The sport of tennis has never before seen one like Roger Federer………
I felt compelled today to pay tribute to the great champion before he walks out one more time to enthrall the world in his 28th and quite possibly his last grand slam final appearance.
If ever ballet could be invoked in the context of tennis then it would be for this man alone whose movements on the tennis court are reminiscent of a Ballerina (Ballerino if you are a stickler for gender) on stage. The allégro (brisk stutter steps), the half pirouette (how he runs around the ball on his backhand side), the grand jeté (its quiet magnificent actually if y’all know what I mean in this context) and the body lines and form through all of the aforesaid steps – picture perfect. Never ever ungainly; even when he would collapse in a heap after clinching a grand slam title!
His attire always fashionable, never loud. His speech always measured, never proud. His demeanor replete with that elegant swagger sans the bravado shroud.
There was a time when this man went through three sets and there wasn’t even a bead of sweat in evidence to show for his endeavors! It was emblematic of the ease with which he played the sport. To be fair, he was taken the distance (5 sets) on a few occasions (just to remind us that he is human). Even then there were no signs of fatigue on display while his opponents more often than not looked like they had just run a full marathon. Some of his opponents would shake hands with him with such reverence after a match as if they they had just been trounced by god himself and the defeat was a badge of honor. It was as if the rest of the field were less of a competition and more of a fan club. I even fantasized that some of his opponents would go home and self-flagellate after they had had the impertinence of taking a set or two off him!
Technique n Guile
The short take back of the racquet, the angle of his racquet swing, the full follow through of the racquet head, the head position right on the top of the ball, the eyes watching the ball all the way to the face of the racquet and back over the net and most importantly the ‘ballerinaesque’ footwork that got him in perfect preparatory position to hit the ball and recover to the center of the court for the next ball every single time are the quintessential hallmarks of the Federer technique. His superlative technique has Swiss precision written all over it!
The short backspin laden slices to draw the opponents into the net, the deft drops that dropped dead on command, the impossibly acute angles of the side spin drives to draw the opponent off the court, the deep floaters to push the opponent back into a defensive position, the vertiginous parabolic lobs which sailed over the opponents heads and left them dazed and of course the ‘tweener’ (reverse flick between the legs facing away from the net) which drove the audience hysterical and bamboozled many an opponent and broke their spirit. These are a few shots that I can readily recall from his amazing repertoire.
In addition to the mind numbing variety above, he would pull out shots from time to time that were plain ludicrous and the repository of these ‘trick shots’ were what some sections of the media started referring to as the ‘Federer Funhouse’.
He is the composer, band and conductor of the Federer symphony orchestra!
It isn’t just finesse though; he possesses deceptively explosive power. His superior technique and the effcient body mechanics allow him to impart incredible velocity on his shots even when it looks like he is merely caressing the ball. I think the easy power that he generates is one the most underrated aspects of his game. The trademark Federer drive off the forehand wing is a perfect combination of top spin and pace; one which has the searing velocity to cut through the air like a tracer bullet and the furious revolutions to bring it down just in time to give the baseline a ‘flying kiss’. Perhaps we can attribute the strength to his genetic extraction (pulled from Swiss, Dutch and French ancestry).
Discipline n Love
The qualities that are perhaps the least discussed and most often get drowned out whilst discussing Federer’s talent, wizardry and greatness are his incredible sense of discipline and his exceptional love for the sport.
Roger’s impeccable physical conditioning, longevity and fitness (the bout of mononucleosis and the recent spate of injuries notwithstanding) are a testament to his discipline off the court. The countless hours spent strength and endurance training, the intensive practice sessions, the recovery regimen, the strict dietary controls all point to a great champion who was willing to make all the sacrifices necessary to stay at the top of his game.
That said, it would have been impossible for him to maintain that intensity, drive and discipline even after so many years in the sport and especially after having reached the summit had he not been madly in love with the sport. It is this all-consuming love for the sport and the enduring passion that drives Roger Federer to put in the hard yards even today.
The passion and love have manifested themselves on a myriad occasions when he has shed tears in full public view after his hard fought losses at a few majors. A man who has won 17 majors still cries like a schoolboy at having lost one!
The respect he has accorded all the tennis greats that have come before him as well as the graciousness with which he has conducted himself with his contemporaries is exemplary. Another example of his love and respect for the game and all that it entails. He simply is class personified.
So here we are, he is 35 years old and will step onto the center court at the Australian Open in a few hours from now to try and win what will be his 18th grand slam title.
The ghost of his nightmares, his ultimate nemesis, the formidable Spanish conquistador is waiting to take him down yet again. Whether Roger goes on to win it or not, rest assured he will summon every trick in the Federer playbook and use every ounce of energy in his body tonight under the lights of the Rod Laver Arena (with the great southpaw in attendance) and will dazzle all those fortunate to bear witness to history in the making with the usual Federer panache.
The legend will stride out and lay it all down and I just can’t wait to watch. Mr. Federer, you are the greatest that ever lived.