis site with this blurb: “Hit a backhand like Roger Federer!”

3. Edit: December 2007. It’s that time of the year again, and SI has gone ahead and chosen Brett Favre as their Sportsman of the Year. Sorry Roger, you’re just not economically viable. And you never will be, so don’t hold your breath. Seriously, what a sublime bunch of idiots!

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