By André Rolemberg
Ed. Note: Owen, a longtime believer that elegance means nothing in tennis, felt his brain ooze out his ears as he formatted this.
Everyone knows Roger Federer is regarded as one of the most elegant tennis players, if not the most, in the history of tennis. Not off-court, where money can buy photographers, suits, boots, good lighting, which make just about anyone incredibly distinguished. On-court. His shots, his movement, his je-ne-sais-quoi that earned him nicknames such as Maestro, and his game the descriptor of “poetry in motion.”
Federer, from 2009 to the late 2010s, was regarded largely as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT for short, ironically, since one does not exactly imagine a goat munching on grass as the epitome of elegance). His game style was, or is, a major part of why people like him. A carefully curated persona around his game helps this: Federer as the timeless classic image of a man, the tennis equivalent of James Bond without the political issues around him (he is Swiss, after all).
Federer was a devastatingly effective tennis player who, in the beginning of his reign, went unchallenged. No one came near the player Federer used to be. He crushed his opponents by being a player who was not only fighting, playing intelligently and hitting impossible shots, but did with little perceptible effort. No sweat. The world was in slow motion, and Federer danced his waltz in perfect tempo. The best of drummers jealous of him, he doesn’t even need quantizing! It’s all live, and with improvisation weaved into the hours of practice.
The elegance of Federer is mesmerizing. He wins, and wins, and is hardly beaten by anyone, no one except the ones willing to make a god suffer, and who have enough strength to do so. Nadal and Djokovic are Kratos to Federer’s Zeus. Zeus dies in the God of War video game series, by the way, which is a perfect demonstration of the willpower of Nadal and Djokovic, who have eclipsed Federer, putting him as a clear 3rd best of all time.
The beauty in tennis is not necessary to win matches, to win titles, to win Grand Slams (probably the least of all things you try to improve in order to win a major is how pretty your forehand looks).
But beauty is a sign. A delicious visual representation that confirms ability, that a player like Federer has not only mastered the elements, the game, the mind, but also perfected the body, perfectly (or peRFeclty) in tune with the tactics and technique.
Federer’s technique is nearly impeccable, an early sign that he was made for the game. The brilliance of finding a player who had all the qualities to become great. Of course, Roger was just a boy once, and a pretty rebel one. Surely, broken rackets, disobedience in youth, mental weakness and a backhand topspin drive that was far less than impressive in his early days, were not quite the signs of 20 major titles and 310 weeks at number one in the world, 237 of which held consecutively. But he looked like he was made for the sport.
Beauty isn’t necessary for tennis. Not for the athlete. But recognizing the beauty in Federer’s game is seeing that he has achieved great control of his body. It is equated to art, like dancing, where we literally notice how the people on stage mastered the full control of their bodies in a way that the audience is tricked into thinking it takes no effort. But God knows if you try a ballet step your body is not ready for, you might get a stiff back for a week.
Tennis, however, is a sport. It doesn’t matter if you hit pretty shots, it doesn’t matter how effortlessly you move. If you lose, it’s of little consequence how effortlessly you played. That is the sole reason why Federer’s elegance and poetry-in-motion qualities do not weigh into how great a tennis player he is, meaning how good he is at playing and winning matches. It is beneficial, though, to assess how great an athlete he is. It is easy even for the most untrained pair of eyes to see that Federer is, in fact, a good tennis player. Why he kept losing to Nadal, on the other hand, is a matter of actual tennis knowledge. Nadal was fast and exploited weaknesses in Federer’s game that are unrelated to the latter’s ability to move around the court like he was gliding.
To conclude this piece, written on whim in about 20 minutes in a café, no, beauty and elegance are not necessary in tennis. (Unless you’re only playing exhibitions, in which case the competitive aspect of the sport is lost.) But beauty is important for many fans, and so long as we can appreciate that Federer really is a wonder to watch and still understand that this isn’t what won his matches and in no way makes him better or worse than Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic (who also mastered their bodies to play the game, just in a different way), we can all get along, appreciate one-handed backhands, lefty forehands with impossible RPM’s, and sliding double-handed backhand passing shots.
Tennis is beautiful. Just in many different ways.