Federer and Nadal holding hands prompt talk of masculinity in sport

The iconography of male sport revolves around displays of triumph and dominance.

Tiger Woods fist pumps after sinking a birdie putt. Muhammad Ali standing menacingly over a fallen George Foreman. Michael Jordan sticking his tongue out, defying gravity as he scales through air and bodies to dive the basketball – an image that years later would become the source of the “Jumpman” logo.

Now you can add another timeless sporting moment to this list, but one that stands in stark contrast to the rest.

Instead of depictions of athleticism and feats of sporting conquest within the usual framework of victory over the fallen opponent, here’s a new slant: 20-time Grand Slam champion and tennis icon Roger Federer, a transcendent force in the men’s tennis and a fixture on TV screens and on the ATP Tour for decades, crying and holding hands with longtime rival Rafael Nadal, also in pieces after the duo’s doubles loss at the Laver Cup in London.

Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The image, captured by a freelance photographer the night of Federer’s last professional game on September 23, circulated widely on social media. Users, journalists, and sports commentators quickly embraced the photo, not least because it signaled the end of an era; but also because holding hands among elite male athletes — especially among two of the game’s GOATs (the greatest of all time), who for years have contested finals against each and “fought to stay at the top of the tennis rankings – is an unusual sight.

Although unusual, the photo has captured the imagination of a wide section of the public, hungry for very public examples of notable men expressing their affection and friendship in a way that challenges prevailing norms regarding the male behavior and how boys are socialized in sport, sports watchers from the Northeast. say.

The power of photography lies not just in its portrayal of male emotion – athletes are often trained to be stoic and asked to “keep their emotions in check” – but in the way it confronts “hypermasculine” constructs in sport, says Daniel Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern.

“It really hits at the intersection of affection and emotion,” he says.

“In his character and his very actions, Federer is a monument and an exemplary model of a new construction of masculinity and virility,” Lebowitz said.

The photographer, Ella Ling, herself, Speaking to CNN’s Ron Riddle, described the moment as “incredible” and suggested that “it could do society a lot of good”. After first sharing the photo publicly on Twitter, she said she had “never seen anything like it” – reportedly referring to the tearful scenes during Federer’s farewell – “in tennis and never will again”.

Dozens of Twitter users saw the emotional scenes as an antidote to “toxic masculinity”.

“In the often toxic masculinity of sports, *THIS* should be Sports Illustrated’s next cover. Two fierce rival GOATS holding hands and crying as one retires,” one Twitter user wrote, “…@RafaelNadal and @rogerfederer are the standard bearers of honest masculinity and sporting greatness.

Lebowitz says that, in the context of sport, athlete performance is rewarded and celebrated more often when combined with “dominating and exhibiting power over others.”

“In men’s sports, hypermasculinity occurs when the goal of dominance somewhat outweighs the goal of simply winning — and we often celebrate that,” says Lebowitz. “The problem is how do you prevent this from seeping into the general culture? This photo offers a counterpoint to how sports and male performance are generally viewed in this way.

Lisa Markland, associate athletic director for leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion at Northeastern, says she wants to see more of the behavior displayed by Federer, 41, and Nadal, 36, as top male athletes.

“When I see this photo, I actually see two men, in a sense, caring about each other, having emotions and expressing them,” Markland says. “But that’s not the way men learn to express themselves, often through aggression in sport.”

Much has been written about Federer’s tennis career – his 20 Grand Slam titles (a record before 2020), the litany of records he racked up over a 24-year career. But the acclaim he enjoys outside of tennis is equal to, if not greater than, his accomplishments on the court, in his charity work, his business ventures and his dealings with people.

“His athletic dominance does not replace his belief, or his commitment, to being kind, caring, compassionate, humble and always inclusive,” Lebowitz said. “He…represents both a role model and a reminder to us all, that non-toxic humanity is at its best.”

Federer, in an interview with The New York Times, was asked about the photo with Nadal, whom he played 40 times in his career, including more than a dozen times in the semi-finals or final of the Grand Slam.

“I think at one point I was sobbing so hard, and I don’t know, it was all going through my head how happy I am to be living that moment with everyone,” he said. . “I guess at some point, just because obviously I couldn’t speak and the music was there, I guess I just touched it, and I guess maybe it’s a secret thank you .”

The pair started playing doubles late in their careers at the Laver Cup, a team event co-created by Federer himself.

For media inquiriesplease contact [email protected]