Saturday, 19 November 2011

Roger Federer: ZING done right.

“A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally.”
Oscar Wilde

ZING (for want of a better word – there’s got to be one) is as much a noble art as it is a precise science.

As noble as a bout of fisticuffs and as fine as any of the works of Keats, Mozart or Murakami. 

As ordered as the physics of Newton and as precise as that of Einstein, both of which were just yesterday used to prove that Neutrinos might in fact exceed the speed of light – which in turn might just lead to a revisal of EVERYTHING (mark: ‘handle with care’).

Done right, it can overturn kingdoms, alter the entire dynamic of battle in your favour and still leave you looking like a gentleman.

Try too hard, with too little, or at the wrong time, and you end up resembling that vengeful cretin that loses EVERYTHING including his own credibility in a dissonant fog of anguish.


A well-worked ZINGER embodies the very best of whatever mysterious force it is that makes the classics of both antiquity and modernity resonate to vein-popping extremes. Whatever else Steve Jobs might have achieved, you can safely assume he would have known how to ZING both caustically and responsibly. As did Thatcher, Abe Lincoln,  Churchill and Joan of Arc.

Indeed, we do it a great disservice when we dismiss any one of the few verbal skirmishes still remaining in an impossibly sanitised ATP as a ‘ZINGER’ or a ‘SMACKDOWN’. The uppercase is supposed to be for effect but seems more suggestive of a dialectic vacuum – like I said, given time, I’m sure we could do a lot better.

But whatever you might call it, competent and successful ZING relies on an entire panoply of precepts, best practices and guidelines – most of which are derived from that age old tradition of oratory and rhetoric. Not all are appropriate for every situation and even those selected must be carefully honed and configured before being deployed as a linguistic WMD.

Three in particular, Timing, Substance and Clout, are, however, indispensable – the critical bedrock of verbal volcanism.


The reason Federer has, for the most part, gotten away with his rhetorical rockets over the years is that he’s understood and taken to heart these fundamental principles . And where he’s fallen foul of them, he’s mostly been taken to task for it either by the mainstream or by members of that very active counter-revolution to the mainstream.

There’s other reasons too, of course. For instance, I’m not much convinced that the delivery of a well-formed ZING is fundamentally at odds with the “old-school” image Federer supposedly embodies – one of the biggest fallacies of the past decade.

A gentleman of the old-school is all about fair play and chivalry, of course. But they're never averse to the occasional verbal joust. Indeed, they’d be found wanting in character, spirit and essence if they fell short in this regard. 

If the FedEra has, paradoxically (mistakenly IMO), turned ZING into a dying art-form (and I’m inclined to think it has) then it’s only right that he be the one to reclaim the practice – my guess is not too many mind whenever he appears to do just that.


However cheesy it might be as a cliche, timing is, indeed, ‘everything’ – in any, and all, forms of competition.

Seize the day? HELL YES.  Jump the gun? Not so much.

All too often a few milliseconds here and there decide the entire fate of a civilisation. You just wish that were an exaggeration. Like Federer said, it’s crazy how small the margins sometimes are.

What immediately leaps out at you about Federer’s verbal campaign this year is how quiet it was all kept until so very late in the year. There were even times, when Murray was in a slump, where he rallied to his support – all the while keeping his opinions re Djokovic’s year, the length of the season and surface homogenisation to himself – keeping his cards, in other words, tightly pressed against his chest.

Then, only a few weeks ago, just at that critical moment when he would have sensed people were beginning to tire of talk of strikes and unions from well-paid athletes:

“It’s better to have too many than too few tournaments,” Federer said. “The season cannot be too long when Andy [Murray] requested a wildcard. I think he knows not quite what he wants”

Try and imagine what would have been lost had he opened fire even a few weeks earlier, muddying the waters whilst Nole, Rafa, Muzz and ARod were still busy agreeing upon whatever exactly it is that they’re  all meant to agree upon.

The same holds true for leaving it too late: whatever you make of it, Muzz left himself open by requesting a WC  for Basel in the same week he chose to bitch about the lengthy season – not even a journeyman ZINGer lets an opportunity like that pass them by. 

“I’m not taking anything away from what he did but was Asia the strongest this year?” he asks. “I'm not sure. Novak wasn’t there, I wasn’t there  and (in Shanghai) Rafa lost early.”

Again, a try-hard ZINGer might simply have settled for those harmless few scorch marks that result from levelling this attack immediately after Murrays (admittedly impeccable) Asian Swing, a string of results the British Press immediately went to town with.

Waiting till that same Press attempted to conflate that Asian swing with Murray’s chances here in London in the few days leading up to it, is the mark of a craftsman who knows exactly what iron to use and just how hot it is.



It’s a demonstrable fact that 90% of ZING that goes on is of the disposable, frothy, playground variety, most of which is as tuneless as it is hollow and barely meets with the definition of ZING.

More astute ZINGers might be able to get away with their lack of substance with more subtle sophistry (particularly if they TIME it well – see above) but for the most part, your target and any assembled onlookers will see right through it. And you’ll have missed your one chance for a shot at something better.

With precious few exceptions, even the best-timed ZING needs something to work with to pack a real punch.  Its not wholly unselfish either: you open yourself up to all sorts of ridicule if your ZING doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Again, you might question the wisdom behind some of Federer’s deliveries, maybe even the timing – but only in his most braindead moments will he issue the call to a frothy war.

He was right when he cut Murray down as a “grinder” after losing to him in Dubai back in 2008. That many cried ‘sour grapes’  is neither here nor there – had Murray not attended to those shortcomings (many of which still exist) he wouldn’t be the player he is today.

He was right when he called the early Rafa “one-dimensional”, tendencies Nadal still sometimes reverts back to under pressure, tendencies that usually end up costing  him very dearly – sometimes against vastly inferior players.


And he’s right in calling into question the significance of Murray’s Asian Swing now. Again, complaining that his Basel win is open to the same criticism is to spectacularly miss the point. I doubt he cares very much. If anything, I suspect he’s a tad disappointed that the set of double standards propping up this particular ZING don’t go far enough.

Takeout: You can get away with saying most anything you want so long as you resist the urge to talk cobblers.


Like it or not, the elite will always get more for their buck, their words will carry rather more weight and leave a far more enduring impression than any number of  journeymen. It shouldn’t be that way, but there it is.

The tittle-tattle surrounding Tsonga’s swipe at Nole (there were actually two, neither all that concealed) may have proved diverting but the world is a noticeably different place when the Fed/Muzz “on-again, off-again” tongue-lashing is “on-again”. And the better for it.


Now if deadpan Murray would respond in kind…

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