Humanized Greatness

Nobu Sushi, in case you haven’t heard of it, was created by a man named Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. “Nobu” as he is commonly known, started in an apprenticeship in a sushi bar in Tokyo, travelled from Tokyo to Argentina, back to Japan, and then to Alaska before finally settling down in Los Angeles. In L.A., Nobu opened his first restaurant called “Matsuhisa” in Beverly Hills. From here,  he met his now good friend Robert De Niro (yes, that De Niro), and on De Niro’s urging opened the first ever Nobu sushi in New York in 1994. Now, Nobu Sushi exists on five continents – 32 restaurants in 28 cities around the world – and has been listed as one of the Top Ten Restaurant Destinations in the world by the New York Times (1993), among other honors. Nobu himself has been named One of the Most Influential Chefs of the Decade by Madrid Fusion (2009) and a nine-time nominee for Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation (1997, 1999-2006). One of those 32 locations is in Stadium 2 at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California, home of professionl tennis’ BNP Paribas Open (the proclaimed “fifth major”) every March. Stadium 1 of the Gardens holds the claim as the second largest tennis stadium in the world behind Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. The Desert Sun, the newspaper of the Palm Springs area, reported in March of 2014 that the BNP Paribas Open brings in approximately $5 million a year in revenue from approximately 450,000 fans, and that’s just part of the estimated $350 million a year the tournament brings to the entire Indian Wells community per year.

In other words, Nobu – and Indian Wells – is kind of a big deal.

Living in San Diego, I’m a two hour drive away from Indian Wells. So, being the avid tennis fan that I am, going to this tournament is pretty much a no-brainer. This year was my second year being there and I had the distinct privilege of eating at Nobu Sushi in Stadium 2 at one of their window tables ($100/person food and beverage minimum for these tables) overlooking the court of Stadium 2. The Angel and I were there for a women’s round of 16 match featuring Canadian Eugenie Bouchard (currently ranked as the 7th best female tennis player in the world) against a qualifier pretty much no one had ever heard of named Lesia Tsurenko. It was a grueling match and one of the better matches of the tournament.

But this isn’t about Bouchard and Tsurenko.

Among the food we enjoyed during the match was a Rock Shrimp Tempura with Ponzu Sauce, which basically ended up being shrimp in tater tot form that tasted like heaven. We enjoyed a traditional ceviche, a black cod with miso, and several orders of sushi that were all absolutely amazing. Oh, and of course we had wine to go with it all. Ensuring that we reached our $100/person requirement, we ordered coffee and dessert, the dessert being strawberry rhubarb “cheesecake.” Now, it’s not just me putting “cheesecake” in quotes here; that’s how it appeared on the menu. It was actually strawberry rhubarb cobbler with a scoop of cheesecake ice cream on top, served in sort of stonewear bowl with a lit flame underneath so that the ice cream melted over the cobbler as you ate it. It was phenomenal (assuming you like strawberry rhubarb).

But this isn’t about strawberry rhubarb “cheesecake” or the food of Nobu Sushi.

As we’re enjoying the women’s match going on beneath us while salivating over the “cheesecake,” the Angel taps me on the shoulder and says something along the lines of, “Don’t freak out, but if you look over your right shoulder you’ll see Roger Federer.” (I will say, the emotion of the moment kind of made me forget her exact wording – sorry Angel). I snapped my head over my right shoulder, and there at the nearest table to us that direction – about 10 feet away – sits Roger Federer, his wife Mirka, his parents, Stefan Edberg, Mary Jo Fernandez, and a few others.

Don’t understand why that’s a big deal? Let me tell you why.

In case you’ve been living under a rock the last 15 years (or just don’t pay a single shred of attention to tennis), you know who Roger Federer is. For those of you who don’t, let me do a brief synopsis. Roger Federer is currently the number 2 male tennis player in the world. Fed holds the record for longest time holding the world number 1 ranking at 302 weeks (237 weeks of that were consecutive). He has won a career total 17 major titles (an all-time tennis record, 3 ahead of Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras who are tied for second), 85 total career titles, he’s the only male player in tennis history to reach the final of all four majors in a single year (and he did it 3 times, 2 of those 3 times he won 3 of the 4 tournaments), his career record is 1,012-229 (an 82% career win percentage), and has earned a total of $89,725,160 just in career winnings (his overall estimated worth is approximately $300 million). Oh, and he recently designed a shoe with his good buddy Michael Jordan. He’s arguably (and most people do argue this) the greatest tennis player in history, and also one of the greatest all-around athletes of the last 25 years.

Stefan Edberg, Roger Federer’s current coach, won 11 major titles in his career and 42 total career titles. He had a career record of 806-270. His career winnings were an $20,630,941. Edberg was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004. Mary Jo Fernandez, who does a lot of commentating these days, reached 3 major finals and won a total of 7 career titles in 14 years on tour. She had a career record of 437-203. She reached 7 doubles finals and won 2 of them.

If you add up all three of these amazing people’s accomplishments, you’re looking at over 2,000 career wins, 136 total career titles, 28 major titles, and career winnings of over $115,000,000.

Now you see why this was a big deal.

As I tried to remained focused on the match below me, I found myself more often looking over my right shoulder, hoping just maybe one of them would make eye contact and I could use that to open conversation. That never happened, but I stared nonetheless. I watched them watch the match going on below us, their attention rapt and wishing that the restaurant was a little quieter simply so I could overhear their discussion of the match.

We sat there for at least an hour, debating whether we should go up and say something. There was security around the room and not a single other soul in this crowded restaurant came near the table. It was a thing of respect: allowing an incredibly famous man and his friends and family enjoy their dinner. We left before they even got up and never said a word.

The next day we watched Federer compete against up-and-coming American player Jack Sock, who is playing the best tennis of his career (he won the doubles championship of this tournament, as well as winning Wimbledon doubles this past year). Federer dispatched him easily. Yet the whole match, all I could think of was the pang of regret that is so hard to shake that we didn’t at the very least congratulate him on his tournament so far. We even could have waited until he got up from dinner (however long that would have been) and tried talking to him afterwards. Instead, we settled for the knowledge that we sat at dinner 10 feet away.

I’ve had plenty of time now to think about this, and it’s still hard to convince myself that not saying anything was the right move. I mean, Federer can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized and approached, so why would this be any different? Commentators even talk all the time about his generosity and his devotion to his fans. So why couldn’t we bring ourselves to say something?

The answer is oddly simple: in that moment, they weren’t the great Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg, and Mary Jo Fernandez. In that moment, they weren’t professional tennis players or commentators. In that moment, they were husbands and wives. Fathers and mothers. Friends and acquaintances. In that moment, Federer hadn’t just come off the court, he wasn’t warming up; he was done with tennis for the day. He relaxed back in his chair, eating his Nobu tacos and licking his fingers clean when he finished them. He touched his wife’s hand and kissed her cheek. In that moment: they were human, and he deserved that time to feel that.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to be that recognized, but what I can imagine is that you would cherish those moments that you aren’t that recognized. Federer has four kids (two sets of twins), and I can guarantee the moments he cherishes the most aren’t the title wins or the matches; it’s those moments he comes home and gets to be “dad.” It’s the moments he gets to be Mirka’s husband and not “the great Roger Federer.” It’s the moments he doesn’t have to think about being “the great one.” And when someone like that gets those moments, do you really want to be the one that doesn’t let him have it?

We didn’t.

See, we hear commentators and announcers talk all the time about celebrities’ “normal lives” and all the ways they are just regular people like us. We know they still sleep, they still have families, they still eat, they still do everything all us “normal” people do. Yet it’s still so strange when we actually see it first hand. Even with how much we “know” they’re still “normal,” we assume that even the “normal” things they do aren’t done in a “normal” way. It’s the reason so many people by People Magazine just to see the candid paparazzi photos of some celebrity buying a Starbucks while walking their dog in their pajamas. So when you witness first-hand someone like that actually being “normal,” it’s humbling. It’s refreshing.

I heard someone claim once that celebrities should double-think every little thing they say and do because of how much they are in the spotlight. This person claimed that this was the life they chose and as such they should adjust themselves accordingly. To be fair, yes, some people do strive for “celebrity.” Some do seek fame. But while I agree that they should think things through as they are so scrutinized, not everyone chooses to be a celebrity. Celebrity is a status that the public (or rather more so, the media) bestows. Someone won’t be a celebrity just because they want to be one. We as society have to make them one. Roger Federer never asked or sought to be a celebrity. He just wanted to play tennis. He wanted to play tennis to the best of his ability. He wanted to be the best tennis player in the world. And is was us – the media and society – who made him a celebrity. It’s us who defines who’s famous. So in that respect, don’t we owe them the flexibility to be human? Don’t we owe them the opportunity to not be celebrities every moment of every day and rather allow them to just be people?

As Federer’s game has declined (he suffered a year-long back injury that he played through, “falling” to number 6 in the world), we’ve heard commentators and people say more and more, “So he’s human, too.” He never stopped being “human,” his greatness just made him so much more to us. It’s amazing how the perception of greatness suddenly turns you into a perceptively different species. And make no mistake, I’m not criticizing anyone at all for this. Hell, even I’ve watched Federer matches and said, “He looks human.” Humanity is capable of greatness, and I think it’s a pretty cynical view that once someone achieves greatness we call it “inhuman.” Yes, we humans are capable of terrible things, but we are (as is proven in various ways every day) just as capable of greatness. And that greatness deserves to be respected and admired. It also deserves to be treated as human.

Tsurenko eventually beat Bouchard that evening, her third straight ranked player taken out in the tournament (remember, Tsurenko was a qualifier, meaning she had to get through a qualifying tournament just to get here). Both players suffered minor injuries, Tsurenko’s caused her to pull out of her next round match against Jelena Jankovic. It was a great tennis match. It was dramatic, it was engaging, and it was the kind of match everyone wanted to see. It was a match to remember. Unfortunately, I won’t remember that match the way I should.

I’ll remember eating sushi 10 feet away from Roger Federer.


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