The Mind and the Moment

by: Peter Bodo | September 13, 2007

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[Greetings, everyone. Asad has stepped up with some afterthoughts on the US Open. We're putting another issue of the mothership to bed here in New York, but I'll be back soon, and with some news on Crisis Center/OT type posts. Stay tuned and enjoy this marvelous piece of writing. Pete]

Many small stories achieved sudden prominence during the U.S. Open, only to subside within a day or so: Mirnyi over Baghdatis.  Radwanska pulls a Chang!  Wow, the Bryans are out already.  Boy, Lopez has never crushed his backhand like this!  You wonder if any of them are going to pan out.

Sometimes, a Grand Slam's microplots balloon into major storylines, as when seventeen year-old Boris Becker won a few matches at Wimbledon, then the whole tournament.  But these days, for the last eleven Grand Slams, the biggest storyline in men's tennis has been that the overwhelming favorite won the tournament.  I can't think of another such stretch.  And that story is basically about Roger Federer, with a contorno of Rafa Nadal.

For the purposes of selling newspapers or inciting momentary interest, this may not be the most desirable state of affairs.  And you can't blame most sportswriters for not wanting to write yet again about how remarkable Federer's dominance has been.  Eleven Slams in four years, yawn.  But it often struck me, while watching, say, Cornet-Jankovic, that twenty-five years from now the biggest and only question some young tennis fan might ask me would be: so you saw Roger Federer?  (With, maybe, two secondary questions concerning Justine and Novak.)

A couple of times during press conferences, I noticed something kind of interesting about Roger Federer.  I'll get to it in a minute, but let me describe the scene first.  Players enter Interview Room One, where all of the Rajah's pressers take place, at the corner diagonally opposite from where the players enter. The players come in and turn right, to take their seat behind the microphone on the little dais or stage.  Most players look to their left as they enter, just gauging the room and who is in it and how full it is.  Federer, though, always keeps his head down and eyes averted, until he sits and begins to answer questions, when he makes direct eye contact with each questioner. 

Anyway, a couple of times during his press conferences, someone's cell phone went off, each time with an annoyingly loud ring tone.  Both times, everyone turned, first to locate and then to glare at the culprit: have you no shame?  And both times, I noticed, Roger kept his eyes locked on his interlocutor, never glancing in the direction of the phone.  I'm sure he was conscious, on one level, that there was an interruption occurring, but he had decided to ignore it.  Not even a darting of the eyes towards the irritant.  Both coming in the room with his head down and refusing to allow himself to be distracted or interrupted seemed to convey the same thing: he chooses to focus selectively, and focuses intensely once he does. Fed

Or maybe it's just that so many phones had rung in so many press conferences that it barely registered in his consciousness anymore.  Plus, there's an element of performance about the whole thing.  Such things are beneath my attention.  I got another sense, however: a sense that he was conserving focus.  Fed went through all his subsidiary responsibilities as the President of Tennis (as Steve Tignor calls him) without concentrating on anything, or at least on as few things as possible.   

Concentration takes mental energy, as anyone who has fought off five break points before shanking a ball on the sixth knows.  And whenever I saw Federer on the grounds, he seemed to be using as little of it as possible.  Practicing with Nicolas Kiefer on Ashe a few days before the tournament, he mostly just messed around.  He would hit a few familiar Federer shots, the heavy forehand, the penetrating slice, then shank a ball and grin, or yell.  Either way, he wasn't really concentrating all that hard. 

I think this "conservationist" ethic even extended to the matches.  Typically, only the loss of a set would elicit from Federer the kind of breathtaking play we saw against John Isner and Feliciano Lopez.  In the Roddick match, with Roddick playing as well as he ever has, Fed seemed to have reduced the number of points on which he was truly dialed in to just one per set: a crosscourt backhand pass in the first tiebreaker, and that reflex backhand return in the other.  It was as casual a dismissal of a opponent in top form as I've seen. 

"Federer" (lol Pete) clearly bided his time during the final, watching to see if more concentration would be needed.  When asked what he was thinking when at 5-6, 0-40 in the first set, Djokovic serving, he said:

"I thought he was going to serve another big serve and I would be out of the set really. At this point you have no hope. It's obvious, you know.  However, you hope if a couple points go your way early on and you get back to 40?30 he could get a little bit nervous. It's a Grand Slam, after all.  But you don't think too much because it goes too fast."


Clearly, Federer was not too stressed about losing the first set, which demonstrates that he has gotten to a special mental state: acceptance of what has happened combined with confidence about what will happen.  Also, his mentioning how fast it all goes resonated with some comments he made earlier in the tournament, on the subject of how he prepares for opponents - it turns out he doesn't, much.  After Isner: "You can't prepare for these guys...  every player in the top 100 is unique."  And after Davydenko: "I don't need to sit down and talk about an opponent for an hour. Takes me basically 15 seconds."

This may sound arrogant, but I actually think it's the opposite.  Federer has inspired an army of purple prose-writing editorialists to write encomiums to his play.  Often the questions he is asked tend to come with a subtext of, "Your genius far exceeds these other guys, huh?"  Further, writers tend to explain his dominance as a form of better thinking.  But, during the U.S. Open, Federer often downplayed the amount of thinking and conscious effort he needs to put into playing tennis.  It's as if he's trying to say, "Guys, I just go out there and play my game.  I'm not a ballet dancer or an aeronautical engineer.  I'm a tennis player, and I react to what happens out there."

At this stage of his career, Federer more and more resembles Pete Sampras in his approach to winning.  It's not about the other guy, it's about what you know you will summon from yourself at times of need.  I suppose winning as much as those two guys have builds something more than confidence, something like faith.

Federer has that faith (and so did Rod Laver, judging by some fascinating comments Rosangel put up on the "Simply the Best?" post).  And he's less strategic than many analysts would have you believe.  He's not out there thinking all that consciously about slicing followed by the deep topspin forehand followed by the dropshot.  His is an athletic genius, after all, and as he says, "it goes too fast."  Instead, he uses his mind to make sure he's ready to concentrate at those crucial moments he is so good at identifying, and once there, doing what comes to him.  That's what I think he meant when he said, after Isner, "it's all in the mind and it's all in the moment."

-Asad Raza

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