In many ways, tennis is the quintessential individual sport and to excel requires three qualities in equal measure.
Obviously, you have to be in good shape. But you can’t just be quick, responsive and strong. You need to have stamina and stickiness. Tennis players are finely balanced athletes. There’s no point being big and strong if you can’t last three (or five) sets. And there’s no point in going five sets if you don’t have the strength to hit a few winners along the way.
The best tennis players in the world have extraordinary technical skills. The sport requires supreme hand-eye coordination, timing, vision, and mastery of a simple yet extremely powerful tool.
And perhaps above all else, the best in the world need an incredible mental edge. In Grand Slam tournaments, players cannot be coached during their matches. They rely only on themselves to bear the insane pressure of life-changing moments in life-changing matches, the huge highs and terrible lows of game-changing momentum.
No player has had as much of an impact on the sport of tennis as Serena Williams.
But no one has played tennis like Roger Federer.
One of my favorite sports writings is an article on Federer by the late American literary hero, David Foster Wallace. The author was a tennis prodigy as a child, and he sought to portray Federer’s ballet not just as an athletic contest or a ticket to multimillion-dollar electrolyte endorsements, but as a form of human beauty that transcended sports.
“Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-handed shot he can drive flat, charge with a topspin or slice – the slice with such a snap that the ball spins through the air and skids on the grass up to perhaps ankle height.His serve has world-class rhythm and a degree of placement and variety that no one else comes close to;the serve motion is smooth and not eccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like full-body snap at impact, his anticipation and sense of court are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game .” – Roger Federer as religious experience
I spent an afternoon once with the shoe designer Nike who worked with Roger Federer to design his playing shoes. The designer told me that he was surprised to discover how well Federer’s feet were unusually large. Makes sense when you think about it – wider feet presumably allow a player to balance and change direction, set up, much more effectively than someone with narrower feet. Federer popularized several tennis strokes in top-level tennis: the so-called squash stroke and the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger) in which he surprised his opponents by running towards the service box just as their throw on duty was suspended in the air. But it was his balance that made this magnificent backhand so glorious, so perfect.
I had the chance to see Federer play in several Grand Slam tournaments over the years. He hasn’t been at his best for some time now, and his retirement was inevitable. But sometimes, if I’m alone at home, I still watch clips of his greatest moments on YouTube. It’s like sitting in a room with Beethoven as he knocks out his sixth symphony.
Fluid. Dazzling. Genius.