Roger Federer | Inside the Art of Tennis

Saturday, July 15, 2017

HOW IS IT THAT ROGER FEDERER, about to enter his thirty-seventh orbit around the sun, continues to be such a formidable opponent? His feline grace, precise strokes, and unruffled demeanor certainly help, but they’re not enough to explain his prolonged success or recent resurgence.

Everyone marvels at Federer’s court play, but rarely do you hear a dissection of how he plays the game on the inside. Nor does he divulge much about what goes through his mind when he’s on the court. Recently, however, he let slip a comment that shed light on the mental machinations which drive his superiority.

In response to recent injuries to Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, Federer mentioned that he empathizes with them after having gone through his own period of knee problems. “I could never really play quite so freely last year,” he said, “just because, you know, I’m more focused on how the knee’s behaving rather than how I need to hit my forehand or backhand, or what’s not going to be good for my opponent.”

Those last nine words speak volumes about how Federer gauges his game: according to his opponent’s game; by watching, calculating, and responding strategically to them—and doing it throughout a match. It is a degree of perscipacity that requires critical time and fine energy, both of which are at a premium during the torrid pace and stress of a professional tennis match.

It also means that Federer sees the game differently than most; that for him the game happens more slowly, develops in clearer stages, and reveals what lies ahead—and that he sees all this as he plays the game. While most of his opponents are busy exerting their strengths, compensating for weaknesses, and recovering from points, he’s thinking how to use his strengths to take things away from the other player. Before, during, and after points, he’s evaluating, “What’s not going to be good for my opponent?”

This turns the game of tennis into a chess match of anticipating a player’s next move, weighing their options, considering how to get them out of position, how to interrupt their momentum, and how to force them to make decisions that will take something away from them during the next shot or series of shots. All this requires a unique vision of time and space as they unfold and before they unfold.

Needless to say, seeing the court this way is a tremendous advantage. It not only enhances the game, it makes it a different game, which is why Federer builds points more strategically, more often, and faster than anyone else on the circuit, and perhaps in the history of the game. Yes, his physical talents are enormously well suited to tennis, but his vision and tactical mind are what set him apart from most players most of the time.

Playing smarter brings other benefits. For instance, Federer doesn’t spend time or energy doing anything extraneous or extreme. He steps onto the court, he tosses and serves, he varies the power and pace of his shots, and he moves on to the next point.

This sounds simple, and it is. More importantly, it means he always has energy to spare, especially in critical surges when needed. His precious supply of energy is never siphoned off by court rituals, obsessive habits, personal ticks, fixation on technique, endless self-chatter and self-flagellation, bursts of anger and destruction, or venomous glares and vicious gestures directed at the opponent or to the crowd. From a strategic point of view, all those things are not just a waste of time and energy. There simply is not enough time and energy to do all of them and stay focused on the opponent and the game as a whole.

Federer also doesn’t bludgeon or punish the ball, or trick it across the net. He strikes it with precision and purpose. When the opening he has been planning for presents itself, he pounces with ferocious aim to finish the point. But he doesn‘t “finish” with the competitive vengeance and self-glorification that so many players have come to emulate. His actions on court are more matter of fact, like those of a lion attacking its prey: not for the sake of “killing” the other animal, but because that’s how you survive—or, in tennis, how you advance to victory.

Whereas many players (in all sports) now measure and celebrate success by the degree to which they are seen despising, demeaning, and demolishing their opponent, Federer does not. He measures himself—and is measured—by a different standard; one that embodies the spirit of competitiveness and the purity of sport.

At some point his physical skills will diminish, and on some days his mind and body are not as razor sharp as he knows they can be. But those are the only things that leave him vulnerable. Otherwise, Roger Federer remains the virtuoso and tactical juggernaut of professional tennis.


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One Response to “Roger Federer | Inside the Art of Tennis”

  1. Addison Ingle

    Thank for a most delicious lead into today’s final!


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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
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