Roger Federer, The Best Ever

As I marvel at the box score, I am sorely disappointed that I missed the Wimbledon final earlier today: 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14.

77 games! 16 to 14 in the 95 minute final set!

In my experience, grueling as it is to play basketball or soccer at a high level despite fatigue, one can muddle through, whereas the precision demanded by tennis only intensifies late in a match, especially at the All England Club: grass courts lend themselves to a server’s game where holding is everything, and a single break can decide the match.

David Foster Wallace once wrote a masterful article about Roger Federer wherein he captured the skill necessary to play at this level.

Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.
The upshot is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.

Even a description as expert as that hardly conveys what’s going on to anyone who’s never stared down a 100 MPH+ serve. Here’s what I recommend if you want to appreciate what these guys are up against. Stand across a ping pong table from the friend you know who is best at the sport. Hit a parabolic shot to his forehand, ask that he smack the return as hard as possible, and try to get a paddle on it. It’ll take 20 or so tries before you succeed. Consider that to be successful as a professional tennis player the serve must be more than met — it must be crushed back at one’s opponent. Try that out against your friend. I doubt you’ll ever succeed, but if you do, jog around a track for four hours, and then repeat your attempt at a crushing, precision return. You’ll finally begin to understand what it’s like to play in the final at Wimbledon.

Though I missed yesterday’s match, I’ve seen enough Roger Federer performances to know that he entirely deserves his status as the winningest Grand Slam performer of all time. As a kid, I came along a bit too late to root for Bjorn Borg, but I rooted for Connors against McEnroe, Lendl against Edberg, Edberg against Becker, Sampras against Agassi, Jimmy Connors again for that glorious US Open with the yellow racket, and Agassi against Sampras.

When Roger Federer came along, I never warmed up to him as I did past favorites, but nor did I doubt that he was the best tennis player I’d ever seen. It wasn’t enjoyable to watch him, it was beautiful — boring at times, but mostly so impossibly fluid, elegant and perfect that you couldn’t help but marvel no matter how many matches you saw.

Congrats on 15, Roger.