The Genius of Federer

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“We are on Earth. He plays on another planet.” — Nicolas Kiefer on Federer

Bill Simons

Dance critic Sarah L. Kauffman noted, “It’s not only the ancients who looked at athletes and saw classical ideals and paragons of beauty. To many…[Federer] belongs equally to the realm of aesthetics as to sports…I’m interested in the living, continuous, moment-to-moment pleasure of watching him play, and the artistic value of this.”

Me, too. So, in Paris, I went to the fabulous press seats at Court Suzanne-Lenglen to watch Federer from just 25 yards behind the baseline. I wouldn’t worry about the match itself, but instead focus on the great man’s strokes, his flow and beauty.

It was sublime. But I was shocked. What first impressed me wasn’t Roger’s sinewy musculature, his fluid backhand, his balance, or even his much-celebrated footwork. It wasn’t the character in his face, with its deepening lines, or his receding hairline. And it certainly wasn’t the controversial pale brown outfit (which actually has a subtle appeal, despite all the noise).

What first struck me was the sheer beauty of Federer’s service motion. It’s not as distinctive as McEnroe’s iconic corkscrew delivery. His bend isn’t as deep as Boris Becker’s or as flexible as Stefan Edberg’s. He doesn’t unleash rocket blasts like John Isner and Ivo Karlovic. Rather, it has an economic simplicity and beauty that’s pure Roger. Like Pete Sampras’ serve, it’s hard to read. Back foot pointed to the ground, slightly hunched over, Roger rocks, unwinds and blasts – a quiet, lovely rhythmic explosion. It’s so Federerian.

Later Roger spoke of his serve. “For me,” he said, “it’s about variation and power.” Deep into the final set of his match against the 20-year-old Casper Ruud, the Norwegian had his moment – a break point. Broadcaster Peter Marcato promptly predicted, “Here comes an ace.” Bingo! Ruud didn’t come close to getting his racket on Roger’s deep serve. The master escaped the 16,159th crisis of his career.

BALLETIC BALANCE: We’re shocked when Roger Federer stumbles. We gasp when he falls. The man defines athletic grace. Rarely do we see an odd stretch, let alone desperate leaps like Becker, Monfils or Kyrgios. There are few grunts. Even his hair-trigger stabs soothe the eye. Everything is refined, so finely calibrated. Yes, he’s a perfectionist like Fred Astaire. More to the point, he seems like a bounding Mikhail Baryshnikov. The late David Foster Wallace noted, “Federer is of…a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to.”

BACKHAND: Let the argument begin. Is the Federer backhand, with its stunning fluidity, the most beautiful stroke in our sport or, for that matter, any sport? It’s the shot that captivates us and packs arenas around the globe. Here we see his freedom, his power, his inventiveness, his singular skill. This is the man who cannot avoid beauty. Yes, his backhand can be attacked, especially on clay. He makes occasional mistakes. And never mind that he would never teach his kids a one-hander. Roger hits his backhand flat, he slices it with a wicked ease or comes over the top. It gives new meaning to the word variety. He prepares, he leans in, he uncoils. His wrist firm, his contact point early, he blasts to the corner or right at you. His topspin, cross-court backhand combines ferocity and beauty like little else in sports. Yet he takes a utilitarian view of the shot. He told me, “My backhand is there to defend me from tough positions.”

We think of the great shots or moves in sports. There’s the fabulous flick of Steph Curry’s quick-release three-point shot, a fearsome Michael Jordan drive to the hoop, Ted Williams at the plate, Willie Mays roaming center field or Pele or Wayne Gretsky weaving their way through defenders. And before us is the Federerian backhand. Steph and Willie would appreciate it.

FOREHAND: Roger added, “My forehand is there for me, you know.” Yet amidst all his razzle-dazzle, it’s easy to ignore the gift that’s in front of us. It isn’t as fabled as Rafa’s topspin whiplash wonder. It’s not as fearsome as Juan Martin del Potro’s laser. But it’s powerful, reliable, and, as it has been for 16 years, one of the best in the game. It imposes – it’s varied and unpredictable. Andy Roddick told me that “Roger is so good at controlling the middle of the court. You couldn’t tell until the last second where he was going. He creates pace almost in motion, which is strange.” Young Ruud said he never knew what to expect – power shot or drop shot. It kept him off-balance. Well into the match, Roger is deep off the court and pedaling backwards. No worries – he hits a slow but sharply angled, perfectly timed, inside-out winner that astounds.

Roger, notes writer Kauffman, “sends the ball streaming to the opposite baseline like lightning from the fingertips of Zeus. We see the shot and don’t see it at the same time. The conscious mind can’t understand how it happens. But the interplay of his movement and our emotions affects us on a level of pure feeling.” There’s a reason that Sue Mott contended, “It cannot be long before our dictionary writers are asked to absorb the verb ‘to Federer’ meaning ‘to demolish with gasp-inducing precision.’”

LIFE’S A CIRCUS: Roger can grind – at times a street-fighting man breaks out. But he delights us with OMG circus shots. They’re fun – creativity inspires. We recall his US Open tweener that stunned Djokovic. YouTube reminds us of the overhead shocker he hit from a distant corner off a Roddick overhead. Against Rudd, with his back almost to the net, he unleashed a backhand overhead winner. Jaws dropped – the cheers were heard in Belgium.

RETURN OF SERVE: Even more than Nadal’s forehand and Djokovic’s down-the-line backhand, Roger’s slice return of serve has been said to be perhaps the most important stroke of our era. Time and again he blocks his foe’s serves. Mighty blasts are neutralized with deflating ease. Just ask Andy Roddick. Yet, Federer told us he was “scared to miss it.” Roger scared? That’s a new one.

VARIETY AND DEFENSE: Anticipation, court savvy and speed – Roger has it all. He’s mastered every shot in the book, except the two-handed backhand. He takes away your time. You have no openings, no Plan Bs. Andre Agassi noted, “Sampras was great – no question. But there was a place to get to with Pete. You knew what you had to do…There’s no such place with Roger. He’s the best I’ve played.”

FOCUS: A-list celebs are in the stands. There’s Bjorn Borg chatting with Stefan Edberg. Romance is in the air. Fans yell out, “We love you!” or plead “Will you marry me?” Parisian kids in Yankee hats, red-bearded fans from Normandy and ladies in straw bonnets join in the wave or chant “Raah-ger! Raah-ger!” The man is adored with a religious fervor. But now he’s an elder who’s often reminded of his age. When he was just 17, he practiced with Casper Rudd’s father, Christian. But Roger’s focus is legendary. His precision is Swiss. He’s patient. If there’s no opening, he waits. He works the point, creates his moment and then pounces.

LONGEVITY: Roger’s 38 and ranked No. 3. His first big splash came 18 years ago when he punished the reigning king of Wimbledon – Sampras. He’s won 102 tourneys and 20 Slams. His contemporaries, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, long ago settled into their rocking chairs. If Roger’s lost half a step, we don’t know where it went. Still, in this father of four, we see hints of a boy. His silly, almost childish side at times emerges. His smiles are impish. Maybe he knows he’s the man who bends time.

EASE AND ELEGANCE: Head still, light on his feet, so easy on the eye, Roger’s a flowing artist, an athlete, a brand, a businessman, an ambassador, a humanitarian and a family man. Both revered and one of the boys, he beats you on the court, then he’s your pal in the locker room. Since Muhammad Ali has there been a more beloved international sportsman? To Roddick, Federer’s greatest gift is “the ease with which he’s able to live. Traveling with four kids. I would stress out if the room wasn’t cold or dark enough – whatever. All those little stress points, he just doesn’t them any credit. That’s my biggest source of envy, the ease with which he handles his business. He’s humble without being naive about his place in the game. He knows what he is. He’s able to navigate that world with an ease, and that’s something I’ve never seen from an all-time great athlete. That’s why he’s there – he doesn’t take the stress and the losses home with him, which is almost impossible.”When asked by Tennis Channel to describe himself in a word, he replied, “Elegant.” Yes, at the Wimbledon final, he blinked, proving that even geniuses are not perfect. Still, one observer noted that Roger is “a classical musician whose symphonies have the power to enrapture us…He is the artist who paints a masterpiece with his every move.” He almost always does.

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