There is something profoundly humbling about being reduced to a mere mortal after having a press pass. The only way to explain the loss of access is to compare it to the cliché of Superman losing his powers to a dose of Kryptonite. But even when Superman wasn’t Superman, he still had Clark Kent to fall back on, and Clark Kent had access.
Freelancers don’t have that luxury — or legitimacy. So there I was at the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue, a week before the U.S. Open waiting for tennis superstar and hero to the masses, Roger Federer, to show up for the official launch of his new Uniqlo kit… with the masses. I had been working all summer on a story that involved the player’s foundation and had one question to ask him. But without a badge, it was up to me to convince the Uniqlo PR person to allow me to stand on the sidelines and wait for an opportunity. Her answer to my request: no dice.
Undeterred, as most journalists with a burning inquiry that has been denied by two sets of handlers — the Roger Federer Foundation’s and Uniqlo’s — I stood around the store and waited for another friend, one of many amoureux de Federer in my life, and an “in”. Nine times out of ten, press events, while seemingly micro-managed, are ill-conceived, thrown together at the last minute and usually lacking in proper oversight. Soon enough, we found our way to the second row past Uniqlo’s ‘stage’.
The various stages of the Roger Federer/Uniqlo launch in late August 2018, a week before the U.S. Open
By five o’clock, the line was chattering. The Uniqlo promoter picked that point to brief us all: Mr. Federer would not sign items, he said (a total subterfuge); he would not take selfies (also not true); and anyone who approached him would be swiftly escorted out the door, Uniqlo Federer product orders be damned. Fifteen minutes later, we were seated, watching an endless loop of Federer photos on the video screens among three sets of Federer outfits. I overheard a mom discuss selfie-and-signing strategy with her pre-teen.
Some thirty minutes after he was expected, the man of the hour — and by tennis standards, the decade — turned up in a slim black suit, crisp white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and brass-buckle dress shoes, even more handsome in person. The audience cheered and called out while Federer looked at the crowd, swollen to more than 200 onlookers, in bewilderment — or feigned bemusement. It was possibly the only unscripted moment in a 45-minute Q&A about Roger’s career, Roger’s fashion choices, Roger’s reasons for coming to Uniqlo (Anna Wintour approved), and even some advice from Roger about listening to one’s parents. “Now that I am a parent, I can say they mean well, they only want the best for you.”
Federer proved just as much of a promotional pro as a tennis one. Uniqlo included its head of product design, just so the clothing company was not completely upstaged. But no one really wanted to hear from him, other than assuring us that Uniqlo got its “complete champion on the court and complete champion off the court”.
This bit followed a revealing few minutes when Roger admitted that he was “proud of the way I turned myself around,” answering a question vetted by the higher-ups — as all of the other questions — about the highlight of his career. Roger would not be surprised by any untoward inquiry, apparently. He offered only this: “I was once known as the player about whom the other guys were saying ‘if you hang with him long enough, he will lose his mind,’” meaning that Roger would have imploded and someone else might have adorned our Rolex ads; earned a ubiquitous logo (for which he would have to fight Nike to retain the rights); and inspired hysteria in the center of an already frenzied New York.
And just like that, the magic ended. Roger did agree to sign autographs; he also said “yes” to a few selfies. The catch: only the first two rows — or the first 20 people. That put me in the scrum — the middle of it all. To be in the pack, the throng, the mob of a celebrity selfie-signing-photo mob is to throw yourself into a crush of people, arms thrusting balls and caps and paper and Metrocards, torsos pushing, voices pleading. The girl whose mother helped her selfie strategize — all four-foot, five inches of her — was nearly trampled. In the heart of it, with one’s face in a wrist, an armpit or the back of a head, even a grown woman’s life seems imperiled.
The girl was saved. The champion signed her ball. All ended well at Uniqlo. Except for one angry security person, a large round man dressed in plaid and draped in contempt. “Would you look at yourselves?” he asked the crowd. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Someone was almost hurt for a signature. He’s just a man who plays a sport. That’s it.”
A buzz kill. A morality check. A questioning of intent.
“I hear Nadal is really the nice one,” my friend, who had his Federer hat autographed, said. “Federer just smiles and signs when the cameras are on.” I couldn’t say. He seemed kind and generous enough to me.
“If this is true, then why do you like him so much,” I asked.
“Because look at the man. He’s the greatest player of all time,” my friend replied.
In the end, I was never able to ask my question. Despite multiple requests, the USTA refused a press pass to the entire U.S. Open. I couldn’t get through the Federer firewall, either, even though I managed to slip a written question and my email to his security people.
But as I endured similar deluges and assemblages over the fortnight, I watched and wondered: Why do people engage in these pursuits? Most players seemed almost above it all — until they weren’t. Lindsay Davenport stayed nearly 30 minutes after an exhibition match to sign and talk to fans; Martina Navratilova walked off after five. Angelique Kerber reached high for jumbo Wilson autograph balls. Kevin Anderson — after five sets in withering heat — hit his obligatory match balls into the crowd, turned around and said, “sorry, guys, I can’t.” I’m not sure I could have, either. Like every human, every star tennis player has his or her own personality type, priorities and limits. One fan asks for a selfie; hundreds of fans ask for hours. But what does this seeking say of us? That we want to touch greatness, even for a minute? That we would do anything for that slice, that specimen from a player? That our own lives lack the thrill that we associate of others? That, perhaps, these walls surrounding the celebrities and protecting them from the people, the press and other entities making requests of them only make us want them more?
From my vantage point that day, I might not ever understand. But if I ever have the chance to talk to Roger, I’ll ask.