Much has been said about Roger Federer losing his cool, and disfiguring his racket in frustration in his match yesterday against Novak Djokovic.
As it should well be said. Tennis, like most individual sports, is as much about the game as about personalities. It is as much about sport as about sportsmanship.
While I like, admire, and am pretty much in awe of Federer because of his skill and talent, I also believe that mere numbers don’t begin to capture the greatness of the man.
It is his unruffled demeanor on court, his characteristic stoicism in crucial moments, his unassuming entrances on tennis’ biggest stages, his relaxed warm-up routines against formidable opponents, his gracious speeches following the most heart-wrenching losses, all of which, together make up the Federer that the tennis world knows and loves.
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray are stellar players in their own right, but they are not (and never will be) quite as beautiful to watch as Federer, both on and off the court.
Nadal is impressive in his grinding relentlessness, but while he scrambles on court and emits his trademark grunt on every contact with the ball, his effort is much too palpable to us mere mortals.
Djokovic frustrates not only his opponents but also his fans with his eternal bouncing of the ball before the toss eventually happens, not to mention his infamous encounters with gamesmanship.
Murray’s moping and cursing on court, in addition to his often-surly predisposition, has been well-documented.
Federer is a cut above the rest not so much for his numbers, as for the way he has gone about achieving them.
It is one thing to see a player dictate play to an opponent but it is quite another to see him dictate play without appearing like he is: moving with cat-like precision, gently cajoling the ball to an inconceivable corner, quietly urging his opponent to an unwilling error, coaxing his racket head to an astonishing angle, tantalizing his rival with an elusive winner.
And what is more, at the end of it, you don’t get a hint of melodrama, a whiff of emotion, a break of sweat, a hair out of place, a whisper from his being.
Criticizing linesmen, disagreeing with Hawk-eye, and smashing rackets on court are quite out of character for the Swiss maestro, who has often been compared to a jazz musician on a tennis court.
But if there's a silver lining, it is that it's got the attention of the one man who can singularly lay claim to the act of tossing a racket: John McEnroe.
McEnroe has offered to help Federer with his strategy, even if he can’t spare the time to be a full-time coach. In my opinion this can only mean good news.
No one in the professional tennis world has greater faith in Federer’s game, or a bigger belief in the Swiss going down as the greatest tennis player in history than Johnny Mac does. He’s said so himself, in undiluted McEnroe fashion, several times.
And if you've ever watched the American commentate a Federer match, you have heard him lament an occasional poor choice of strategy by the Swiss man with as much fervor as he would revere his stellar shot-making just a few points later.
In fact, Federer would probably gain more wisdom by listening to a taped commentary of his prior matches against Nadal by the Hall of Famer than he would from the full-time coach he’s still shopping for.
Federer has an enviable array of defensive strokes, but he hasn’t won thirteen major tournaments on account of his defense, he’s won them owing to his insuperable, offensive shot-making abilities.
Moreover, to combat someone like Nadal, possibly one of the best defensive players in history, Roger needs offensive strategies. He’s not going to overcome the challenges Rafa poses with defensive, baseline rallies.
Who better than possibly one of the greatest offensive players of the modern era to offer him some advice on that front?