THE CRACKLING GOODNESS OF ROGER FEDERER

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Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for The Laver Cup

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SHOT IN TENNIS: It’s sublime. It flows. It’s the essence of athletic grace. Along with Steph Curry‘s sweet-release three-point jumper and golfer Phil Mickelson‘s high-arcing flop shot, it’s the most beautiful shot in sports. It’s Roger Federer‘s backhand. It’s not his most powerful shot. But, enamored with its grace, thousands succumbed to the giddy effects of the epidemic that’s sweeping tennis – “Roger Awe.”

Time and again in Indian Wells, Roger leaned in. He pounced. He attacked. “Roger’s backhand,” noted The Tennis Channel, “which had been his Achilles heel against Nadal, is now his strength.”

Roger’s backhand is far from the best in tennis – Djokovic and Murray can make that claim. He doesn’t even have the best one-handed backhand in Switzerland. Sorry, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov and Richard Gasquet, Stan Wawrinka has the best one-handed backhand in tennis. But Roger’s is plenty good, and much improved in just a year. Forget Sugarpova, it’s tennis candy. It’s luscious. Fans love all his strokes – but they adore his backhand.

Roger hits the ball high. Roger goes crosscourt. And even one of the great movers in tennis history, Rafa Nadal, stumbles and seems awkward.

Federer’s ball kisses the line. Thousands sigh, “Ahhh,” while admiring whistles cascade down from macho fans sounding like workers on a New York construction site. The Tennis Channel couldn’t help itself, saying Roger’s “backhand is insane…That was serious intent…Did that feel like 20 backhand winners in one game?” Mary Carillo said his backhand was “crackling with goodness.”

Roger noted that with his new Wilson racket, and its bigger head size, he’s “definitely having an easier time coming over [on] the return…and staying aggressive… because the racket has more power.” After all his off-season practice he had “gained confidence stepping in…You have to take it on the rise, and for that you need good footwork, because if it is not right, you won’t be on top of the ball…All my coaches…have told me to go more for the backhand, but I used to shank [it]…Maybe deep down I didn’t always believe that I had it, in the most important moments. But I think that’s changing.”

HEADLINES:

CHOCOLATE WAR BREAKS OUT IN CALIFORNIA (after Switzerland’s two best players reached the Indian Wells final)

THE CORE HAPPINESS OF ROGER FEDERER, THE MAN WHO MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY

THOUSANDS IN DESERT SUCCUMB TO ‘ROGER AWE’

DONSKOY BEATS THE GOAT (after No. 116 Evgeny Donskoy beat Roger Federer)

AHEAD OF SCHEDULE: Federer said his goal for this year’s Aussie Open was to reach the quarterfinals. He won. His goal for the year was to be in the top eight after Wimbledon. He’s now No. 6 and rising.

PUTTING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE: When asked about winning different Grand Slams, Federer said that maybe none of the others beats the first one, because “it was a dream come true.” He added that his recent Australian Open win was the biggest surprise of his Slam wins, and was in the top five of his Slam victories. He also noted that it felt unbelievable to win the French Open after chasing it for so long, and that it was special to beat Andre Agassi at the 2005 US Open, because of the pressure, the New York atmosphere and the fact that everyone was saying that if Andre won he would retire.

FIVE MORE YEARS? In a hilarious interview with a class of adorable second-graders, Roger joked that he hoped to be playing until he was 90, and then said, “To play for five more years – that would be an absolute dream. Can you imagine? Forty years [old].”

He revealed that, like his two sons, he started playing tennis at three, and hit balls against cupboards and garage doors. As a kid he’d had three cats, including Flatty and Ginger, and three rabbits including Blitz and Blacky. The father of four ended the session by doing ten push-ups with the elated kids.

SOME BOOK: Roger Federer’s father, Robert, told IT that the family is putting together a fat book of Roger’s clippings.

THE PERILS OF SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS: Stephanie Myles reported that Federer‘s autograph session at the BNP Paribas Open drew hundreds. There was a two-hour wait, some frayed tempers and even an f-bomb or two.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Federer won his 90th tournament at Indian Wells. He says he isn’t planning on playing until he wins his 100th. Jimmy Connors has the record for most  tournaments won, 109…Before losing to No. 116 Evgeny Donskoy, Federer had three match points in the second set and was up 5-1 in the final-set tiebreak. His coaches said the loss would be good for him in the long run.

ESCAPING THE GRASP OF THE DRAW OF DEATH: En route to winning Indian Wells, Roger became the oldest man to win a Masters, had to beat his fiercest rival, Rafa Nadal, and survived what was described as the “Draw of Death.”

THE CORE HAPPINESS OF ROGER FEDERER: After the famous and wealthy Federer said he was “extremely happy with very little,” we asked him to explain. He answered, “I’m just happy being surrounded by family and friends. That’s good enough for me. Not lying – winning helps to be happy, because losing ain’t fun when you travel around the world and you play a shocker match and you’re, like, “Now what?” Then you have to sit there…[and] wait until you get your next shot.

“But other than that, I’m just really happy with very little…It could be anything. Could be dinner with friends…seeing someone again, reading a book to my boys and girls…the most simple little thing.

“I guess [we have] an urge for normality… We try to create [that] wherever we go because we live in this funky bubble: the tennis world, hotels and all that. It’s not the norm…We try to go out and about and discover stuff. It makes me happy when I get away from it all.”

A NEW CAREER? When joking about his light-hearted music video with Tommy Haas and Grigor Dimitrov, Federer claimed he was now going to have to balance his singing and tennis careers. He added that Stan Wawrinka was welcome to join his group, the One-Handed Backhand Boys, but those with two-handers (think Murray and Djokovic) would be vetted.

TWO KEY THINGS: Roger said he doesn’t think about his knee any more – his health and his fire are the key things to him.

JUST WONDERING: Has Federer evolved more than any other player since Agassi?

QUOTEBOOK

•  “For me the dream run continues.”

– Roger after winning Indian Wells

 • “He’s laughing – he’s an asshole.”

– A tearful Stan Wawrinka on Roger during the Indian Wells award ceremony

 • “It should be a celebration of tennis.”

– Federer on September’s Laver Cup in Prague, which sold out in just hours

ROGERMANIA: Was the most frenzy at the BNP Paribas Open at the line to get into Spago or at the height of a feisty comeback on Stadium 1? No. It came when about 2,500 giddy fans were scrutinizing every twist and turn of a Roger Federer practice.

Watching from the stands, from roofs, or from assorted perches, craning their necks, they chanted their mantra at the top of their lungs, “Raw-gerr! Raw-gerr!”

“There’re more fans here than people who come out for [Steph] Curry’s practices,” claimed one observer. “This is “Beatles-esque,” noted another. One couple had come from Seattle just to see Roger practice. His practice drew more fans than 90 percent of pro matches – and the fans were far more invested.

When Roger finally put down his racket, the throng bellowed, “This way, Roger!” Kids were packed behind an iron fence – sardines have it better off. A voice in the crowd warned, “Someone’s gonna get crushed.”

The ecstatic kids couldn’t have cared less. They stretched out their caps, magazine covers, visors –anything for the hero to sign. And he did.

Never mind the sweltering 94° heat. Roger, calm and present, patiently signed scores of autographs before he sauntered away. Then, before ducking into the player garden, he paused one last time. A security guard wanted an autograph. And why not? Rogermania is relentless.

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 suggests that, “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.”