Drawing Roger Federer's Blood: Devin Britton's 30 Seconds of Indelible Joy
Thirty seconds. "It only lasted about 30 seconds," but they have been Devin Britton's best moments of his life.
That is how long the pride and glory lasted for the 18-year-old Britton. The ecstasy of feeling victory after taking a break from Roger Federer in their first match of the 2009 US Open may have been ephemeral, but it engraved an eternal mark on the young mind.
This story is not about Federer but about Britton's journey from innocence to experience, even if it is not quite like William Blake's journey from golden chapel to pigsty.
And in innocence, truth is spoken in a rarity. Britton reveals the raw, inchoate impression of an encounter with the Swiss Maestro. I fancy how Federer would react if he were there in person, listening to Britton, an unrestrained soul recounting every detail of his impressions before, during, and after the match.
Before going into that moment of Britton's fugacious elation, let me introduce the future star of American tennis.
The Brandon, Miss., native first hit the court when was five years old.
"I watched my mom play league tennis, so the local pro asked me just to hit some balls," Britton said in a press conference Monday. "I started hitting and I started liking it. Kind of gradually got to be more and more and more. Kind of just went from there."
The child prodigy chose home schooling in the seventh grade so he could devote more time to his tennis career. He went on to join the University of Mississippi, popularly known as Ole Miss, located less than a three-hour drive from home.
He talked about his student-tennis schedule at Ole Miss.
"I started in January, and I went one semester, January to May," he said. "It went very well. You know, I think I grew a lot as a tennis player there, and also as a person. School, to balance the two, I think it takes a little bit. Helps you mentally a little bit, also. Ole Miss was a great school and definitely helped me very much for the professional level."
The serve-volley young player currently trains at the famous IMG/Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where he is coached by Nick Bollettieri, David “Red” Amye, and Gabe Jaramillo.
Britton was the first-ever qualifying wild card to make a final at US Open juniors in 2008, where he lost to Grigor Dimitrov.
The former Rebel netter joined the U.S. Davis Cup Team as a practice partner earlier this year, right after losing to Jordan Cox at the Wimbledon juniors singles semifinal (2009).
After becoming the youngest player ever to capture the NCAA singles title in May 2009, Britton received a wild card into the US Open men's singles.
How did Britton react to having to play the 15-time Grand Slam champion at the Arthur Ashe?
"Kelly Wolf, I was speaking to Kelly Wolf on the phone, my agent," he said. "She had told me at 12:00 that I played Roger Federer, because I guess we were the first people to come up.
"I was just—I didn't really believe it at first. Thought it was just a bad joke. Now and then I started getting texts on my phone and I realized it was true. I was excited. I mean, I was excited at first, and then a little bit—just a little bummed. It's a tough opponent. You know, it was exciting. Not many people get that experience to play on Ashe."
Before Federer, the biggest names Britton had ever played were Baghdatis and Benjamin Becker.
Britton had never come to New York as a fan. Three years ago, he had tried to qualify for the US Open Juniors. Although he failed, he "just sat around for a couple of days and then went home."
Britton was lucky to hit on Ashe a couple of days before the match with Federer. On Saturday night, Britton won sort of lottery to practice with none other than Rafael Nadal.
Rafa "was looking for a hit and they were asking everybody, so I just kind of jumped in and said, I'll hit. So it worked out."
Yes, Devin Britton had played on Arthur Ashe before he played a formal match with Federer, but "it's not the same without anybody sitting in there."
It was overwhelming for Britton when he walked into the never-experienced setting of the stadium filled with thousand of people, loud noise, and blazing music.
The stadium looked 100 times bigger than he had ever played in front of.
"I was a little nervous. There was a lot of people out there and it's a big stadium, but my mind—I was trying to just think. I mean, wasn't much going on. Just thinking about how, like—it's a big stage. I was just a little nervous."
Britton tried not to think who he was playing against, but "it's hard not to think about who I'm playing, you know?"
How would you experience a man without thinking about him?
When nervous, Britton's "footwork slows down a little bit. I think I overhit maybe trying to compensate for the feet." Yes, Britton was nervous but, at the same time, he wanted to feel, touch, and watch Federer play.
"It was—yeah, I didn't start really thinking about my own game until late in the second set. You know, it's such a pretty game. It's fun to watch, you know."
Enchanted, Britton wanted this to last forever, to just play and play the great Federer and take some of his beauty home.
The climactic moment of the match for Britton was when he broke Federer in the second set. An unimaginable feeling ensued from the ultimate glory of dismantling the mighty iconic figurehead of tennis.
But Britton had to repress this elation from public view; he could not freely express the bubble. He could not effervesce publicly and say "See, I impaled you there and bloodied you." He just sat there, withdrawing into a private world, and mused.
"I was thinking," he said, "I'm up a break. This is awesome.
"(During) the extended changeovers, I had time to think about it. It was pretty much all I'm thinking about on the changeovers. You know, this is pretty cool. I was sitting out here on Ashe and playing against Federer. This is awesome."
After breaking Federer, Britton partially thought he had a shot at winning.
"Yeah, I thought that for, you know, 10, 15 seconds before he broke me at love the next game. You know, it was fun for the 10, 15 seconds. It was probably the best seconds of my life."
A dream of outplaying Roger Federer fulfilled, even if it lasted for only 30 seconds.
But there was another dream left, a dream of experiencing Federer's forehand.
Britton has seen Federer's forehand on many occasions on TV, but to see from a few feet away and experience its Herculean beauty was entirely different. He was told to avoid the forehand. But he wanted to empirically sense the power of that supreme masterwork of a tennis artisan.
Despite the admonition of lethality of Federer's forehand from his coaching team, Britton craved for it, subconsciously thinking he might not get another chance.
"His forehand is just crazy...sometimes I just hit it there just to see it," Britton mused.
Britton feeds balls to Federer's forehand. With the racket point at the back fence, Federer's stringbed faces downward. From the position of his hips, the Swiss takes a three-quarter-open stance, to add rotational energy to his swing. His racket accelerates extremely quickly in the last 18 inches or so before it meets the ball.
His wrist whips forward in response to all of the energy from the movement that has already occurred in the larger parts of his body—his legs, his upper body, and his upper arm: Britton marvels at the rotational energy his opponent delivers to the ball as he hits this forehand with a semi-open stance.
"Yeah, it's really heavy," Britton said. "The forehand is really heavy. You saw some of the shots I was hitting were just flying. I'm just not used to that ball. I hit with Nadal the other day to try to get used to it, which was similar. But it's heavy. It will take me a little while to get used to it."
Britton will not have any bad dreams about that forehand.
"I'm going to have great dreams about it," he said. "It's so pretty, you know. Any dream about that would be good."
It was not just the forehand Britton experienced first hand, he said: "Everything Roger does is unbelievable."
With this unforgettable experience, Britton's journey to the US Open singles ended for this year.
"Hopefully I get the chance to be out there again," he said. "Obviously I need to develop—ranking is not quite there. Obviously I hope I can build it up and be able to get the chance to play out there again."
Hope one day Britton will achieve his highest potential and play as well as Federer does.
To conclude with a poetic vulgarity of Keats and Frost: The thing of ethereal glory is joy ineradicable. Miles to go before Britton can repose.
(P.S.: All the quoted passages are from Devin Britton's interview on Aug. 31, 2009).
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