Well, Roger Federer has been my favourite athlete for a while, let alone tennis player. Others can cover the Williams sisters; this one is all about Roger. He won a thrilling game against Cilic in the Australian Open on the weekend.
Why do we gasp with delight at the humming service ace in tennis, the battling Rugby try, or the smartly spiked volleyball? We are affected viscerally by these riveting achievements, and of course the aesthetic response is disproportional to the actual significance of the performance to victory or athletic excellence. That is especially the case with Roger Federer.
That is because his moves have what can only be described as a liquid grace. Grace means that the hardest things appear as easy as possible when you know full well they are really hard. He makes the impossible look easy – and the mistakes that cost him games are usually for seeking extraordinarily complex moves.
His moves are so efficient that they inhabit a kind of lyric space; that means they entail an economy of movement. This economy of movement is not primarily a form of laziness or self-preservation. Mostly it is a result of exceedingly high anticipation of where a ball is going to be, how to position the body to deliver the angle of the correct response, and how in turn to ensure that response delivers the narrowest possible options for the opponent such that the following move is as predictable as possible.
Yet that makes it sound like he’s so popular because he knows how to win. Mostly, however, it’s in how he moves. The effect of Roger Federer’s individual moves looks like Yoga on Crystal Meth: full stretch in a series of horizontal starfish formations, accelerated to maximum. You can count two maximum three foot movements one way, two maximum three the other to get back to the centre. Like watching a cat jumping off a high fence onto another fence, lyric space is lithe.
I have only seen something resembling his kinetic flow ricocheting the ball from angle to angle in men’s Hockey between the Netherlands and Australia. There, the collective knowledge of players of each other, of the angles that cascade from one to the other, their speed in doing so, the structures within the game that signify edges of domination and retreat in perpetual re-balance, is a beautiful thing no matter who wins. That is what it is like to watch Federer play tennis.
Federer doesn’t have a booming serve. He doesn’t have a fantastic front-court game. He can’t sprint and hunt with the intensity of Nadal or of younger and more compact players. He’s ageing.
But he has the surprise of exceedingly tricky moves pulled off when the intense pressure would mean 99.9% of us would react to the same shot with the safest possible response just to get the ball back. That means he combines grace with daring. We love it all the more because of his apparent calm.
Federer’s grace also extends to the way he approaches media conferences afterwards. He is always encouraging and generous in how he complements the opponent whether he wins or loses, reflects carefully on his own game, and rarely gets ruffled or resorts to complaining. That means we will to see him deliver even more, and somehow the winning means less and less.
It is simply a pure pleasure to see Roger Federer play.