I have often found that I appreciate the genius of a great sportsman best in his declining years. This is partly because I have almost always spent the heydays of the great sportsman rooting for someone, if not inconsequential, certainly incapable of elevating himself to true greatness. When Pete Sampras was in his prime, winning Wimbledon for fun, I was supporting Michael Chang (oh, the grossness of some of my choices) and Goran Ivanisevic, hoping that his rowdiness will be rewarded with a title. During the historic Chicago Bulls era of the 1990s, I backed the Utah Jazz and Jeff Hornacek, whom I loved to bits – why exactly, I haven’t a clue. In the Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal era, which even if it can be argued didn’t strictly overlap, I first hoped, the peerlessly cool Marat Safin would regain his on-court magic, and since his retirement that Richard Gasquet would show an iota of mental strength to go with his truly gorgeous game. During the Shaq-Bryant inspired Lakers victories, I backed the Sacramento Kings because I simply couldn’t get enough of Peja Stojakovic’s three-point shooting (particularly when he faded away and shot from behind the backboard). When Michael Schumacher was zipping away to win all those titles, I was first supporting Mika Hakkinen and then, Kimi Raikkonen – the Finns, you would agree, have this iciness, which is so utterly captivating. This often meant, I would find mostly inexplicable reasons to disregard greatness: “oh he’s just a lucky so and so,” I would think. I couldn’t even get myself to support Sachin Tendulkar in the mid 1990s when he was at his imperious best. I may have given anything for Tendulkar to fail and for Mohammad Azharuddin to score runs.
There have of course been exceptions – Steffi Graf, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram and Justine Henin to name a few off the top of my head – but in general, particularly, during the 1990s and early 2000s when fandom was still the most vital aspect of my appreciation of sport, I usually made bizarre choices. Generally, though, when a great sportsman was in decline – whether it was a temporary blip or terminal – I found myself suddenly gravitating towards him. I wanted to see more. I found myself mysteriously rooting for him. I felt like an idiot when Sampras retired for not having supported him when he was at his zenith. How could I not support Michael Jordan when he was being His Airness? How could I have not seen greatness when it was presenting itself with such crystal clarity? When Tendulkar was going though a terrible phase in late 2003, I suddenly found myself backing him, wanting to see him rediscover his mojo, to see him return to his imperious self. All this idiotic fandom may have skewed much of my sports watching, but I believe it has nonetheless given me the perfect perspective to judge some of these sportsmen, a kind of perspective that only unpleasant ruminations can give you.
This sets me up very nicely then to tell you why I want to see resurgence from Federer, a Federer whom I have often disliked and a Federer that I have never supported, not in a single match that I can remember. Maybe I backed him in his fourth round victory against Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, which brought to an end Pistol Pete’s superb run, but Sampras had had a pathetic year and it’s probable I wanted to see him win. When Novak Djokovic came back from two sets to love down and saved two match points before ending Federer’s run in this year’s U.S. Open in the most cruel of manners, I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Bottom line: I’ve almost never supported Federer, never seen the elegance, in every aspect of his game, that others purr about, although I may have lied about it in past posts to sound sensible. But watching him win the Paris Masters today, for the first time in his career, gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that there may be gas left in him for a final surge.
The same aesthetics that draws people to Federer has, bizarrely, been at the forefront of my dislike for him. No doubt, he has almost always made things look simple. But simplicity doesn’t transcend elegance, and the two certainly don’t always coincide. Federer’s forehand, everyone will agree, is his chief strength – a stroke of amazing virtuosity. But is it really an elegant stroke? I would argue it’s not. Usually, it’s a whiplash, snappy movement and his bodyweight is transferred awkwardly. There is no technical purity to it. Of course, technique is a funny and often overrated concept; it’s the player’s comfort and the ensuing results that matter. And technique is also probably irrelevant to a discussion on aesthetics. But whether it is because of the lack of absolute technical purity or the whiplash motion, I haven’t ever found Federer’s forehand to be beautiful, certainly not in the manner of Henin’s backhand or Edberg’s volleying. The fluidity that people attribute to Federer’s forehand is a myth. In reality it is a jerky stroke, albeit a brilliant and even astounding stroke, which perhaps accentuates his genius, but my irritation with people describing the shot as beautiful, possibly, invoked the anti-Federer in me; even more so than his arrogance and generally pitiful attitude.
Now to his backhand, an often flaky and floundering weapon that even the most ardent Federer fans will agree is his weakness. In his prime, Federer’s foot speed allowed him to step outside the ball and convert his backhands into forehands (the beauty here, it must be noted, was in his movement and not in his forehand). Over the years, his backhand, though, did improve immensely, so much so that it is perhaps at its acme today, even as his game is otherwise waning. And it is his approach to the backhand, again curiously, that I have found most endearing. Repeatedly you would see him shank his backhand, yet he would persist with it, not slicing it as he would have in his early years, and eventually he would produce a remarkable angle, a remarkable winner, entirely out of the blue. The beauty again, though, wasn’t so much in the stroke as it was in the result and in his sheer bloody-mindedness.
Federer’s serve has always been excellent and a hugely underrated aspect of his game. The motion is neat and crisp, and minimalistic, but elegant? On the volley particularly on the drive forehand volley, Federer it must be said, looks supremely splendid – there is a nonpareil regality to it. But endeavoring to deconstruct every aspect of his game to examine the aesthetic appeal of the respective parts, as I have done briefly here, is an ultimately tedious and futile experience that has somewhat soiled my tennis watching experience. Yes, the simplicity of Federer’s strokes, to me as the beholder, hasn’t translated to beauty, but in watching him play in Paris, I realized that I have been a stuck-up asshole.
For in my general irritation with every aspect of his game being described as beautiful, I allowed myself to look beyond what I have always found extraordinarily beautiful, a kind of beauty that I should have been delighting in – his on court movement. I have played tennis, mostly recreationally since I was six, giving it up intermittently every now and then since I was, maybe, fifteen. Each time I try to get back and play, the aspect I find hardest to recover is my movement – it is unquestionably the hardest trait to master. Shot making is essentially an extension of court coverage and therein lies Federer’s genius. If his greatness were to be deconstructed to a single element, it would have to be his movement on the court, which as it happens is also a thing of inimitable beauty.
Now that Federer’s aura has dissipated, I want to see him regain it. I want to watch his game only for his movement, not for the whippy forehand or the erratic backhand, as loveable as it may be, but just to see him cover the court like a prince. For, there never has been a greater representation of transcendence.