Three Things I Want to Learn From Roger Federer

  1. How to serve that fast
  2. How to hit a one-handed backhand like that
  3. How to win a grand slam tennis tournament

Ok, but seriously now…

With the exception of David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” it is probably inadvisable to look for too much metaphysical insight from the activities of sportspeople.

In the context of Swiss tennis that maybe became painfully obvious when the then 51 year old author and intellectual Etienne Barilier wrote a book about the then 18 year old tennis player Martina Hingis (title: Martina Hingis ou la beauté du jeu; Martina Hingis or the beauty of the game. I’m not joking…)

The great Julian Barnes’s review of William Skidelsky’s book Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession also contains a useful warning against taking too much meaning from a game of tennis:

Writers attracted to sport, however, are often keen to make it more than it is: preferably, a presiding metaphor for the rest of life. At Wimbledon in 2010 John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played the longest match in tennis history; it stretched over two and a bit days, with the fifth set won by 70 games to 68. While the players themselves headed for an ice-bath and a beer, others headed for the match’s deeper significance. Skidelsky approvingly quotes Geoff Dyer, who called this two‑man marathon, in which the same moves were endlessly repeated – guess the adjective – Yes! – “Beckettian”. Dyer saw Isner versus Mahut as an existential drama, a battle to keep “non-existence at bay”. So, in a tennis match, as in life, “sudden death and perpetual extension are inextricably paired”. This kind of panting nonsense comes easily to a certain type of literary bloke. Sometimes – indeed, almost always – a very long tennis match is just a very long tennis match.

But here are some random thoughts – and I want to keep them trivial – I had when I saw Roger Federer win another Australian Open:

1. Doing what you’re good at while you enjoy it 

Federer had previously been the number 1 ranked tennis player in the world for 302 weeks, 237 of them consecutive. At the age of 35, having had 6 months of recovery time from knee surgery, ranked 17th in the world before the Australian Open, why not retire? I’m sure he doesn’t need the money. My suspicion is – and I really want to be right about this – is that he does it because he enjoys it. He enjoys the game, the tournaments, even seeing his opponents.

Federer cares not just about his game, but about the game. After he beat Andy Murray in the 2012 Wimbledon final he said “I really do believe deep down in me he will win Grand Slams, not just one. I really do believe and hope for him that he’s going to win one soon.” That was more than a consolation for the beaten player. It showed his concern for the career for the younger player coming up and Federer’s thinking about the way other players were developing.

Even in  the post-match interviews during the Australian open, when tennis journalists judged from his performance in the early matches that he wouldn’t get far and that he hadn’t overcome his injury, Federer focused on the fact that he liked playing strong opponents, that he enjoyed the matches and that it felt good to be on court.

The cliché that you just have to find what you really really enjoy doing and you’ll be good at it has many forms, but that doesn’t necessarily make it straightforward to implement. My feeling is that enjoyment isn’t what makes you good at things, nor that being good at things necessarily makes them enjoyable. I suspect though that for some activities, there can be a virtuous circle where being good at the activity and enjoying it augment each other over time. The point would be to break into such a virtuous circle.

2. Using what you’re good at for the greater good

A game of tennis is to some extent an absurd thing. People batting around a little ball for a few hours. Even the way the score is kept is crazy. 15, 30, 40… who counts like that? Who says things like “deuce” or “love all” and why? When Boris Becker was asked why he lost a match at Wimbledon he said “I lost a tennis match, not a war. Nobody got killed.” Of course he was right. Not only did nobody get killed, but quite possible nothing else changed.

But Federer manages to use the commercial potential of a world class tennis tournament to raise money for his philanthropic organisation, the Roger Federer foundation which promotes education for children in Africa. In 2010, when Federer and Nadal were the world’s number 2 and number 1 players respectively, they raised nearly $4million for their charities.

Of course not everyone is in the situation where they could raise money for charity by allowing people to watch them doing their job. But there are always opportunities to go beyond just doing the work, to cultivate communities of shared values at the workplace, to promote diversity and equal opportunities, or just to look after job satisfaction and quality of life for others.

3. Creating beauty and fun

I’m always fascinated by the way tennis players can be ranked precisely in order of how good they are. I don’t know who the best performer in my profession is world-wide. I don’t even know who is the best performer in the UK. I know who the most senior civil servant is, but he has never competed one-to-one against a series of others, and in any case the criteria for performance may not be as easily identifiable and isolated in tennis.

But Federer doesn’t just win on points. He doesn’t win by smashing in one massive serve after another. Or by doing any one thing. He teases out the full range of moves and devices that are open to tennis players. And he does that with a brilliance that appears super-human to most observers. David Foster Wallace, for example, saw it this way:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.

Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.

It might be more difficult to create beauty and grace in most jobs or activities than it might be in tennis, but trust me, it’s also possible to play tennis entirely without elegance or style. And it is always possible to think about how the same activity could just be carried out in a more aesthetically pleasing way. Not least because fun is a concern of aesthetics. And it may be easier to ask how we can add a sense of fun to what we’re doing. And for those still doubting that there is anything to be learned from Federer, here’s the last word from Foster Wallace:

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.


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