During the recent start of the tennis year, French player Benoit Paire has made some headlines for reasons that are less than ideal. Monsieur Paire has been voicing the opinion that the current ambience on which tennis is being played is dreadful and, therefore, his lack of results is to be understood as a consequence of such conditions. His latest opinions involved the dearth of people and spectators at the Monte Carlo Country Club, which he cataloged as a “cemetery” and a place where no man of reason would want to play.
Monsieur Paire’s comments are a variation of what can be described as the perception of the life of the superior athlete, and whether these people live under special circumstances that are not the same as those of most everybody. Furthermore, the extension from that premise into a second one is usually called upon: we, the plebes, cannot understand how their lives feel and therefore our opinions are biased, one way or another, due to our inability to comprehend. It is similar to the understanding, by the common man, of the lives of the rich and famous (a larger group to which successful athletes belong) and their load of problems. Should the common men not grant these people some leeway when they complain about their conditions? Aren’t we all being too strict when a person like Paire talks about his issues and shouldn’t they be granted as much compassion and understanding from the likes of “us”, the plebeians?
Underlying this entire line of thought is the reality of financial decency, a euphemism for the levels of money that the rich and famous enjoy and the needs of “the rest”. A common refrain by those that do not enjoy great wealth is that “money can’t buy you happiness”, as if lack of it would ensure a joyful existence. Were such the case, the race for happiness would involve a sprint towards bankruptcy, an easy to attain goal if one were truly bent on achieving it. So, the ridiculous statement can be thrown overboard easily and fast, and we can concentrate on the more subtle question: can we understand and properly gauge the lives of the rich? Can we pass judgement?
To start with, one has to answer: do we understand their actual lives? Can we see them? The answer is yes, because by definition they are public figures and that means that there is a certain level of transparency to who they are. Paire’s latest statements came after a defeat suffered on the gorgeous clay courts of THE MONTE CARLO COUNTRY CLUB. Now, read those five last words again. It would be difficult to find a more posh setting than this one and the cynical person could claim that Paire’s “cemetery” ordeal was in reality having to play a tennis match on a Sunday afternoon, in a place with a view of the Mediterranean. Paire lost and therefore one could say that his statements stemmed from his frustration but the structural scenario is known and understood. Was it so terrible? Anybody asking for perspective on what had happened to him can add that the solitude of the scene was due to the well-known pandemic which kept all spectators at home, a factor that seemed to escape Paire’s perspective as he was out and enjoying the day, while the rest of the wealthy in Monte Carlo were locked in their $2 million pied-a-terre. So yes, when people state that we cannot understand the lives of the Rich and Famous one can counterargue that we can; there is a difference between being in their shoes and knowing that the shoes are Manolo Blahniks but the premise that the penuries of the rich are unfathomable to the poor is faulty.
Because one item that does not work in reverse is the understanding by the wealthy of the lives of those that live in “normality”. Take, for example, the concept of the “burn out”. Slightly defined, it is a stage that is reached by certain athletes when they cannot play any longer, when a certain significant ennui of the soul deadens the competitive fire. Sure, it happens to many an athlete and then s/he takes off for a certain time, to replenish the spirit. But the point that is missed is that burn out is NOT a singular ordeal in the lives of the powerful; Henry David Thoreau was commenting about it as early as the 19th century when he wrote that “the mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation”. A lot, and it must truly be a lot, of people reach burnout in their daily activities and the solace and palliative cure for that is simply the invention of the weekend, not taking a sabbatical as long as one desires simply because one can afford it. Watch, for example, Paire’s fellow countryman Giles Simon, declaring after the Australian open that he was burnt out and he would take some time off. Simon is already back on the tour, perhaps because he has been blunt and open about the fact that for him, tennis is a job and a profession and, already reaching the end of his career, Simon perhaps just needed a few weeks back home and a brief inspection of his financial portfolio to remember that money was not going to take care of his burn out, but would certainly assist when buying that bottle of Bordeaux to make it more palatable so, back on the tour it was for him. For the rest of the masses, burn out has to be taken care of by a weekend of sleep, maybe an extra six-pack of beer and a large steak. On Monday, the hamster wheel needs to be manned again.
Another refrain from professional athletes is that of the constant traveling. Once again, the common man may have something to say. Who can complain of traveling the world, usually in business class, and arriving to 5 star hotels in front of a transcontinental truck driver? The difference between the lifestyles is extreme, an easy thing to see for people that go from one non-glamorous truck stop (literally) to another. Many a night is spent in a truck cabin, a heated meal a luxury, and this is for truckers in the European or American continents; the lives of truck drivers in developing countries involve, almost invariably, sleeping in hammocks hung from the lory they haul. Complaining about being in yet another “Business Lounge”, in route from one world capital to another speaks of a lack of understanding indeed, but not from the side of the many people that travel for a living, on and on, for years on end and for salaries that pale in comparison to what the pros get. It would be a difficult sell for flight attendants, the mentioned truckers, pilots or, perhaps a profession already confined to our past, traveling salesmen.
Aaron Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man is a majestic piece of music, a celebration for the masses, but the reality is that it missed the point altogether. Starting with a grandiose horn section, and then developing into an upbeat rhythm to celebrate the glory of the working-people, the truth is that it does not reflect the reality of the common man. Perhaps more appropriate, Earth Wind and Fire’s “That’s the way of the world” (which deals nothing with the subject) would be a more adequate title, for the millions and millions that get on public transport every day, monotonously reaching a job that offers few if any satisfactions. When the common men hear a young tennis prodigy talk about the difficulty of finding motivation to go to a tournament because the prize money has been reduced to just mid 6 figures, or an older player saying he was playing in a cemetery, the common man has a right to frown. Nobody is saying that every and all professional athletes lead lives of non-stopping bliss, or that no problems are assured once you reach sports fame and glory; the recent bout with cancer by Carla Suarez Navarro is a stark reminder that they are human too. But the fact that Suarez Navarro’s first post in social media was a “hello” picture from a court, tells you that the life of a tennis pro is not a separate chapter of The Hunger Games, a diluted version of a season in a concentration camp. A little appreciation of the good aspects of a life of jet-setting shades would be welcomed, even if you just lost a match that was winnable, on a cloudy Mediterranean afternoon. Nobody is saying be happy 24/7, but could you please, once you are out of Monaco, get on a public bus with 25 other people going to work early in the morning and, after you smell the onions, have a little appreciation of how nice that cemetery in Monte Carlo really was.