*Note to self: When suffering from tennis writer's block, remember that there is always the Swiss Maestro to write about.
Roger Federer is unfathomable. While other so-called geniuses — most of whom are several years younger — struggle mightily to achieve even one sixteenth of his success, Federer remains the big bird on top of the lighpost of tennis.
It’s amazing, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t find times like these to worship at the altar of Federer. I am watching the early parts of the 2nd set of his third-round match against Frenchman Florent Serra as I write. Federer leads by one set, and he has just played the prettiest point of the match. It was awe inspiring. Other superlatives come to mind — many of them adjectives. Things like “free-flowing,” “effortless,” and “sublime.”
The pretty shot that I am referring to occurred in the first set of the match, when the Swiss Maestro (compared by Justin Gimelstob during the Fox broadcast to “Einstein or Beethoven — Who else is smart like that?") delicately scooped a half-volley backhand from the right sideline and angled it across the court at a highly improbable angle. There was no margin for error whatsoever on the shot, and yet Federer acted — and executed — like there was nothing out of the ordinary about it at all. He was loose and relaxed, and it was poetic to watch.
Serra, in a moments notice, had gone from in control of the point (a crucial one, during the tiebreaker) to desperately trying to get a racquet on the ball.
We tend to call it genius, and we don‘t use the term lightly. Federer can just do those things on the court (today it’s Miami, on the purple courts of the Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida) that make you mystified.
The pretty Federer half-volley that turned Serra around was a perfect reminder of the mystifying arsenal of shots that the worlds No. 1 possesses. Executed with minimal energy expended — nothing more than a transitional knee bend and a very gentle flick of the wrist — the shot was improbably angled, improbably low, and improbably effective.
Serra, to his credit, angled Federer’s shot neatly crosscourt - it landed near the sideline at the service line - forcing Federer to reply.
Of course, Federer did. His second flick of the wrist was an even gentler stroke of his brush. He scooped the ball - carving swiftly underneath it - and placed it far away from Serra's racquet.
The first set soon ended and I was left wondering: How can he be so gentle out there amidst all that chaos? It remains mystifying, even though the 16 time Grand-Slam champion has held the No. 1 ranking for 276 weeks now (ten behind Pete Sampras for all-time best).
How can he be so nasty and so sweet at the same time?
Even as he admittedly struggled with the wind and a testy Serra (who Federer claimed he could not get a good read on), there were more than enough moments where the only thing you could do was roll your eyes to the back of your head and wonder “how the hell did he think of that, let alone execute it?”
I guess we'll never really know, but we should be glad to contemplate it anyway.