When Roger Federer heard that his wife was pregnant, he wondered what fatherhood would do to his tennis. Then he went out and hammered Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets, and thought that maybe it would be OK.
This week Federer and his nemesis Rafael Nadal returned to the tour in Montreal. Federer has been on paternity leave – his twin girls were born on July 23 – while Nadal has had a knee injury. The question now is what will hurt a tennis career more: twins or a bad knee?
It is a sign of the changing view of fatherhood that we even ask the question. Male athletes have always fathered children (some so many they have lost count) without anyone imagining that their games might suffer. But then came “involved fathering”. Even as careerist a dad as the chess player Garry Kasparov told me: “No matter what people say, they’re losing concentration … At age 20, you have virtually nothing to worry about. At 40 you have family, kids … maybe businesses. You know, you have a bunch of problems … You can’t erase these problems from your head.”
Yet the notion that contemporary fathers make career sacrifices appears false. Whatever they say about equality, having children seems to encourage dads, in general, to stay in the office. That may be why soccer managers have traditionally encouraged players to settle down and have kids. After all, a father is presumably less likely to be out at 4am expending energy on other causes. A year after my own twins were born, I can tell Federer: you can have twins and a job. You just can’t have anything else besides.
The brutal truth is that men with lucrative careers – whether in banking or tennis – don’t go on a “daddy track”. Pete Sampras, who had his children after leaving tennis, noted: “I don’t see Roger changing diapers at four in the morning.” For men like that, childcare becomes a sort of leisure-time hobby. Mats Wilander, the former tennis number one turned dad, told me before Federer became a father: “I think it will be a good distraction. You have another interest in your life, it helps you relax. It gives him a good opportunity not to be too intense when he is playing.” A chess player may need absolute concentration, but in “flow” sports such as tennis or football there is a danger of overconcentrating. A scary thought: Federer’s tennis might now improve.
It has been noteworthy in Montreal that while fatherhood remains much the same, the social position of some high-status mothers is changing. In 2007 Kim Clijsters did the conventional thing of retiring from sport to become a mother. Then she presumably realised that she was following a 1950s template. Now she is winning tennis matches again.
The prognosis for Nadal is worse. While no male stars have quit tennis to raise children, plenty have retired because their bodies gave out. Recent examples include Gustavo Kuerten, Marcelo Rios and Goran Ivanisevic. It is worrying that Nadal, at only 23, is suffering overuse injuries. Even if he stays in tennis he may have to change his game, no longer charging down every ball until his opponent’s eyes glaze over. Wilander warns: “There are a certain number of miles you have in your legs and your heart.”
What about the future of another duo, the zero-year-olds Charlene and Myla Federer? Bookmakers are laying odds of just 25-1 against either of them winning a tennis Grand Slam. This makes superficial sense: the best predictor of sporting success has long been having a sporting father. Being twins helps too, because they can grow up playing each other. However, these rules no longer apply in modern tennis. Now the best predictor of success is having a father who turns your childhood into a permanent tennis camp. Federer says he does not want to do that. Wise speculators will short the tennis careers of Charlene, Myla and Nadal.
The writer is co-author of Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained