Swiss Tennis Idol Roger Federer is Contested, But Not by Rafa or Djoko

Roger Federer is iconic in multiple ways. He was the first tennis player to carry home 20 Grand Slam trophies, including eight from Wimbledon’s majestic Centre Court. The subject of several biographies, he was profiled in a flattering essay by the literary superstar David Foster Wallace. Stylish and best friends with Vogue editor Anna Wintour, he co-hosted and headlined the fashion/philanthropic New York City A-list Met Gala. Entrepreneur, he created the Laver Cup, tennis’s equivalent of golf’s Ryder Cup, and a tribute to his idol, the Australian tennis legend Rod Laver. Doting father, loyal husband, Roger Federer is the ideal Swiss.

How then can some Swiss now criticize their beloved Rodger? (He even has his own Swiss/German spelling.)

To criticize Roger in Switzerland is “like criticizing King Jong Un in North Korea,” Swiss humorist Thomas Weisel commented in a radio broadcast. A recent article in a popular Swiss newspaper and Wiesel’s radio broadside were the first major Swiss public questioning of Roger. “Federer is a walking advertising stalwart” and “he sells his soul,” the article stated, and are two illustrations of the crossing of a red line and breaking of a previous taboo.

Federer is the most well-known Swiss worldwide, the epitome of grace, style, class, and sportsmanship. He is the walking presence of all the positive image Switzerland tries to project. While he was playing and winning Grand Slams, Roger Federer was the perfect Swiss. Now that he is retired, anti-Roger rumblings are starting.

If we ignore Wiesel’s pertinent comment that “Roger was more at ease on the courts than in the studio,” the relevant criticisms of Federer are of two kinds. The first is that he is a “walking advertising stalwart.” Indeed, before and since retirement, Federer has been an omnipresent advertising salesman, whether for high-end Rolex watches, Mercedes-Benz cars, Moet & Chandon champagne or low-end chocolate, coffee, and Barilla pasta. As Weisel said: “Before he sold us dreams, now he sells us spaghetti.” Roger seems incapable of saying no when sponsors come knocking. As Federer biographer Christopher Clarey suggested, Federer’s biggest legacy might be his billion-dollar brand.

Roger’s earnings or spending while playing are not controversial. Switzerland is not immune to high wealth individuals. It’s his retirement practices that are contested. For example: Federer’s shoe brand “On” has been criticized for their high price compared to their production costs. It has been reported that the “Cloudtilt Loewe” model will cost $23 to produce and will sell for $487. An article in Le Monde by Serge Enderlin headlined: “Roger Federer Swiss tennis star, makes unforced error with shoe partnership.” It pointed out that “Despite the little Swiss flag that is sometimes apparent on the back of its sneakers, On manufactures them in Vietnam” under sub-optimal conditions, as reported and confirmed by Public Eye. The manufacturing company – Federer is a shareholder – maintains that the figures and information are inaccurate.

Does he really need the dough? Forbes estimated that during his playing career, Federer was paid up to $3 million for playing exhibitions, and that his career earnings totalled $1.1 billion before taxes and agents’ fees. In Federer’s defense, raising four children in Switzerland is expensive.

As for real estate, he has a $8.1 glass house overlooking Lake Zurich, other properties in Switzerland and a luxury $23.5 million penthouse apartment in Dubai. Not exactly Hollywoodian, but more than comfortable and within similar athletes’ housing arrangements. For the moment, his planned $50 million, 16,000 square meter complex, also on the Lake Zurich, is being held up for environmental and building approval considerations. Again in Roger’s defense, at least his main residences are in Switzerland and not Monaco.

The second criticism of Federer is that he does not take political positions. The previous best-known Swiss was exactly the opposite. The politician/professor/militant and former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Zeigler once proudly declared in Havana; “I’m happy to have the blood of the Revolution in my veins,” while undergoing a blood transfusion in a local hospital,

Federer has a foundation. According to their website: “The Roger Federer Foundation enhances a world where children living in poverty are able to take control of their future and actively shape it. … We thus aim to give children the best start on their educational path through life by establishing and further develop existing early educational services in a sustainable way…We limit our engagement to one region in Africa and are conducting programmes in six countries in southern Africa as well as Switzerland.”

Admirable, but not very political. “Athletes are athletes,” you will say. “They should concentrate only on sports and not be involved in politics.” But since the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved hands in a black power salute on the 200-meter winners’ podium, athletics and sports have become publicly connected. Mohammed Ali is an excellent example. Cassius Clay, his name before converting to Islam, refused induction into the American army during the Vietnam War – “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” He lost three crucial years from his glorious career when he was forbidden to box for draft evasion.

Athletes are now taking political positions. As part of the Me/Too movement, women athletes came forward with revelations about Larry Nassar, the team doctor for the U.S. Women’s National Gymnastics Team and Olympic Team. Civil rights protests against racism and police brutality included San Francisco 49er star quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the pre-game playing of the national anthem. Various organizations have reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among the sanctions; no flag, anthem, colors or any other identifications of Russia or Belarus will be displayed in any official venue or function at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Federer’s non-political position is somehow outdated, somewhat like Swiss neutrality. The separation of sports from politics has grown smaller and smaller.

Demythologising accepted myths and mythical figures is a dangerous business. The controversy over the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann’s two 1941 lectures on the “New Testament and Mythology”or challenges to Annette Gordon-Reed’s lengthy investigation of the sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings are typical cases. Federer’s Swiss critics demythologize “Rodger” with velvet gloves. Going after Roger is a cultural leap. Can Guillaume Tell and Heidi be next?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.