Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Roger Federer as Religious Experience

Confession: I didn't watch the Wimbledon finale. And, sure, now knowing what a great match it was I feel a little bad about that. But the thing about finals in any kind of sport, I tell myself, is that there's always another one. Seriously, it will be back and there will be another great final. Just give it time.

You know what there won't be another of? David Foster Wallace, whose essays I love even if I'm clearly just not smart enough to get into his novels. One day, Infinite Jest, one day you will be fine but life's too short to slug through something you don't enjoy. Anyway, Wallace's essays really are great: "Consider the Lobster" is possibly my favourite or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", which I took on a cruise and which made me laugh like a drain. But one that's been doing the rounds this week for obvious reasons (and which I've linked to from this blog before) is also very good: "Roger Federer as Religious Experience". I mean, what a great title - you read that title and you know this thing you're about to read is not going to be quite like all those other things you've read. As someone who has pretty much zero interest in sports journalism or sports writing this is one of the very few pieces of sports-related writing I go back to again and again.
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. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K. 
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. It’s the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner...until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side...and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. 
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.
You can read the whole thing here and I strongly suggest that you do.

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