Saturday, September 13, 2008

The effortlessness of gods

Last Monday Roger Federer won his fifth straight US Open title. This was just as well because had he lost just about the whole of the tennis world was ready to write him off due to his terrible year.

Yep his terrible year: he lost in the semi finals of the Australian Open, lost the final of the French Open and Wimbledon, and won the US Open Final. He was the only person to make 3 Grand Slam finals, and only he and Rafa Nadal made the semi finals in each.

For anyone else, this would've been a career year. A year people say "Remember 2008 when 'Bloggs' was on fire?" To give it some context, neither Pete Sampras nor Andre Agassi in their entire careers ever had a year where they made the semi final of every Grand Slam. Agassi in 1999 made 3 finals, but only the 4th Round at the Australian Open; Sampras never had a year where he made 3 finals.

The only person who has ever been marked as harshly as Federer this year, was Tiger Woods in 2003 and 2004 when he did not win a major. He said he was working on his swing; quite a few thought he was finished. Since then he has won 6 majors and finished runner up 4 times.

The reason both of these men are judged so harshly is because they are seen as not just good, and not just better than anyone else, but perhaps better than anyone else ever has been. When Federer steps on the court, and Woods strides the fairways, they are playing ghosts and legends as much as their opponents.

With Federer, I think the harsh marking this year from commentators and tennis fans is due to something extra - a feeling that we might have lost something. Federer in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 won 3 grand slams each year. At one stage he was as far ahead of Rafa Nadal in the rankings that after winning the Australian Open one year he could have lost every match for the next 6 months and still would have been Number 1.

But more than that was the way he played. He was astonishing; and I think people were almost angry that they may have to face up to the fact that was gone.

His play is the crucial difference between him and others.

Sampras holds 14 Grand Slam singles titles; one more than Federer. But I doubt anyone could mount a sensible argument to suggest that Sampras was a better player. And though I watched Sampras play a lot of matches, I remember him mostly for his serve. He had a great forehand, and was a strong volleyer, and his overhead smash (the slam dunk) was brilliant. But mostly I remember him winning games with the power of his serve - especially his Wimbledon titles.

And while he obviously was a great player; I think his greatness lies in the number of titles he won. That may sound odd; but for mine, I rated Federer better than Sampras about 4 Grand Slams ago. The difference between Federer and Sampras is that Sampras is defined by his titles and his record; Federer is defined by his play.

This is because Federer is a genius.

What is it about Federer that has had this label attached to him for so long? I cannot ever recall Sampras, or Agassi being given such a label. Even today, Nadal is considered number 1 (he has had a year for the ages) but I don't think of him as a genius on the court.

Back in the 1980s, Lendl won 8 titles; yet it is McEnroe with 7 titles who is considered the better player; and yes the one considered a genius (in fact he was really the last player before Federer to be called as such).

What is it that grants a sportsman the title "Genius"?

In the movie Chariots of Fire, at one point the hero of the film Harold Abrahams is having an argument with the dons of his college at Cambridge. They object to him employing a professional coach and devoting himself to running before all else. He rebukes them saying:

"You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory, just as I do, but achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods."

And that is the difference between the great, and the ones who rise above even that level. Federer has skill to burn - he produces shots that marvel and he does them with the apparent effortlessness of gods.

Sampras was better than everyone else in the '90s because he played the games better than everyone else. He served better, he had a better forehand, he moved around the court better, he produced big serves on break points. He just did it all better than his opponents.

Federer does that as well, but he does more - he is not doing things better than his opponents, because none of his opponents could do what he was doing. He would win points from positions that for anyone else would demand a defensive shot to try and get back into the point. Not for Federer - he would rip a winner that would leave his opponent shaking his head.

You tube has plenty of Federer clips, but this one is my pick as one that encapsulates his genius:

The thing is; even though it leaves you shaking your head in wonder, what really has you shaking your head is that you know it's not a fluke (and you know Roddick realises this as well).

The good players can pull off a great shot; great players regularly play great shots; a genius doesn't just play great shots; he invents new ones.

When you watch Federer in full flight you know you are seeing things not done before - Sampras was to tennis like a person who can write a grammatically perfect essay is to writing; Federer is to tennis like James Joyce is to writing. Grammar no long matters.

And Federer does all this with that apparent effortlessness - for a long time he has achieved all his success without a coach, almost giving the impression he just turns up at a Grand Slam; wins and then goes back to doing whatever geniuses do.

What they do of course is work hard at their craft.

Joyce took 7 years to write Ulysses - often spending a day rewriting a couple sentences; and yet when you read you don't feel the effort involved in the writing - the words flow in a sea of perfection.

Leyton Hewitt was Number 1 in the world for 75 straight weeks, and yet he isn't even in the conversation when talking all-time greats. And even during his reign at number 1, Federer and Marat Safin were considered better players - they were the artists; Hewitt, then as now, showed too much effort. You just knew he was wringing every sinew of ability out of himself. And yet while we applaud the effort, we reserve the louder applause for those who don't seem to be working so hard.

Safin is a case in point. Many, up until the rise of Nadal, considered he the only one who could beat Federer. In terms of talent he was seen as the only one considered close to Federer. And yet while he was able to look like he wasn't working; what he too often failed to realise that the secret is not to be effortless, but to look effortless.

Only once has Safin been able to tame his talent and give us a glimpse of the possible genius that lies within. In 2005 at the Australian Open, Safin met Federer in the semi-final. Federer had just destroyed Agassi in the quarter-final (6-3, 6-4, 6-4), and for once Safin seem to care more about the tennis than the blondes in his entourage.

The match was I think the best Federer has been in - better than the recent Wimbledon final with Nadal. Both Safin and Federer are artists - Nadal is closer in spirit to Sampras than Federer - Nadal does everything better, but like Hewitt, he also shows the effort involved - dripping in sweat, his play is all physical (the mental seems lacking).

But on this night in Melbourne, Federer and Safin were two artists at the peak of their powers. They worked on a Rebound Ace canvas, and produced a work fit for hanging in a gallery. Safin prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7.

Safin won the day (and later the tournament) but he will forever be a flawed masterpiece. Like Finnegans Wake we can see the greatness, but know that it's not as good as it could or perhaps should be. There's too much going on; it's fragmented and distracted, overblown and incomprehensible.

Federer is Ulysses. Perfect; effortless; rendering all that has come before outdated; and ensuring all who come after will be judged against him.

I hope he does win the French Open; and I believe he will. I don't think the Grand Slam will happen - if it was going to happen it would have in those glorious three years of 2005-07.

As a fan of his, I was happy that he won the US Open. But as a lover of tennis, I was more happy because it meant the genius is still there. I wasn't ready to let that go and to be merely content with watching people play their best; I want to keep seeing art; the stream of consciousness on the court; the effortlessness of gods.

To go out with here is a cool Nike ad featuring Federer - giving some insight to how he practices for matches:

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