The Sum of Federer

by: Peter Bodo | August 24, 2009

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90020980 By Pete Bodo

Mornin.' Lots of catching up to do today, first day back from vacation. I wrote a post for ESPN on Roger Federer a little earlier, but in some ways it's the same-old, same-old: What can you say about the guy? He just keeps winning, sweeping away the real or imagined obstacles as if they simply didn't exist. To deny the astonishing nature of Federer's accomplishments this year is not just to be a contrarian; it puts you squarely in horse's ass territory. It also proves conclusively that you know absolutely nothing about this game and just have something else, something pretty weird, going on.

But I suppose some people always will be tempted. . . And that's partly because of the extraordinary way Federer makes it all look so easy. And I'm not talking just about the game, but about the entire package (to which the latest addition has been fatherhood). The life of a tennis pro is demanding, draining, fraught with uncertainty, haunted by all sorts of mental and emotional ghosts and goblins. Federer seems immune to all of it.

Just ask Kim Clijsters, who grew disgruntled with the game and quit cold - only to come back recently. Or ask Marat Safin, who's rushing toward retirement as if it were a winning lottery ticket, rather than - probably - the end of his life as we know it, and let's remember that how we know it has been to a large extent the source of what satisfaction and pride Safin has taken out of his career.

Say what you will about a person's interior needs and desires, and I certainly don't want to deny anyone the luxury of being himself, or pursuing happiness wherever he or she may find it. But remember that a top tennis player is first and foremost a performer - an athlete who plies his trade in front of countless hungry eyes. Take those eyes away, and everything changes. Take away those eyes and a player's entire, nearly lifelong raison d'etre evaporates. The one thing all retired tennis players ends up missing is those eyes, and that applause. I think Clijsters missed them, too.

This, I think, is yet another dimension of Federer's genius. He's a natural and comfortable performer in the same way as a great actor who lives to strut the stage, instead of existing to complain about his job and its demands. The fact that Federer is anything but flamboyant, except in his game, is to some measure an aspect of his calm, tidy personality. But it also underscores the extent to which he's comfortable with himself and the job he loves. He needs none of the affectations that so many performers embrace in some attempt to show that they're "more" than just actors or musicians or pro athletes. And those rare moments of frustration - like some we saw early this year - just emphasize that Federer is prey to many of the same frustrations and rough patches as anyone trying to do his job as well as he knows how.

Going back a few months, I seem to remember a comment posted here on how you learn more about a person in defeat rather than victory, in how he handles frustration rather than how he comports himself in triumph. In the last few months, Federer revealed a good deal about himself in those terms, and in some ways he seems so much more of a man now than he did before. It isn't that he was anything less - just that he couldn't, for a long time, be anything more. His success prevented it.

You know, I'm not sure I've ever been as impressed by anything anyone has done in tennis (let's discount specific, competitive achievements, like Rafael Nadal beating Federer at Wimbledon last year) as much as I've been amazed by what Federer has accomplished since early June of this year. If late 2008 aned early 2009 constituted the worst "crisis" or "slump" Federer is apt to experience in his years at the top of the game (a window that is rapidly shrinking, much the same as the years tend to slip by faster as one gets older), Federer is truly a once-in-a-century type of athlete.

The longer Federer's career goes, the more improbable and amazing his attainments. By defying the logic and shattering what we think of as the boundaries of accomplishment and the potential rewards of talent, he also makes himself somewhat less substantial - less real. You couldn't invent a Federer; nobody would believe such a creature could exist - not in the context in which he must function, which is a game with a set of parameters that have evolved over many decades, pointing us toward certain definitions of words like "good" or "great." I advise against making comparisons, because they inevitably diminish one party or the other. But let's fact it: Compared to Federer, guys like Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and numerous others seem to have had mediocre careers, distinguished less by what they achieved than by what they failed to accomplish. Blame it on Federer, but better yet, recognize the zero-sum game that comparisons become.

The reason it makes no sense to compare Federer to other players is simple, if impossible to adequately explain: The whole of Federer exceeds the sum of the parts. There's something indefinable and unknowable there, and surely that's part of being a genius.

Every theory about Federer is a search for a rationalization or justification for what he is and what he's done; many of those who wish him to be less successful and gifted don't even bear any animosity toward him - they're just looking for the kind of predictability to which they're accustomed. They want to use the familiar template, without recognizing that accepting what Federer's managed to achieve doesn't necessarily create a new template for the entire game. It's just a framework for genius - a pointing toward what is possible, if not probable, in a once-in-a-lifetime player.

PS: This will be Your Call for today, have at it!

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