It’s Tuesday night at the 2008 U.S. Open, Court 14, deep in the outer boroughs of The USTA National Tennis Center. Alex Kuznetzov punches a forehand volley to the deuce court. Robby Ginepri is there. He rips a forehand at Kuznetzov’s midsection. Kuznetzov knifes a backhand volley past Ginepri and doubles partner Travis Rattenmaier. Ginepri nods. The small crowd applauds in appreciation for a moment of perfect tennis.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, Court 4, framed by half-filled aluminum bleachers. Julien Benneteau gets low and puts his weight behind a textbook forehand, driving the ball deep to Marin Cilic’s backhand. Cilic barely tracks it down. He floats the ball back. Benneteau moves forward, ready to volley Cilic’s reply to the open court. He dumps it into the net. The crowd gasps.
It’s Thursday evening on Arthur Ashe, show time in the Apple. Alec Baldwin is telling Johnny Mac that he underestimated Jim Carrey when “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” opened on the same night as his own movie. Rafael Nadal is up a set and a break against American qualifier, Ryler De Heart. De Heart is scampering back to the middle of the baseline. Nadal wrongfoots him. De Heart fights his momentum, reaches backward, and pops up a lob. Nadal takes it out of the air with a swinging volley that finds the net. The crowd roars, urging on the underdog.
Levels of the game
Three volleys, none all that consequential. Kuznetzov’s shot is textbook perfect. At match time, he was ranked 122 in doubles, 300 in singles. Benneteau, ranked 57 in singles, demonstrates impeccable technique, but falters at the moment of contact. Nadal’s stroke is sloppy, an easy putaway slapped casually into the net. He’s the world’s best player.
What separates a player like Kuznetzov, eking out a living at the pro game’s periphery, from a well-compensated top-100 player like Benneteau? And what’s the difference between Benneteau and the Grand Slam contenders? Technique? Athleticism? The mental and emotional intangibles?
The answer is elusive. Nick Bolletteri saw a Grand Slam champion when he first met Andre Agassi, but the stories of exceptionally talented tennis players who fail to make a dent on the pro tour are legion. In the Concrete Elbow, Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor describes the enigma:
When you try to judge from the sidelines and peer into the future, you’re reminded again how fine the lines are between the players at the upper reaches of the game. But while the lines may be fine, they’re made of steel.
The champion’s intangibles
At the highest levels of the game, superior technique and athleticism seem bound together in a psychic epoxy of intelligence, determination, and, above all, belief. Any deficit in these intangible qualities makes a player more human, and thus destined for the tour’s fringe.
After beating Olivier Rochus to win his first round at the 2008 U.S. Open, qualifier Ryler De Heart told the press, “I didn’t think I was even going to be able to go five sets. To win five was awesome . . . that’s my first best three out of five. And in the qualifying I was a little bit tired in my last round in the third set, so I was thinking, you know, that feeling and then two more sets out of that. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it and I did.”
Few of us know what it feels like to hit a ball as well as De Heart can, but most of us have faced challenges that seemed too big for us, and then, much to our surprise and delight, prevailed. In this respect, there’s less difference between us and De Heart, the 225th best tennis player on the planet, than between De Heart and Federer.
After his 2006 victory at Wimbledon, Federer told the press, “Well, you get to feel that you’re absolutely in control, and there’s a sense of confidence, you know. It’s like when you’re playing with the home crowd sort of, you’re not afraid to try anything, you’re not afraid to hit the ball hard, you’re not afraid to go for aces. That’s the sensation you get when you’re playing so well. That’s exactly what I felt today.”
We understand the words, but have we ever experienced the feeling he describes? Federer isn’t simply a better version of ourselves. He lives in an alternative reality.
Through most of 2008, Federer was having a disappointing year–humiliated at the French, beaten at Wimbledon, and hammered in the summer Masters Series events. Federer was on the decline. He’d lost a step. The young guys were ready to take him down. The season’s final Slam was his last shot at redemption. This narrative made sense to everyone. It was obviously “true.” But not to Federer.
Federer beat Andy Murray in three easy sets to claim his 13th Grand Slam. Afterwards a reporter asked him whether he thought the best word for his triumph was “redemption.”
“I don’t understand ‘redemption’ quite that well,” Federer said, “but I don’t think that’s what it is. I don’t feel like I needed this win particularly to prove myself, you know. I don’t think I’m at that point anymore.”
Federer, whose native language is Swiss German, was being literal when he said that he didn’t quite understand “redemption.” The metaphorical interpretation is more illuminating. Federer couldn’t understand “redemption” because the concept makes no sense to someone possessed of a champion’s supreme self-belief.