As regular readers of this blog know I am a big fan of “The Spin of the Ball” Blog at the Oregonean which is written by Douglas Perry. In this posting he talks about the difference between being imaginative on the court and being meaningful innovation.
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Roger Federer and the limits of imagination
Published: Friday, November 04, 2011, 5:00 AM Updated: Friday, November 04, 2011, 8:32 AM
Roger Federer, relaxed and enjoying himself at his hometown tournament this week, offers us a pretty good look at what we have — and what we’re starting to lose — as the Swiss great moves into the twilight of his career.
Someone once said, probably in reference to jazz, that meaningful improvisation is the very definition of genius. This certainly applies to tennis, even though it means that genius is a rare thing indeed in the sport — especially at the very top.
How could genius be even rarer at the top of the game than at lower levels? Easy: tennis excellence always has been about repetition and discipline. With the rise of tennis academies in the 1980s and the effects of Space Age equipment over the past two decades, this is truer now than ever before. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are supremely talented. They do astonishing things out on the tennis court, things that make you slap your head and say, I can’t believe I just saw that. But they do not do imaginative things.
This is hardly a knock on them. Imaginative players, as a general rule, don’t make it to number one in the world. Such players tend to get lost in their daydreams. They overthink the possibilities and chafe at the discipline required to be consistently excellent. They’re head cases. Prior to Federer, the only two truly imaginative players to reach number one during the Open Era were John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase, and we all know how emotionally stable they were. Talent-wise, Mac and Nasty should have won many more major titles than they did. (The emotionally placid version of the outre tennis talent chooses flights of fancy because he doesn’t have the physical skills to bulldoze to victory. He never gets close to Grand Slam glory. The recently retired Fabrice Santoro, “The Magician,” put on quite a show during his long, fruitful career, but he topped out at number 17 in the rankings and managed a lone major quarterfinal finish.)
You’ve no doubt seen footage of Mansour Bahrami, the Harlem Globetrotter of tennis. A knowledgeable reader of this blog recently sent around a video of Bahrami at various exhibitions. It was endlessly entertaining. The conventional wisdom on Bahrami is that his competitive career didn’t amount to much because he was walled off in his native Iran during his best years. True enough … to a point. He was getting up there but wasn’t quite over the hill when he did finally make it to the West and the ATP Tour. His problem wasn’t age, it was that he couldn’t bring himself to play conventional power tennis. Watch this clip of a 1988 match between Bahrami, then 32, and Boris Becker:
Great stuff, right? He makes Becker jump and jerk as if caught on an electric fence. You have to wonder why the Benny Hill theme music isn’t playing behind the clip. Still, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Becker won the match, 6-3, 6-3.
The lesson is an obvious one: Meaningful improvisation needs to be combined with discipline and raw physicality if you want to play with the big boys. And that’s what Federer has brought to the tour for the past decade. Nadal told me in March that it doesn’t matter what his head-to-head record with Federer is, Roger is the “best ever.” I believe he meant it — and still does, despite Djokovic’s incredible performance over the course of the season. One of the great things about sports is that it’s not subjective like the Oscars or your local city magazine’s Best Restaurants ranking. We don’t vote for the World Series champion — the teams play for it each year. Yet tournament titles alone do not tell us what Federer brings to the table.
Federer does everything right: his footwork, his stroke technique, his very approach to the game — it’s all textbook perfect.
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