ROGER FEDERER – THE MAN WHO BENDS TIME

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• A GENIUS WHO INSISTS ON CREATING: Half-volley winners while twisting backward from the baseline, wrist snaps that astound, laser forehands, unreadable serves, leaping backhand overheads – Roger Federer is on fire again. Then things calm down and you’re lulled into thinking, “What’s the big deal? This guy’s kind of normal” – until he flicks a backhand half-volley from the baseline that drifts the full length of the court before kissing the far baseline. And you snap out of your complacency. You get religion. This is Picasso in sneakers – free-flowing, defying gravity. Roger’s no-limits imagination again soars. Fans gasp.

His subtle winners and power groundies sizzle. His angles are severe. His balance is flawless, his movement poetic. His still-fluid-after-all-these-years sprints are bounding bursts. He spits at his 35 years. He’s breathtaking. His performance commands. It seems effortless, almost eerie – both powerful and inventive.

His athleticism expresses a balletic grace. His strokes are songs. And all the while, he seems to tap into a trait we’ve seen in many greats (Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras come to mind). Call it an almost soothing pool of relaxation, a stillness within the storm of competition, a deep calm that relaxes, centers and ultimately empowers.

• THE MAN WHO BENDS TIME: Mary Carillo said, “I’ve never seen anybody make a difficult sport look so beautiful…He’s such an artist. He thinks in artistic ways. He knows how luminous he looks – he’s aware.

“He knows how much he’s pleasing people with the way he designs his game. He loves being Roger Federer. He knows how many gifts he’s got, and knows how to share them. He knows how to protect them. He bends time – not just on court, but off court, too. He never seems rushed.

“He can give an interview in three or four languages. He’s patient. He’s heard the same questions over and over again, yet he doesn’t act dismissively. And there’s the way he is with people – wandering through crowds with his children. He’s a time-shifter. I’ve never seen that either.

“I’d love to know what kind of trip [he went on] to become himself, because I think it would be hard to cultivate a person who walks so lightly on this earth and with such grace.”

• ROGER AS MARTIAL ARTS MASTER: Deep-think coach Steve Stefanki contends, “Federer plays off of the energy of the opponent. He has all the skills, but he’s not going to impose. 

“In the martial arts there’s a phrase, ‘He who commits first is lost.’ Federer has to be behind the beat, not ahead of it. People that are ahead of the beat are imposing their will. But the really good fighters or dancers move away or deflect that energy. That’s what aikido is. The great martial artists are not trying to kill you. They’re letting you throw your sword and blocking it until finally you’re so far out of position they decide to put you away.

“You have to train so deeply so that your body knows exactly what to do. It’s coming out of you.

“Federer could be a great dancer because when you’re [ballroom] dancing there’s your expression, there’s the music, and you’re moving and you’re avoiding everybody. Federer’s juggling. He can do three or four things easily at the same time. He knows where the opponent is – and his intent. At the same time, the ball’s in motion – but in a certain sense, it’s in a fixed spot. Then – at the last minute, after the person has committed his intent – Roger decides to hit the ball to someplace opposite.

“He has to be so skilled in relaxation, position and balance…It’s a higher consciousness. [Like Baryshnikov or Fred Astaire], he’s not fighting…They have the same balance points. They understand their bodies so well. They’re not tightening. They’re extending, getting on point, on balance. They’re moving. Their center of gravity is all over, but they always land with stillness. The highest level would be a tai chi master who’s being attacked from five different sides. He’s in the middle of turmoil and chaos, but he’s totally still. Everyone is flying around, and he’s left standing. To do that you have to have a certain still point, a sense of non-panic, of being able to not see things in a linear-type time. It’s a different consciousness…It takes a long time to study like the martial arts people do with their meditation, quietness and stillness…Those cultures revere a deep level of inner consciousness. Our society is clueless.”

• FEDERER AS A FEARLESS ARTIST: Germany’s insightful Andrea Petkovic contended, “Any tennis player is an artist – there are lots of similarities. Artists are in their studios, and we’re  on court by ourselves. We both have a million different possibilities. We’re both making all these decisions, often intuitively. With every line artists draw, with every color they pick, they can go any which way, and the painting turns out differently. It’s the same with tennis. Plus, we have the adversity of an opponent. Any decision you make can be your downfall or a way to success.  Also, both artists and tennis players have a self-absorbed nature – it’s key. You need to be a little self-centered.

“What I like about Roger is that he lacks any fear. Novak and Rafa fear the loss sometimes, and they make up for it with their physicality, because they are so fit and can out-grind the others when they get really tight. Roger also gets tight. You can see it when he misses. But he’d never let fear interfere with his way of playing. He still goes for the shot, and he has an artistic way of getting himself out of break point opportunities.”

As for how Roger has been able to get to where he is now, Petkovic said, “It’s an internal process. I’m sure some people helped him. He is able to be in a mental state where he delivers whatever he has learned. Other players are not able to do that all the time.

“People expect him to win all the time, yet he is able to detach himself [from all the pressure]. That’s so impressive. I would like to pick his brain. He knows what he went through, but I don’t think it’s humanly possible to put it into words.”

• ROGER WILL BE FOREVER: After playing Roger, Noah Rubin, 20, said, “I’ve been on court with all the greats – Djokovic, Murray, Nadal – and they’re all incredible athletes…But I’d never been on court with Federer…He has an aura…You’re like, ‘Wow, ok, that’s Federer.’ There were a couple of times I took a peek and I’m like, ‘Wow’…It’s nice to see where my game is and how I feel being on a stage like this….[At one point], I swear to God the ball was past him and he hit it for a winner and you just have to say, ‘Ok, that’s Roger Federer.’ As for the future – he’s going to be here forever.”

• SUCH A NICE, RELAXED GUY: Federer’s coach Severin Luthi noted that Roger “has everything,” and added,  “The base for Roger’s game is his serve. When he’s serving well, he gets through his service game, and then his whole game is easier. He becomes very offensive. He has the right mindset and everything comes together…The thing I like most is that he’s a great guy…It really helps that he’s such a nice, relaxed guy.”

• MORAL FIBER: Andy Roddick joked that while his nemesis, Roger Federer, had beaten him 18 times, he’d won the last time they’d played, so the Swiss star was lucky he’d retired. Roddick once said, “Federer has flash, feel, artistry. The advantage I have is just hitting the crap out of the ball.” He also confided that what he most appreciated about Roger was his respect. “It’s weird,” said Andy, “because you share a history with someone [and] it becomes a part of your definition [of who you are]…It would be tougher…if the person that ruined me on court for a decade didn’t have the moral fiber Roger has.”