I had the privilege of watching Roger Federer live last week. He handsomely defeated Jo Wilfried-Tsonga in straight sets. He didn’t out-run him and didn’t out-hit him. Federer simply played a superior game of tennis, dishing out a PhD in tennis artistry that rendered Tsonga hapless, an afterthought.
I wondered whether this was as close as I’d get to the feeling of watching Bradman bat.
Roger Federer is a study in sporting virtuosity and purity. He is a total tennis exponent who understands his craft in full, and on a good day will exhibit a masterclass in tennis both modern and traditional. With a majesty immediately recognisable by even the most novice viewer, to many he still remains the best.
For me, his is the triumph of a champion sportsman over the outstanding athlete, and the more he ages, the more I like it.
Of course, a sportsman-before-athlete is rara avis these days – a rare bird. They are as common as a serve-volley in the modern age, and it’s sad. We live in an age of academies and systems and pace, power and punch. All with the word raw in front of them, of course.
Federer is the exception, and is arguably more enjoyable as the underdog now as he fights the good fight with the villainous athletes whose superior bench press and groundspeed render them almost unbeatable. Watching Federer now is akin to cheering on Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny against The Monstars from Space Jam. The Monstars were phenomenal to watch – they often played jaw-dropping, unbelievable basketball. However your heart was always firmly fixed on Jordan and the Looney Tunes, and if it wasn’t I’d guess you also followed Iceland in The Mighty Ducks, who were also admittedly a great team to watch.
The very mention of the words ‘academy’ and ‘system’, especially when used together, should rightfully send a shudder through the sporting purist’s soul. While I’m not too familiar with tennis academies*, like other sports they’re bound to be full of vertical leap tests, beep tests, sit-and-reach tests and 40 yard sprints, mixed with the odd hit. These factories pump out human sporting machinery like a Holden Geelong car factory pre-2013: built for shine and marketability, but entirely homogenous. I’ve got no evidence to back this up, but I doubt Federer ‘tests through the roof’ – the phrase that now serves as a badge of honour to any up-and-coming sports star of any and all codes.
Instead, Federer is in artîst. A maestro in the tradition of Warne of cricket and Johns of Rugby League. Forgetting the former’s inherent flaws, Federer, Warne and Johns shone in eras where superior athleticism was increasingly valued over gifted sportsmen.
Yet, the collective understanding of what makes a ‘gifted sportsman’ may have shifted, too. Through the ages the term was applied to the person who could pick up the ball from his bootlaces without breaking stride, deftly finesse the ball over the net on the half volley, or put a player through a hole whilst apparently jogging. Pace and power were helpful but not pre-requisites. You could be fat, skinny, fast or slow – the real question was whether you had hands, and more importantly, time.
These days, the sporting intelligentsia is only too happy to wax lyrical about things like foot speed and bat speed. Our jaws are supposed to drop as we contemplate another Big Bash maximum or watch in astonishment as Novak Djokovich’s wingspan helps him run down an otherwise excellent winner. These are feats representative of human progress: we are always going to get harder, better, faster and stronger. But I do wonder: are today’s players better at the sports they play? Or, more terrifyingly, are the athletic standards of today’s sportsmen nullifying the aesthetic potential of their respective sports?
‘Fed’ (I wager his skin would crawl at this moniker) is encircled by contemporaries whose belligerence, whose brutality, whose athleticism define them as better than the rest. They hit harder, run faster, and last longer than their challengers. Federer, on the other hand, is a master exponent of the art of tennis, and he still manages to win most of the time. It used to be said in cricket that Adam Gilchrist was a striker of the ball, and that Mark Waugh was a stroker of the ball. In tennis, Federer would sit firmly in Junior’s category, without somehow losing any of the shot-making luster of his power-heavy rivals.
His hands are genius-level, and he belongs in the same bracket as those sportsmen who were celebrated exclusively for their utterly superior hand eye coordination. Think Mark Waugh. Think Ricky Stuart. Think Mark Ella.
And then there’s his backhand.
Yet beneath the Zen lies a brooding aggression. Yes, Federer can be gangster. I’m reminded by last year’s epic Australian Open semi-final against Andy Murray (surely the only recognisable villain in the statesman-like top 4) when we sadly witnessed a 4-hour changing of the guard. Federer was angry, seemingly miffed by Murray’s petulance. Federer unleashed bombs, he fought, he spouted emotion. He fiercely defended his mantle as ‘the man’. Wretchedly, he was undone by a guy a yard quicker, hit the ball a touch harder, played one ball extra. Hands weren’t enough. Anti-sport beat sport. Fuck you, Andy Murray.
Despite his inch-by-inch descent from his long held lofty perch, Federer somehow remains the game’s champion. His ability to compete with his stronger, faster, more balanced and flexible rivals serves to show his command of his art. He is like Cliff Lyons playing A-Grade football at age 47: walking, yet dominating.
When he next executes a drop volley against a hard-hitting baseline player, or wrong-foots another fit, fast upstart, remember: artistry is more fun than power, and hands beat bench press.
By Sam Perry
*Except for Nick Bollettieri’s academy during the Scud years, which is both trivial and funny.