The Maestro Up Close

by: Steve Tignor | March 15, 2010

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Rf On Sunday I watched Roger Federer’s opening-round match from the fifth row, right behind the court, a spot much closer and better-positioned than normal for a pressman. The view looked and felt rich. Billionaire rich: New Indian Wells owner and Oracle founder Larry Ellison was a few rows ahead of me. Credit him for staying in his seat throughout the three-setters by Sharapova and Federer yesterday—the women's was a true death march.

Unfortunately, as with anything that money can buy, once you’ve watched from this spot, there really is no going back. Yes, you know you must return to the your assigned position in the pecking order of tennis, wealth, status, life—that’s right around the middle rung of the stadium for me. But you also know that you won’t see things the same way. You won’t be given as much information about what you see.

What did I notice about Federer that I’d forgotten since my last visit to this rarefied zone? Watching from the press seats, or through the TV in the living room, he appears to be as he’s always described: smoothly and casually imperious. Seeing the court from far away, we see his elongated yet efficient strokes, and the gracefully, powerfully bending ball he produces with them, without knowing how those strokes are manufactured. With no noticeable hitches or glitches, they appear not to be manufactured at all. We also see how easily Federer appears to move between points, his face a distant, serene mask, his body language that of the athlete whose nonchalant way of bouncing a ball or passing a towel over his face lets you know how much innate control over his movement he has. The point for Federer is to stay loose enough that his body can flow as naturally as possible.

From up close, you see that, despite the nonchalant ball bounce, he’s not casual at all, whether it's during or between points. The pace of play on tour has slowed since Federer debuted a decade ago. Now it’s virtually required that you go to the towel twice a game and collect four balls before choosing one for a serve. Deliberation, controlling the tempo, not rushing, these are the watchwords now. Federer subscribes to none of this. He looks almost hyper by comparison. He calls for the ball even before he’s walked behind the baseline, and he wastes no time, motion, or thought before stepping up to the line. Even if it means rushing a little, he’s not going to let anything impede his physical instincts.

Federer’s game is similarly transformed when you see it up close. You don’t just see his adjustment steps, you hear them, you hear the effort. To hear Federer scrape the court with his shoes and hustle madly to change directions is a little jarring. You almost think he should be above that—but how could he be? You also get a good look at the violence of his swings, of the vicious racquet-head speed that allows him to hit with so much spin, particularly on his serve and forehand. If I could identify one unique aspect of the latter stroke, I’d say it’s the speed with which he gets his racquet around his body after he hits the ball, how tightly he keeps his arm to his body during the follow-through. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite like that.

Then there are the facial expressions, which let you know how stressful even a seemingly routine match is for such as seemingly self-assured a player as Federer. He won the first set with ease over Victor Hanescu yesterday, yet the most common look on his face was one of furrowed concern. Rather than serene confidence, he gives off an aura of constant, low-grade agitation. Those flicks of his head that look fey and cocky from far away have a nervous-tic edge to them up close. Federer's movement is still nonchalant, but his expression with that movement—his body language—is more aggressive, like someone trying to reign in and channel a mass of conflicting emotions. Compared to someone like Nadal, Federer appears not to want to organize his between-point rituals too rigidly or calm himself down completely. He wants to use a little of his nervous frustration as energy. Remember the teen Federer, the one who chucked his racquet in rage? He lives on, sublimated but churning, in the adult version.

In his agitation, Federer is not unique. No match is completely routine in the back of a player’s mind; it takes nothing more than two lost points in a row to stick a doubt and a fear back in there. Sustained, vigilant agitation is where we all must live. Agitation leads to impatience, unfortunately, even for Federer. Early in the second set, with a chance to pull ahead on Hanescu’s serve and make his first match in six weeks a painless one, Federer missed a makeable passing shot because he pressed a little too hard on it, came over the ball too soon, and smothered it in the net. Which only made him more agitated. His normal method for challenging a call is simply to say the word "challenge" in a normal voice—he hates even admitting he wants to use Hawkeye. In the second set yesterday, Federer let loose with a frustrated yell that turned, midway, into a twisted bellow: "Chal-lenge!" The emotional release didn't help. Federer did just what he most wanted to avoid and lost the second set.

You might think, from a distance, that Federer wins because he floats above his fears. That he knows deep down  he’s the better player. But before he can remember that, before he can reach “full flight” and let his physical talent work unimpeded, before he can use his experience—which he did by blitzing Hanescu early in the third, right when he suspected he'd have a letdown—Federer has to do what every other player has to do. He has to get scared, and make the most of it.

In keeping with his status as the Maestro, seeing Federer up close is like getting front-row sets to a classical concert. From the back, all you sense is the music in your ears and the bows of the instruments rising and falling smoothly over the strings. When you get closer, you see the determined physical effort behind that music—the players’ scrunched faces and rocking torsos, the expressions that alternate between pain and ecstasy. Like creating heavenly music or writing lucid prose, it should hardly be a surprise that making tennis—winning tennis—look effortless would be the hardest work of all.
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