STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
The greatness of the tennis maestro has less to do with numbers than with an artful and exquisite talent
Of all the appraisals of Roger Federer I’ve heard, two have stayed with me. Neither is blindingly insightful, so why these two? The reasons are personal. Like the experience of watching Federer.
The first came from my son, who was 14 at the time and scarcely interested in tennis. “He makes it look so easy,” said Ben, having stopped in front of the TV en route to the refrigerator. “Yes, son,” I took the chance to declare. “That is what champions do.”
The second belonged to Rod Laver, the only challenger to Federer as the best to grace a court, though I suspect “Rocket” knows better than most that the Swiss has taken the sport to a level no one else has touched.
On line to me from his home in California some years back, Laver spoke about Federer’s game – the molten forehand, the finesse in the forecourt, the balletic backhand – before settling on anticipation as his most astonishing trait. “He’s facing these big-hitting guys,” Laver marvelled, “but has what seems to be a ton of time.”
To watch Federer is to sense his play is not merely better than that of his peers but in some indefinable way different. Gushing about grace and flow gets you somewhere near the nub of the matter. Or does it? Federer’s specialness lies as much in his mastery of stillness as of motion. No one ball-watches quite like him. Head tilted, frozen, face relaxed, dreamily so, he sees impact. In this instant the ball is less a target than a lover. And while the power he generates is immense, he doesn’t crush the ball so much as direct it to its destiny.
Indeed, much of Federer’s appeal resides in absence – in what he doesn’t do. He will not look to his supporters’ box for encouragement, reassurance or acclaim. For much of his career he has had no coach. He does not grunt. For him tennis is a silent and solitary experience; all he needs is within. He won’t demand his towel – partly because he hardly sweats. He’ll engage in the most punishing rallies and emerge untaxed. Fifteen years and I’ve never seen him puffed. Age has not diminished him. At 36, a father of four, he unveils beauty and greatness in every outing.
Then there’s the character of the man – the patience, good humour, intelligence and generosity he exudes once the battle is won or lost. Only when he leaves will tennis fully appreciate what it had. No one is irreplaceable? Federer is a glorious exception.
‘‘For Federer, tennis is a silent and solitary experience; all he needs is within”