A trip to the U.S. Open this weekend serves as a reminder that athletic excellence doesn't last forever.
The career of a transcendent professional athlete is fleeting.
There are so many profoundly great athletes—Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, and Albert Pujols to name a few—whose entire athletic careers have unfolded in recent years, when I had opportunities to witness their achievements in person. Did I do enough to appreciate these incredibly talented individuals? Or will I forever be stuck watching highlight reels and wondering why I didn't make more concerted efforts to see physical genius in the flesh?
It was with this conundrum in mind that earlier this summer I decided to put aside all excuses I had succumbed to in years past and make a trip to the U.S. Open so I could see Roger Federer compete while he retained the form that has made him the most dominant men's tennis player in the Open Era.
Federer is no longer in his prime—his best tennis occurred from 2004 through 2007 when he won 11 of 16 possible grand slam titles and twice came within a match of completing the calendar year grand slam. It's safe to say that Federer, who is 31, will never again achieve that level of dominance. But as of this writing he is the number one ranked player in the world and the defending champion at Wimbledon. He has won more Masters 1000 tournaments in 2012 than any other player on tour. He is still a top-caliber tennis player and one of the best athletes in the world.
I have watched Federer's career unfold on television but had never seen him in person. That changed this weekend when I ventured to Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City to watch Federer take on Fernando Verdasco in the third round of the U.S. Open. The following is an account of what it is like to cross an item off a personal sports bucket list.
As Federer and Verdasco walk onto the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the unremarkable nature of Federer's physique becomes apparent in a way that is not understandable when you watch him on television. Most professional athletes have physical traits that stand out. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—the three players ranked directly behind Federer—each have several characteristics that upon first viewing makes you think, "This is a person who uses his body for a living." Federer lacks this sort of presence. He is tall and walks with a certain grace but physically comes across somewhat average. His upper body is so slender that his shoulder blades poke out of his shirt. His arms are skinny. If you put him in a lineup with five other professional athletes and then asked someone unfamiliar with sports to spot the person who didn't belong, that person would probably pick Federer nine times out of 10.
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Despite his lack of rippling muscles, it becomes apparent once play commences that Federer can absolutely cream a tennis ball. He has no problem trading powerful ground strokes from five feet behind the baseline with Verdasco, a short muscular player who could pass for a PAC-10 halfback. The late author and amateur tennis player David Foster Wallace wrote, "Any normal adult male can hit a tennis ball with pro pace." That claim always struck me as a bit dubious, but watching Federer and Verdasco go toe-to-toe lends credence to the argument that generating power in tennis is more a product of timing and eye-hand-coordination than sheer muscle mass. Put these two players in the UFC Octagon and Verdasco would be the odds-on favorite to come out alive. On a tennis court, the slender Federer somehow can generate the power necessary to outhit the stronger Spaniard.
The first set unfolds on serve through the first seven games. Devoid of context, I could easily confuse the match as a spirited hitting session between two friends. Neither player shows much emotion. The stadium looks like it's filled to about 60 percent capacity, and while the crowd is clearly pro-Federer they don't generate much noise. Federer finally breaks Verdasco in the eighth game and holds serve to win the set 6-3. The applause that follows is polite without being too enthusiastic. This is what the fans expect to see.
There's a scene at the end of the Roman Polanski film Chinatown in which the protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) asks an old, wealthy Los Angeles tycoon who is carrying out a plan to enrich himself further by cheating millions of residents out of easy access to water, "Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" The implication in this line of questioning is that only unfathomable greed could motivate a man of advanced age and secure financial stature to perpetrate such a twisted scheme.
I'd like to ask Roger Federer a similar question, which is to say I'd like to ask him why, at 31 and with the unmatched résumé he has already assembled, he continues to compete on the ATP tour. Tennis is an incredibly demanding sport and given that Federer already holds nearly every meaningful record on the books it's somewhat surprising that he seems so eager for more.
Past tennis champions Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, both of whom were the most dominant player during their particular eras, were more than ready to hang up their rackets at ages when they conceivably could have continued playing for several years. Andy Roddick, who is younger than Federer, has announced that he will retire at the conclusion of this year's U.S. Open. Like them, Federer could give up playing tomorrow and go on to live the good life, but has given no indication that retirement is in his immediate future. He's even hinted that playing the 2016 Olympics is not out of the question. No one questions Federer's motivation or his desire to remain on top of the tennis world.
The same cannot be said about Federer's opponent on this day.
I'm watching the match live but listening to the CBS telecast—a grand slam event just isn't the same without John McEnroe and Mary Carillo's color commentary—and during the first set Carillo spends a significant amount of time talking about Verdasco's life as a tennis journeyman. He's never won a grand slam event or a Masters 1000 tournament. Verdasco's career did, however, take a marked upturn at the conclusion of the 2008 season, when he traveled to Las Vegas to partake in grueling workouts with Gil Reyes, the strength and fitness coach best known for helping Andre Agassi stay competitive into his mid-30s. The very next season he made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open, his best result in a major to date, where he narrowly lost an epic five-set match to then-world number one Rafael Nadal. From that point on Verdasco appeared to be on the up and up. His ranking rose to as high as seven in the world, and he gained a reputation as a tough left-handed player with a booming forehand.