The picture of the two tennis stars holding hands and crying has already become iconic. Is there a risk that we are glorifying the gesture of two privileged, heterosexual, white men? Or can it also show a way forward for men to show vulnerability?
I have no doubt that the photo of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal holding hands and crying in front of the world during the Swiss player’s farewell to tennis will be remembered as one of the images of the year — or even the decade. It is extremely powerful on many levels.
From a symbolic point of view, it offers a great opportunity to move those who saw it. How many of us cried along with them? We saw two idols and, at the same time, great sport rivals overcome with emotion.
Why waste such a powerful image, such a tender moment, because two privileged, heterosexual, white, multimillionaire and European men are starring in it? On the contrary, that is exactly why the image provoked such a strong reaction: because these athletic, hyper-idealized, ultra-competitive, strong and confident men don't usually show such vulnerability, and we don't know when they will do it again.
In any case, this scene represents a good opportunity for us men to ask ourselves some important questions like those posed by Argentina’s Mujeres Que No Fueron Tapa ("Women Who Did Not Make The Frontpage") project: "In which cases are men allowed to cry? When and under what circumstances are they allowed affection and tenderness? Can a man who is poor cry because he cannot get a job? Do they cry in front of their friends as they cry in front of us when they lost someone they love? Do they cry for love in front of their friends?"
In other words, it's not a matter of showering Nadal and Federer with praise, but of contextualizing their gesture to see what value it may have and who it may — or may not — be able to affect.
A gesture glorified to excess
Their beautiful and human gesture — which was also glorified to excess — offers the possibility to talk about power structures, about who is and who isn’t allowed to show vulnerability (which many would inaccurately call “weakness”). Because what Federer and Nadal were celebrated for — holding hands, breaking down in public — had already been done before by many other men and women, costing them huge suffering. Why, then, can these two stars involuntarily cash in on this gesture, endearing them even more to the public?
We need to ask who is allowed to show vulnerability and why, and who isn’t and why.
“To me, this recognition seems unfair,” Raúl from the MasculinidadSubersiva Instagram account tells me. “The same gesture done by people with other identities and sexual orientations has provoked violence, oppression and stigma.”
I understand his frustration, and I would add: besides being undeserved, the praise hurts a lot. My question is: What do we do with that wound, what do we do with that pain? First of all, in no way can we invalidate anyone's suffering. Then, we need to ask who is allowed to show vulnerability and why, and who isn’t and why. (A hint: It’s called the patriarchy, and the expectations we have of people based on their sex.)
One picture, multiple narratives
What we need to criticize is not the gesture per se (something that should never be questioned regardless of who does it) but a certain overreaction to it, which, I think, gives us an important clue to think about why it happens that way and what we can do with that.
Things change gradually every second and when the power finally shifts, changes pick up speed. But changes are very slow in relation to our life cycle. And, in the end, the final decisions are still made by those in power, and we already know how power is mostly shaped. Do we try to change it from the inside or from the outside? Maybe from both the inside and from the outside.
Something as symbolic as those tears and that hand-holding can be an excuse to address this issue and turn that image into a political gesture. Let's take advantage of the fact that there are people, especially men, who are perhaps discovering that they can show themselves to be vulnerable, sensitive and sad ... and that this will not make them weak or less liked!
Because in professional sports — and sadly not only there — there is a fixed idea that either you are a champion (who never breaks down, who never backs down and never gives up) or you break along the way because you are fragile and weak (and, therefore, you are useless). The latter sadly happened with the media furore around tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon in 2021 citing mental health concerns.
The image of Federer and Nadal opens the door to another narrative: “Hey, these two champions, perhaps the best in history in their sport, respect and admire each other despite all the titles they took from each other, they don't hate each other or wage war against each other; it doesn't have to be that way! Moreover, they can feel fear or sadness and get excited with and for each other. And they are still tremendous champions.” I'm glad that one-off events like this can show the way.
It takes strength to be vulnerable
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be critical but that, perhaps, we can do both things: questioning and showing that there is a different path to the old stories we’ve been told and internalized. I don't think that a single gesture will dismantle the solid patriarchal structures either. But they add up. They are like drops of hope in the sea.
It is a “very sweet and delicate” image, says Manuel Jabois in an article in Spanish daily El País, where he remarks that “this intimate scene attacks a world in extinction, the world of repressed emotions, the manhood of the hero who does not say I love you, does not kiss another man or take him by the hand anywhere if it is not his son; that of the ancient but modern heterosexual man who fears that certain affectionate gestures may lead to a misinterpretation of his preferences or turn him into the object of ridicule and suspicion; that of the man, in short, who is afraid, as opposed to the man who is not.”
It illustrates a new way forward for men to show vulnerability.
I also liked what the Argentine publishing house Chirimbote said: Federer and Nadal “proved” that male friends can show affection. “This gesture breaks all the (ridiculous) male mandates. How many times do we men hold hands? At most we show affection with a pat on the shoulder or on the back (symbols of male virility, support, endurance). The few times we hold another man's hand, we make sure that no one sees us.”
Nor is it a question of placing Nadal or Federer as absolute examples of anything in particular, although it is interesting to review recent statements by these stars. For example, when the news came out last year that he would become a father for the first time, Nadal said: “I don't foresee this will represent a change in my professional life.”
Criticism towards the Spanish tennis player appeared immediately, such as an article in El Periódico that among other things pointed out that “six out of ten women (64%) have been penalized at work for taking on the extra work involved in caring for children, the elderly or housework”.
Meanwhile, Federer, in a recent interview with Today, talked about how fatherhood did change his life: “The [twin] girls were born [in 2009] and from that moment on, 2010 and 2011, I didn’t win any Slam. I remember changing diapers, bathing the girls and just being a dad. But then when the boys [also twins] were born, I mean, that rocked the boat, obviously, because going on the road with four kids every single week was hard, to say the least. And from being maybe the dominator I became the challenger. And I liked that role, as well. I actually really stayed hungry throughout.”
For Federer, it was obvious to take his family with him: “Oh, it was the only way. I said, ‘Never would I go on the road without my kids.’ And then I’d rather retire. Then I would’ve had to retire 10 years ago.” But with Mirka, his partner, they took on the challenge of traveling as a family so that he could continue playing.
So to return to that image that will surely become iconic. It is important because it does two things at the same time. It illustrates a new way forward for men to show vulnerability. But it is also a potent reminder that for many men, being allowed to break down in public is still a privilege.
*Ignacio Pereyra is an Argentine journalist and author of Recalculating, a newsletter on masculinity and fatherhood.