It has long been so common that it hardly seemed notable, but in the first 20 minutes of his first-round match at the BNP Paribas Open, up against Stephane Robert, Roger Federer struck a backhand half-volley lob, a crisp forehand inside-in winner, a ripped backhand return followed by a deft angled backhand volley. All that was merely an overture to a routine 6-2, 6-1 win.
But the brilliance of what comes from Federer’s racquet isn’t strictly him playing music. Tennis is a relationship sport, an interplay between two people. With Federer, what’s overlooked is the way he systematically he transforms his opponents from potential rivals into witnesses. As point after point progressed, poor Robert, his technique already suspect, began to unravel – strand by strand, shot by shot. Per the opening line of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” Of course, in tennis, the insect is eventually stepped on.
And yet, once off the court, Federer comes off more like someone who would prefer to rehabilitate an insect than kill one. His press conferences have long been love chats, Federer with the precision of a Swiss watch granting each query a rare form of engagement. Following the Robert match, Federer waxed on Maria Sharapova (“She paid the price for what she did, so that’s all you can say there”), the impact of Ivan Ljubicic (“helped me throughout the tougher times to stay positive”), the rank of his recent Australian Open win (“top five”) and many other topics related to family, friends and fans.
This quote in particular struck. “I think it would be interesting to do interviews with those players who are sort of late-bloomers who did it late in their career.”
Six words alone you’ll likely never hear from a tennis player: I think it would be interesting.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that, “The man who writes about himself and his time is the only man who writes about all people and all time.” This concept has defined Federer’s story arc. He has embraced so much of the tennis journey, consented to tell the story with an attitude quite different than the world-weariness, disdain, triteness or snarl displayed by many other number ones of the last 40 years. But even then, the words are but supplements to the nutrients he brings inside the lines.