What’s Behind the Federer Magic?

Why one man hitting a ball with some framed string is just so inspiring.


Most of the time we watch sport because we want to see who wins and feel the tension as that fact gets decided. People who harp on about aesthetics in sport are usually a bit misguided. I don’t care if a South African batsman looks ugly while he makes a hundred. Some of our best batsmen could barely cover drive (see Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten).

Which is why I have been scratching my head to try to work out why there is something about how Federer hits a tennis ball that is almost… beautiful.

As I watched Nadal and Federer roll back the years on Sunday and resurrect the long-standing rivalry between power and grace, I cast my mind back to an article written by the late novelist, and junior tennis player, David Foster Wallace, entitled ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience‘.

In it he tries to get to the bottom of why Roger seems to have a certain other-wordliness to his game.

He notes first of all, ‘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.’

But he goes on to say that beauty in sport is a particular kind of beauty, perhaps best named ‘kinetic beauty’:

‘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.’

What Wallace is getting at is the fact that a lot of the time our bodies get in our way – they interrupt our moods, our thoughts. There is always a gap between how well we think we can dance, sing, or play sport, and what our bodies are in fact willing to do.

Federer on the other hand seems to have come to terms with having a body. It seems as though the gap between thought and action is smaller for him than it is even for a player who beats him most of the time, like Nadal.

As Wallace puts it, his body seems to be both flesh and light.

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Now obviously Wallace is getting a bit hysterical here. But, on Sunday, I couldn’t help feeling he was right to a certain extent.

When Federer plays an outrageous shot, you feel a jolt of weird joy. It makes you laugh, particularly as he calmly walks back to the baseline to simply do it again. These past nights I have been trying to work out what this all means.

Perhaps it means that when we see somebody do something exactly as they mean to do it, beauty becomes, once again, a universal category upon which everybody can agree.

And so maybe we all need to be a little like Roger. Find something we’re good at, slowly diminish the gap between thought and action, reconcile ourselves with our bodies, and thus bring joy to the world.