Sprezzatura

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 /by

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By Pete Bodo 

The events of the past month in the lives of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal remind me of really well-executed novels or films. One plot twist has been heaped on another, sometimes in really inventive ways (Robin Soderling, beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros? Hahahahah!), but while these  sharp turnabouts are surprising - sometimes jaw-droppingly so - all of them can be explained and none of them strains credulity.  Looking back on them, you're inclined to think, Well, that kind of does make sense. . . or, Geez, I shoulda seen that coming!

Roger Federer storming back to beat Nadal to Madrid? Why not - it was on a fast clay-court and at altitude! Rafael Nadal losing at the French  Open? Hail, did you think he was going to go undefeated, for life?  Robin Soderling (as opposed to David Ferrer or Fernando Gonzalez) taking out Nadal in the fourth round? Sounds crazy, but that selfsame guy got to the final despite having the toughest draw in Paris. Federer winning Roland Garros this year? What, did you think a guy who's been in the last three finals running didn't have a shot. . . And so on. 

The only thing that was not really surprising, at least in hindsight, was the surgical precision with which Federer defused the stick of dynamite that is Soderling. And he accomplished that with the kind of shrewd, workmanlike, no-frills strategy and execution that underscored a reality that Federer critics forget, and forget again: Despite all that elegance and artistry, despite the cardigans, hair-care products, runway gawking and man purses, there's plenty of junkyard dog in this guy. He knows where the bone is buried and when he's hellbent on digging it up, it takes more than most people have to stop him. It apparently takes more than any tennis player has, at any rate, and that's his main area of concern.

Sp it was that before playing last Sunday's historic Roland Garros final, Federer got hold of DVD recordings of the last two matches he'd played against Soderling, one in the recent Madrid Masters and the other in last autumn's Paris Masters (wonder how he acquired them so quickly; I can't imagine Netflix has a huge stock of those early-round straight-setters).

On Saturday, Federer studied the videos, thought about what he's surmised from watching Soderling progress so far in Paris, and then he retired to join his wife for a quiet dinner enjoyed in splendid isolation. About 24 hours later, newly crowned as the champion of Roland Garros, Federer revealed what he'd learned on Saturday:

"I saw that he (Soderling) won against guys who were playing very far from (behind) the baseline. So this gave him time to organize and he used his big shots. . .I knew that there would be rallies when we played, and it was important for me to be close to him, to play hard against him, and use the advantages I have on clay. . . I had the feeling that the other opponents let him play too much. This is what I tried not to let him do."

This explanation may surprise those who rather thought that Federer had spent Saturday night nibblling on sashimi with Anna Wintour and the usual gaggle of fashion-industry courtesans, then went out and demolished a finalist desperate to keep punching above his weight. Let's face it, one of the things that makes Federer a somewhat polarizing figure, so attractive to some - but also so off-putting to others - is that he rarely allows us to get a glimpse of the junkyard dog. He leaves that territory to Nadal, and in this way the two men split the world. If you need to put labels on it, let's say it's Naturalists (Nadal's fans) versus Federer's Romantics.

I've been thinking about this aspect of Federer quite a bit, because of all the amazing things you could point out about this guy, the one that keeps striking me, over and over, as unusual to the point of almost being improbable is how utterly unconnected he seems from the way tennis has evolved in the past few years, and from its ruling conventions and stereotypes. One of the reasons Nadal is so popular with youngsters is that he unconsciously sends the message that he is very of the moment, very now - that he's some sort of  evolutionary step forward, something tennis has not seen before and for which it has no answer. Nadal literally begs you to make all those arguments about how this isn't your father's game of tennis anymore, about how somehow tennis has gone to a mythical "next level" which may not exist and maybe never did - at least not in so conspicuous, quickly attained way.

By contrast, I can't lay eyes on Federer these days without thinking I'm watching some grainy, 16mm film of just the kind of guy the new millennium game has supposedly left behind - the kind of guy about whom we say, Oh, he was a great player in his time, but he'd never last with the way the game has changed today!  Close your eyes, can't  you hear the projector click-clacking, and see that blurry image jumping around on the window-shade like drop-down white screen?

Federer is light on his feet, blessed with remarkable feel, and he possesses stores of stamina and determination that are concealed rather than advertised. Nobody looks at him and thinks "next generation," or "specimen."  Guys who play, look, and even talk like Federer aren't supposed to have a shot in this game anymore, and the fact that they do (or that he does, proving that at least in theory the possibility exists) is one of the things that makes tennis worth watching and following. The game was supposed to leave his kind behind, yet here is Federer, not only stubbornly clinging to existence, but actually outlasting and proving himself more durable than the specimens. Does he think about these things? Hardly.

After winning his semifinal over Juan Martin del Potro, Federer said: "Even though (I'm happy I won),  I was sad for him, because, you know, he's a young player. You always think that there aren't that many opportunities, that many chances for younger players, you know. So I was a bit sad for him when I won."

Swaggering bad boy Jimmy Connors, upon reading that, would probably lick his chips and say, "Get me this weenie." And if that were somehow to have been possible, I know this: Jimbo would have gotten five games, max.

Both as a player and personality, Federer embodies this wonderful Italian word, sprezzatura. It's a difficult word to translate, but the Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell wrote about it compellingly in an utterly delightful book, Catch and Release.

Fundamentally, sprezzatura is the ability to make difficult things look easy. As Kingwell wrote:

'Grace' doesn't quite capture its extension, though part of it. Not 'elegance' either, though again it is partly right. Vitality and lightness are implied, but sprezzatura is more than gaiety. It's that exhibition of relaxed competence, almost of insouciance, in amateur pursuit of one's goal. . .

It's simply astonishing to me that in this day and age in tennis, a player who so conspicuously embodies this notion of sprezzatura can be the leading player of his generation. Federer is no less an iconic figure in his sport than is NFL quarterback Brett Favre in football. Favre holds that position because he seems the archetypal football player, but Federer earns his distinction while being absolutely atypical. He frequently seems to think, act, and express sentiments nothing like those of  a host of iconic tennis players whose qualities were often trumpeted as germane to their station: the bullishness of Vilas, the toughness of Ivan Lendl, the fire of a John McEnroe, the explosive power of a Pete Sampras, that subtle communication of menace that informed the glowering visage of Pancho Gonzalez, or the scary, almost rodent-like bloodlust of Jimmy Connors. But all of pale alongside the easy, it's-no-big-deal domination with which Federer rules.

When he was asked if this Roland Garros title represented 27 years of longing fulfilled, Federer almost laughed as he delivered what may be the best line of his career: "First, I never waited 27 years, because 27years ago I was just born. My parents never told me, If you don't win Roland Garros we take you to the orphanage."

And despite the dedication and discipline required by Federer's role in the game, when he was asked if walking away from the game tomorrow would find him a happy man, he said: "Yeah, it would ?? I always said it doesn't matter when I retire, I'll be at peace. I can walk away from this game tomorrow, but I don't choose to because I love this game too much."

I don't choose to because I love this game too much. . .

Good grief! This guy doesn't appear to want to be a rock star, and if he didn' t pull a Bjorn Borg, jumping into a limo and vanishing into the night, after that loss Nadal pinned on him in Australia, it's unlikely he ever will. Love the game? What an antediluvian notion. . .

There will always be some who revel in characterizing Federer as a girly-man, and I admit I've been a little prone to that myself. We all get trapped in the cliches of our choosing, I suppose, and that's why it's a good idea to stretch your comfort zone now and then, to read a book by a philosopher, even one as entertaining as Kingwell. For if Federer is a throwback, he lands quite a bit further back than Rod Laver's era, or even Bill Tilden's. Kingwell writes:

"Puritanical critics tend to regard sprezzatura as a suspect quality, a polish in manners that indicates overrefinement or even feyness, the transparent self-justification of the fop. But such judgments ignore the real edge that must remain beneath the polish. Castiglione's elegant courtiers or the dandy Cavalier poets of (Izaak) Walton's own time were anything but fey. They were brave, wily, and often dangerous men - men who served with distinction in battles and intrigues.

"Like the dandies of the early Royal Navy or the strutting officers of the Household Guards, these men were as courageous as they were refined in dress and comportment. Only a clod could fail to be impressed by the combination of poetry and military distinction observable in Richard Lovelace or Sir John Suckling. And yet, what military man today would dare admit he read poetry, let along composed it? On the others side, from what poet could we expect to see a display of manly vigour, except perhaps in the vulgar form of drunken brawling at a book launch. There may be such men out there - I really hope there are - but no one could reasonably argue that they form our currently dominant notion of masculine accomplishment."

So there it is - reasons for manly men to feel good about liking Roger Federer, as if he could give a hoot. The brave, wily and often dangerous generally don't.

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