camisa mujer ralph lauren Roger Federer as Religious Experience
Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments.
The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. We’ve all got our examples. Here is one. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), “How do you hit a winner from that position?” And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty shop eyeballs.
Anyway, that’s one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.
Journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer. He is, at 25, the best tennis player currently alive. Maybe the best ever. Bios and profiles abound. “60 Minutes” did a feature on him just last year. Anything you want to know about Mr. Federer his background, his home town of Basel, Switzerland, his parents’ sane and unexploitative support of his talent, his junior tennis career, his early problems with fragility and temper, his beloved junior coach, how that coach’s accidental death in 2002 both shattered and annealed Federer and helped make him what he now is, Federer’s 39 career singles titles, his eight Grand Slams, his unusually steady and mature commitment to the girlfriend who travels with him (which on the men’s tour is rare) and handles his affairs (which on the men’s tour is unheard of), his old school stoicism and mental toughness and good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess it’s all just a Google search away. Knock yourself out.
This present article is more about a spectator’s experience of Federer, and its context. The specific thesis here is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near religious experience.” It may be tempting, at first, to hear a phrase like this as just one more of the overheated tropes that people resort to to describe the feeling of Federer Moments. But the driver’s phrase turns out to be true literally, for an instant ecstatically though it takes some time and serious watching to see this truth emerge.
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Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest thumping, face painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self exhortations. Plus Nadal is also Federer’s nemesis and the big surprise of this year’s Wimbledon, since he’s a clay court specialist and no one expected him to make it past the first few rounds here. Whereas Federer, through the semifinals, has provided no surprise or competitive drama at all. He’s outplayed each opponent so completely that the TV and print press are worried his matches are dull and can’t compete effectively with the nationalist fervor of the World Cup.(2)
July 9’s men’s final, though, is everyone’s dream. Nadal vs. Federer is a replay of last month’s French Open final, which Nadal won. Federer has so far lost only four matches all year, but they’ve all been to Nadal. Still, most of these matches have been on slow clay, Nadal’s best surface. Grass is Federer’s best. On the other hand, the first week’s heat has baked out some of the Wimbledon courts’ slickness and made them slower. There’s also the fact that Nadal has adjusted his clay based game to grass moving in closer to the baseline on his groundstrokes, amping up his serve, overcoming his allergy to the net. He just about disemboweled Agassi in the third round. The networks are in ecstasies. Before the match, on Centre Court, behind the glass slits above the south backstop, as the linesmen are coming out on court in their new Ralph Lauren uniforms that look so much like children’s navalwear, the broadcast commentators can be seen practically bouncing up and down in their chairs. This Wimbledon final’s got the revenge narrative, the king versus regicide dynamic, the stark character contrasts. It’s the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the intricate clinical artistry of the north. Apollo and Dionysus. Scalpel and cleaver. Righty and southpaw. Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Nadal, the man who’s taken the modern power baseline game just as far as it goes, versus a man who’s transfigured that modern game, whose precision and variety are as big a deal as his pace and foot speed, but who may be peculiarly vulnerable to, or psyched out by, that first man. And the men’s final is always on the fortnight’s second Sunday, the symbolism of which Wimbledon emphasizes by always omitting play on the first Sunday. And the spattery gale that has knocked over parking signs and everted umbrellas all morning suddenly quits an hour before match time, the sun emerging just as Centre Court’s tarp is rolled back and the net posts driven home.
Federer and Nadal come out to applause, make their ritual bows to the nobles’ box. The Swiss is in the buttermilk colored sport coat that Nike’s gotten him to wear for Wimbledon this year. On Federer, and perhaps on him alone, it doesn’t look absurd with shorts and sneakers. The Spaniard eschews all warm up clothing, so you have to look at his muscles right away. He and the Swiss are both in all Nike, up to the very same kind of tied white Nike hankie with the swoosh positioned above the third eye. Nadal tucks his hair under his hankie, but Federer doesn’t, and smoothing and fussing with the bits of hair that fall over the hankie is the main Federer tic TV viewers get to see; likewise Nadal’s obsessive retreat to the ballboy’s towel between points. There happen to be other tics and habits, though, tiny perks of live viewing. There’s the great care Roger Federer takes to hang the sport coat over his spare courtside chair’s back, just so, to keep it from wrinkling he’s done this before each match here, and something about it seems childlike and weirdly sweet. Or the way he inevitably changes out his racket sometime in the second set, the new one always in the same clear plastic bag closed with blue tape, which he takes off carefully and always hands to a ballboy to dispose of. There’s Nadal’s habit of constantly picking his long shorts out of his bottom as he bounces the ball before serving, his way of always cutting his eyes warily from side to side as he walks the baseline, like a convict expecting to be shanked. And something odd on the Swiss’s serve, if you look very closely. Holding ball and racket out in front, just before starting the motion, Federer always places the ball precisely in the V shaped gap of the racket’s throat, just below the head, just for an instant. If the fit isn’t perfect, he adjusts the ball until it is. It happens very fast, but also every time, on both first serves and second.
Nadal and Federer now warm each other up for precisely five minutes; the umpire keeps time. There’s a very definite order and etiquette to these pro warm ups, which is something that television has decided you’re not interested in seeing. Centre Court holds 13,000 and change. Another several thousand have done what people here do willingly every year, which is to pay a stiff general admission at the gate and then gather, with hampers and mosquito spray, to watch the match on an enormous TV screen outside Court 1. Your guess here is probably as good as anyone’s.
Right before play, up at the net, there’s a ceremonial coin toss to see who’ll serve first. It’s another Wimbledon ritual. The honorary coin tosser this year is William Caines, assisted by the umpire and tournament referee. William Caines is a 7 year old from Kent who contracted liver cancer at age 2 and somehow survived after surgery and horrific chemo. He’s here representing Cancer Research UK. He’s blond and pink cheeked and comes up to about Federer’s waist. The crowd roars its approval of the re enacted toss. Federer smiles distantly the whole time. Nadal, just across the net, keeps dancing in place like a boxer, swinging his arms from side to side. networks show the coin toss or not, whether this ceremony’s part of their contractual obligation or whether they get to cut to commercial. As William’s ushered off, there’s more cheering, but it’s scattered and disorganized; most of the crowd can’t quite tell what to do. It’s like once the ritual’s over, the reality of why this child was part of it sinks in. There’s a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream final’s coin. The feeling, what all it might mean, has a tip of the tongue type quality that remains elusive for at least the first two sets.(3)
A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one hander that he can drive flat,
load with topspin, or slice the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel like all body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
One thing it is not is televisable. At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow mo replays, its close ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2 D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold. That may sound abstract or overblown, in which case by all means go in person to some professional tournament especially to the outer courts in early rounds, where you can sit 20 feet from the sideline and sample the difference for yourself. If you’ve watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving,(4) how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer.
Interestingly, what is less obscured in TV coverage is Federer’s intelligence, since this intelligence often manifests as angle. Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision, and television’s perspective is perfect for viewing and reviewing these Federer Moments. What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world class athletes around this way requires, in turn, a better technical understanding of the modern power baseline game than TV again is set up to provide.
Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis. There’s a peculiar mix of stodgy self satisfaction and relentless self promotion and branding. Wimbledon’s own walls, along nearly every significant corridor and passage, are lined with posters and signs featuring shots of past champions, lists of Wimbledon facts and trivia, historic lore, and so on. Some of this stuff is interesting; some is just odd. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, for instance, has a collection of all the various kinds of rackets used here through the decades, and one of the many signs along the Level 2 passage of the Millennium Building(5) promotes this exhibition with both photos and didactic text, a kind of History of the Racket. Here, sic, is the climactic end of this text:
Today’s lightweight frames made of space age materials like graphite, boron, titanium and ceramics, with larger heads mid size (90 95 square inches) and over size (110 square inches) have totally transformed the character of the game. Nowadays it is the powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin. Serve and volley players and those who rely on subtlety and touch have virtually disappeared.
It seems odd, to say the least, that such a diagnosis continues to hang here so prominently in the fourth year of Federer’s reign over Wimbledon, since the Swiss has brought to men’s tennis degrees of touch and subtlety unseen since (at least) the days of McEnroe’s prime. But the sign’s really just a testament to the power of dogma. For almost two decades, the party line’s been that certain advances in racket technology, conditioning, and weight training have transformed pro tennis from a game of quickness and finesse into one of athleticism and brute power. And as an etiology of today’s power baseline game, this party line is broadly accurate. Today’s pros truly are measurably bigger, stronger, and better conditioned,(6) and high tech composite rackets really have increased their capacities for pace and spin. How, then, someone of Federer’s consummate finesse has come to dominate the men’s tour is a source of wide and dogmatic confusion.
There are three kinds of valid explanation for Federer’s ascendancy. One kind involves mystery and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. The others are more technical and make for better journalism.
The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan,(7) who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock time required for one. There are probably a half dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.
This thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss’s will there’s real metaphysical truth here. And in the following anecdote. After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman not just beat him, destroyed him and just before a requisite post match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.(8)
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Velocity’s just one part of it. Now we’re getting technical. Tennis is often called a “game of inches,” but the cliché is mostly referring to where a shot lands. In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels. The same principle explains why even the smallest imprecision in aiming a rifle will still cause a miss if the target’s far enough away.
By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respec