The Perfect Tennis Storm
I debated the other day over writing a tongue-in-cheek post (as opposed to a flat-out encomium) when Roger Federer clinched his fourth-consecutive year-end No. 1 ranking in Basel. I decided on the former mostly because of the "X" factor in journalism. That "X" factor, which is responsible for bringing readers so much pleasure (or grief) is the element of surprise. The degree to which the desire - and need - to give readers something a little different, or unconventional, is a powerful, driving force in journalism, a craft in which the simple, once towering mandate to simply deliver that which we call "news" is constantly diminishing.
This is something skeptics and media-bashers (of which I am often one) sometimes fail to take into account, which leads to bruised feelings on both sides of the Great Written Word Divide (writer and reader). A lot of what people erroneously describe as "pot-stirring" (or, simply, troublemaking) grows out of the overarching and relatively new compulsion that dominates journalism, and at times creates so much friction and heat that a meltdown inevitably occurs - the urge to be "interesting."
It gets harder and harder to be interesting, all the time. This is especially true in the open-ended forum of the Internet, where a writer has no space constraints and no deadlines, which means he is always on deadline and can't ever fill a required space, wipe his hands clean, and walk away. The weird thing about being "interesting" is that while there are lots of ways to be just that, there is one pretty sure way not to be interesting. And that is by trying to be so. Go figure.
Enough navel-gazing. This post is about the path not taken in my ESPN post - the less obvious dimensions of The Mighty Fed's latest achievement, something to which I couldn't do justice in the short ESPN blog format. My theory is that TMF, apart from being a natural-born genius, has specific physical and perhaps even emotional gifts that make him the ideal player for this period in tennis history. He is, in any ways, The Perfect Tennis Storm: the product of X-number of factors simultaneously converging to create an extraordinary natural event or phenomenon.
Let's start with some contrasts to underscore this point. Take TMF out of the equation, and imagine that the U.S. Open would have remained a grass court tournament. Is there any doubt that Andy Roddick could be holding six, seven Grand Slam titles today? Or leave TMF in the picture, and imagine that the U.S. Open, which was played on clay for three years in the late 1970s, decided to stick with the slower surface. Isn't it possible that TMF would be chasing Rafael Nadal, not the other way around?
Don't bother nitpicking or arguing those scenarios - of course we'll never know. But it sets the table nicely. Now think about Federer's basic attributes as a player. They are difficult to pin down precisely. You can't just say that he has an amazing serve, that his forehand is a killer weapon, that he has good eye-hand co-ordination, or great fast-twitch muscles.
You don't find TMF's genius by breaking down the components of his game (or, perhaps more accurately, his success). You find his genius by adding them together and regarding the final result. More than any tennis player I can name, Federer illustrates the idea that a whole can be far more than a sum of the parts. In fact, the difference between the sum of his parts and the whole is his genius.
Here's another way to look at this. Imagine that you are choosing up sides for a game of American football and Federer is on your team (sorry, futbol fans!). Where do you play him? I can easily see him as a quarterback - he is precise, cool, and seems to have the makings of a fine leader. I can also see him as a halfback, or flanker back, where his easy speed and good hands would be assets. And what about cornerback? See what I mean? The only place I can't really envision Federer is in the trenches.
TMF is an all-purpose athlete, and we are presently in a tennis era tailor-made for one. Among other things, this idea vividly shows the futility of comparing generations, agreeable an exercise as that is, because to a greater or lesser degree, the prevailing conditions in any generation not only shape the athletes of that epoch, they also help determine the winners and losers in the era. And we're using the term "generation" loosely, because when it comes to conditions, a generation may actually represent three or four generations of players, going on the assumption that one generation supplants another about every 8 to 10 years.
Three related factors helped make TMF - meaning the guy who dominates the game with nearly surreal ease - possible: the rapid growth of the international game, the gradual elimination of courts at either end of the surface-speed spectrum (a process hastened by changes in equipment, almost all of which promoted a faster, less defensive game), and the embrace of the all-court game, which rewards versatility over specialization and all-around athleticism over power.
The first of those factors may be less important in terms of Federer's personal history than in the backstory of his rivals and the overall climate in international tennis. The overall standard of the game has grown so strong that there are no more big fish in small ponds; there is just one pond now, containing fish of various sizes. At one time, a player from a small, not particularly tennis proficient nation - say, Switzerland - could make a few big statements on the tour and, having found a niche, rest on his laurels, feeling neither motivated nor obliged to improve or to maximize his potential. But a player can no longer say, Hey, I'm doing pretty well - for a guy from Serbia!
The overall level of professionalism on the tour has improved tremendously; a player from a small nation - say, Switzerland - now has to meet the same high standard as one from Australia, or the U.S. But another important dimension of this goes back to the old "rising tide lifts all boats" principle. The level of play has risen so high on a nation-to-nation and day-to-day basis that everyone's envelope is being pushed, all the time. Without even knowing it, the players are competing at a level - physically as well as emotionally - that was unknown two generations ago. In other words, even "ordinary" players can become accustomed to doing extra-ordinary things, if the conditions allow, or demand. To some degree, Federer has been made by his rivals. They have literally created a monster.
The second factor, the emergence of medium-speed surfaces as the new norm in tennis (and the change has been most profound at the most important tournaments), has really helped TMF shine. Just as- best-of-5 set tennis helps favorites avoid upsets, medium speed surfaces enhance the chances of players who do many things well. Just as importantly, they blunt the chances of players who rely on one or two strokes that they execute exceptionally well, because opponents of such players have more time (and time equals opportunity) on such courts to find ways to avoid those dangerous weapons.
We all know a very slow court deflates a big serve. But a medium-to-fast court also diminishes the advantages held by a passive counter-puncher on a very slow surface. It's harder than ever to overpower a player, but it's also harder than ever to merely wear one down. The moonball is dead.
The third factor, the general embrace of the all-court game, has been an enormous factor in TMF's success. Of course, it isn't as if this embrace was a matter of whim, or even well-reasoned choice. All-court tennis has become coin of the realm because excellent stroke production (thanks partly to the ease with which instruction and video are readily available everywhere) and medium speed surfaces have become coin of the realm. The all-court game has eliminated one-trick ponies of every stripe, from chip-and-chargers to passive baseliners. It has helped shift the emphasis from strategy and raw power to execution and refined skill -and who is going to match Federer in the skill department?
At the same time, the triumph of all-court tennis has opened the game inward. The top players now compete within more restrictive parameters, a little like ice skaters who are judged on how well they perform compulsory moves. It's no longer about, can you get the backhand past his forehand volley? Now it's about
: you both have great backhands, whose is a shade better, especially when it counts most? And if nobody can match Federer as an all-around ball striker (Novak Djokovic comes closest), the gap between TMF and everyone else (Djokovic and Rafael Nadal being the nearest thing to exceptions) actually widens - and dramatically - when the issue is not just ball-striking, but ball-striking under match conditions and pressure.
And that brings us a factor I left out of the original three, Federer's mental abilities. This dude has pretty much shut down one of the most fascinating if not entirely noble pastimes of the serious tennis fan, which is reading the faces and moods of the players on court. Remember when you lived and died by the saga written on the face of an Ilie Nastase (who perfected the Edvard Munch look), an Andre Agassi (who perfected the deer-in-the-headlights look) or a Pete Sampras (who perfected the life-is-a-bitch-
but-I'm-going-to-get-it-done look)? Not anymore.
Federer gives you nothing. He gives his opponents even less, and it hurts them even more. I'm not sure how you quantity the relative importance of this facility, when it comes to trying to weigh or measure TMF's assets. But it certainly figures into things.
So here's what you have in the now four-time consecutive year-end No. 1: a once uncertain kid with a host of muscular, neurological and emotional gifts, who became the ideal tabula rasa upon which the sport could write its history at the start of the new Century. TMF doesn't just dominate the game today, he represents it with uncanny clarity, in perfect focus. He is less a player trying to find his place in today's game than the material embodiment of that game at the highest point of its expression.
I've often written that the only way I can see anyone beating Federer is by swarming all over him - literally, making it impossible for him to play, probably through attacking tennis backed by a great serve. That could still happen, but it seems less and less likely, given today's game.
One day, Federer's nerve, or his patience, or his degree-of-interest, will falter. But right now, it looks like that's what it will take, on anything but a clay court, for him to become less of a force in the game.