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The Mind and the Moment 09/13/2007 - 3:50 PM


[Greetings, everyone. Asad has stepped up with some afterthoughts on the US Open. We're putting another issue of the mothership to bed here in New York, but I'll be back soon, and with some news on Crisis Center/OT type posts. Stay tuned and enjoy this marvelous piece of writing. Pete]

Many small stories achieved sudden prominence during the U.S. Open, only to subside within a day or so: Mirnyi over Baghdatis.  Radwanska pulls a Chang!  Wow, the Bryans are out already.  Boy, Lopez has never crushed his backhand like this!  You wonder if any of them are going to pan out.

Sometimes, a Grand Slam's microplots balloon into major storylines, as when seventeen year-old Boris Becker won a few matches at Wimbledon, then the whole tournament.  But these days, for the last eleven Grand Slams, the biggest storyline in men's tennis has been that the overwhelming favorite won the tournament.  I can't think of another such stretch.  And that story is basically about Roger Federer, with a contorno of Rafa Nadal.

For the purposes of selling newspapers or inciting momentary interest, this may not be the most desirable state of affairs.  And you can't blame most sportswriters for not wanting to write yet again about how remarkable Federer's dominance has been.  Eleven Slams in four years, yawn.  But it often struck me, while watching, say, Cornet-Jankovic, that twenty-five years from now the biggest and only question some young tennis fan might ask me would be: so you saw Roger Federer?  (With, maybe, two secondary questions concerning Justine and Novak.)

A couple of times during press conferences, I noticed something kind of interesting about Roger Federer.  I'll get to it in a minute, but let me describe the scene first.  Players enter Interview Room One, where all of the Rajah's pressers take place, at the corner diagonally opposite from where the players enter. The players come in and turn right, to take their seat behind the microphone on the little dais or stage.  Most players look to their left as they enter, just gauging the room and who is in it and how full it is.  Federer, though, always keeps his head down and eyes averted, until he sits and begins to answer questions, when he makes direct eye contact with each questioner. 

Anyway, a couple of times during his press conferences, someone's cell phone went off, each time with an annoyingly loud ring tone.  Both times, everyone turned, first to locate and then to glare at the culprit: have you no shame?  And both times, I noticed, Roger kept his eyes locked on his interlocutor, never glancing in the direction of the phone.  I'm sure he was conscious, on one level, that there was an interruption occurring, but he had decided to ignore it.  Not even a darting of the eyes towards the irritant.  Both coming in the room with his head down and refusing to allow himself to be distracted or interrupted seemed to convey the same thing: he chooses to focus selectively, and focuses intensely once he does. Fed

Or maybe it's just that so many phones had rung in so many press conferences that it barely registered in his consciousness anymore.  Plus, there's an element of performance about the whole thing.  Such things are beneath my attention.  I got another sense, however: a sense that he was conserving focus.  Fed went through all his subsidiary responsibilities as the President of Tennis (as Steve Tignor calls him) without concentrating on anything, or at least on as few things as possible.   

Concentration takes mental energy, as anyone who has fought off five break points before shanking a ball on the sixth knows.  And whenever I saw Federer on the grounds, he seemed to be using as little of it as possible.  Practicing with Nicolas Kiefer on Ashe a few days before the tournament, he mostly just messed around.  He would hit a few familiar Federer shots, the heavy forehand, the penetrating slice, then shank a ball and grin, or yell.  Either way, he wasn't really concentrating all that hard. 

I think this "conservationist" ethic even extended to the matches.  Typically, only the loss of a set would elicit from Federer the kind of breathtaking play we saw against John Isner and Feliciano Lopez.  In the Roddick match, with Roddick playing as well as he ever has, Fed seemed to have reduced the number of points on which he was truly dialed in to just one per set: a crosscourt backhand pass in the first tiebreaker, and that reflex backhand return in the other.  It was as casual a dismissal of a opponent in top form as I've seen. 

"Federer" (lol Pete) clearly bided his time during the final, watching to see if more concentration would be needed.  When asked what he was thinking when at 5-6, 0-40 in the first set, Djokovic serving, he said:

"I thought he was going to serve another big serve and I would be out of the set really. At this point you have no hope. It's obvious, you know.  However, you hope if a couple points go your way early on and you get back to 40‑30 he could get a little bit nervous. It's a Grand Slam, after all.  But you don't think too much because it goes too fast."


Clearly, Federer was not too stressed about losing the first set, which demonstrates that he has gotten to a special mental state: acceptance of what has happened combined with confidence about what will happen.  Also, his mentioning how fast it all goes resonated with some comments he made earlier in the tournament, on the subject of how he prepares for opponents - it turns out he doesn't, much.  After Isner: "You can't prepare for these guys...  every player in the top 100 is unique."  And after Davydenko: "I don't need to sit down and talk about an opponent for an hour. Takes me basically 15 seconds."

This may sound arrogant, but I actually think it's the opposite.  Federer has inspired an army of purple prose-writing editorialists to write encomiums to his play.  Often the questions he is asked tend to come with a subtext of, "Your genius far exceeds these other guys, huh?"  Further, writers tend to explain his dominance as a form of better thinking.  But, during the U.S. Open, Federer often downplayed the amount of thinking and conscious effort he needs to put into playing tennis.  It's as if he's trying to say, "Guys, I just go out there and play my game.  I'm not a ballet dancer or an aeronautical engineer.  I'm a tennis player, and I react to what happens out there."

At this stage of his career, Federer more and more resembles Pete Sampras in his approach to winning.  It's not about the other guy, it's about what you know you will summon from yourself at times of need.  I suppose winning as much as those two guys have builds something more than confidence, something like faith.

Federer has that faith (and so did Rod Laver, judging by some fascinating comments Rosangel put up on the "Simply the Best?" post).  And he's less strategic than many analysts would have you believe.  He's not out there thinking all that consciously about slicing followed by the deep topspin forehand followed by the dropshot.  His is an athletic genius, after all, and as he says, "it goes too fast."  Instead, he uses his mind to make sure he's ready to concentrate at those crucial moments he is so good at identifying, and once there, doing what comes to him.  That's what I think he meant when he said, after Isner, "it's all in the mind and it's all in the moment."

-Asad Raza

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Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 09/13/2007 at 04:02 PM


Posted by Tari 09/13/2007 at 04:07 PM

Holy crap, this was good, Asad. I love thinking of Roger in the way you've described. He's still a mystery, and still magical to me, but much more human...much less "Federer". :))

Posted by Kevin 09/13/2007 at 04:25 PM

Asad, this is what separates Roger from the rest of men's field. It's also why Justine Henin can't exactly be THE female version of Federer - she's not quite there yet w/Federer's approach to winning (don't get me wrong - I'm a huge fan of Henin as well). Enjoyed this very much!

Posted by Sam 09/13/2007 at 04:29 PM

Well done, Asad. Very interesting take on Federer. I especially enjoyed the following passage:

"he uses his mind to make sure he's ready to concentrate at those crucial moments he is so good at identifying, and once there, doing what comes to him."

Posted by daylily 09/13/2007 at 04:32 PM

Asad, your writing moved me to peek in from infrequent lurkdom to compliment you on your piece. it's lovely. even though it's about roger.....if i read your remarks about him often enough, i might be compelled to like him more than i do. you can certainly turn a phrase to get me to say that. mazel tov.

Posted by Schwab 09/13/2007 at 04:35 PM

Good article Asad on Federer and his mental approach to his tennis game and presser. Now, assuming Fed wins 2008 AO, will he tie Sampras(and his 14 Slams) at the French?

Posted by Dan 09/13/2007 at 04:40 PM

This piece actually makes a lot of sense. It is difficult to have "everything" planned against your opponent and execute "everything" on the court. Many occasion just have to react to the point and concentrate on getting it back or putting his next ball in good position. Certainly makes a lot of sense to me personally.

Posted by nora 09/13/2007 at 04:44 PM

Dude, you've got this tennis journalism thing TAPED!!

Posted by Anjali 09/13/2007 at 04:46 PM

Hi Asad,

Excellent post. I actually hear the phone ringing while watching Fed's interview online and did wonder if he heard it as well! It does appear that Fed is supremely focused --yet what always amuses me that he often looks up to see himself on the big screen during matches. Either he's so supremely in the zone that such gestures merely confirm his own confidence, or is it something else? Your comments also explain Fed's repeated comment that he rarely looks up at his box, and that his confidence is all personal. And we all know Henin can't survive with her help from Papa Carlos!

Posted by nora 09/13/2007 at 04:48 PM

Just one thing -- "he got through his subsidiary responsibilities without concentrating on anything, or at least on as few things as possible "

So, are you saying it was just a performance, and he wasn't really concentrating on whoever he was looking at in the press conferences?

Hasn't he answered some pretty specific, non-standard questions about technical issues pretty frankly in his press conferences?

Not sure exactly what you're getting at here. Unless it was just an awkward segue to the practice-courts anecdote...

Posted by CM 09/13/2007 at 04:48 PM

Great writing Asad. And it makes alot of sense. People always comment on how relaxed Roger is. Agassi even commented on it during the Roddick/Fed match. He said he had seen Roger in the locker room right before the match and Roger was just laughing and really relaxed. Agassi was very surprised. Maybe Roger is so relaxed because he doesn't put that much mental energy into it. He waits until he really needs it.

I think you really have something here! Thanks much.

Posted by Sher 09/13/2007 at 04:55 PM

That was very interesting analysis.

[twenty-five years from now the biggest and only question some young tennis fan might ask me would be: so you saw Roger Federer? (With, maybe, two secondary questions concerning Justine and Novak.) ]

Putting Novak on the same level as Henin assumes a lot.

Posted by codepoke 09/13/2007 at 05:09 PM

Great piece, Asad. I love reading about the mind of a competitor, and if a competitor, why not a champ. Thank you.

Does anyone else think the picture of Fed hitting the backhand shows his age? To me, he looks almost Moya-esque with the lines and strain.

Posted by Andrew 09/13/2007 at 05:19 PM

There was a lovely inteview with the Bryan brothers a few weeks ago where they talked about how Federer is able to be supremely loose in the locker room, laughing and joking, then "switch on" his game face five minutes before a match.

The recent interview with Federer when he talked about preparing for an opponent in a few seconds, and some of the material Asad includes makes me see Federer as akin to a brilliant jazz musician - very aware of the underlying form and structure of the music, but knowing how to improvise freely and melodically in the moment.

His knowledge of the other players may be like a musician's knowledge of his band mates - certain things may virtually force a player to attempt a kind of shot, whereas other situations may reflect more their tendencies.

Posted by DMS 09/13/2007 at 05:21 PM

...or perhaps Roger did not want to embarrass the poor guy who forgot to turn off the phone, so he acted as if it were not an interruption or distraction to him. We may never know, but Roger is that gracious, so I could be convinced of that as well.

Great work Mr. Asad, I enjoy hearing from you guys with good access to the TMTG dude.

Posted by Tim 09/13/2007 at 05:32 PM

great piece and I think its right on the money re Fed--he reacts now only when he NEEDS to react, and doesnt waste energy until then ..its a few less magic moments for fans, but this selective attention earned him Slam NO. 12 for sure... oddly, the semis and finals were the least Ive enjoyed watching Fed for awhile now, it was Cincy-like, only glimpses of brilliance, lots of errors, etc., but Im more sure now than ever than Fed will keep winning a Slam or two a year until he retires..

hey Lils!

codepoke, Roger is Moya-esque but we all should look as 'old' as he does! thats kinda like saying Britney Spears is 'fat' lol

Posted by mary 09/13/2007 at 05:35 PM

Very interesting piece. When I read, "I don't need to sit down and talk about an opponent for an hour. Takes me basically 15 seconds." I thought, Thank God Gilbert isn't his coach.

Posted by Tim 09/13/2007 at 05:44 PM

Roger and Gilbert, Im sure that's Roger's idea of being in coaching hell lol

I still love the fact he can win another Wimby Open double without a coach or barely stealing glances near his box for an entire match ... its like, 'everyone OUT of the way, and just let me play"

Posted by GVGIRL 09/13/2007 at 05:57 PM

Great job Asad. So when will you be hired by Tennis Magazine!

Posted by jhurwi 09/13/2007 at 06:00 PM

Re Federer making direct eye contact with each questioner: I noticed this at the 2006 Nike exhibition "on the street" in New York City. After he and Nadal hit a few shots for the crowd, they stayed to answer questions from journalists. Although it was impossible to hear what they were saying, I observed that Federer looked directly at whoever was questioning him, leaning toward them and acting as if he was really interested in what they were saying (although I'm sure that most of the questions were the same-old routine ones). I remember being very surprised when news reports the next day said that one of the interviewers had asked him about Mary Carillo's "tanking" comment and that he had gotten very upset about about it, because I never saw him bat an eye or change expression during the media session. So he certainly does maintain his concentration!

Posted by nate 09/13/2007 at 06:06 PM

whoa, the best piece i've read on this site for sure. last paragraph especially is a great point that no one has really made. i, myself, get a bit sick of the analysts making federer sound like a chess grand master. it's a sport first, game of strategy second, and federer's greatest gift is a complete game that gives him so many options. being able to rely on that versatility--and his almost inhuman coordination/timing--is the entire foundation of his mental strength as well as his strategy...

Posted by monterey 09/13/2007 at 06:16 PM

Great piece, Asad. It seems great champions see patterns in the game that others simply don't, allowing them to anticipate and rise to the moment when most needed.

Fed has spoken about seeing things unfold in slow motion, knowing what his opponent is going to do next, but the thing is to be able to counter that and execute the proper response.

Now we all know how well he can do that, but why can't he do it so well at RG against the great Nadal? Well, I guess not everything can come so easy, not even for Fed. What fun would there be if he didn't have a very difficult obstacle in his way. He'll just have to keep on working at it and as he said it will taste all the more sweet once (if?) he finally wins the FO.

Posted by kk 09/13/2007 at 06:20 PM

Excellent observation and wonderfully written. Thanks!!

Posted by superSnark 09/13/2007 at 06:22 PM

Tennis is a dance of sorts, one has to relax and stay in the moment to react to what the opponent throws your way. You may have an overall strategy vs a particular opponent, but in the heat of the moment you have to focus on the ball and hopefully you've practiced your shots enough that the rest takes care of itself. Overthinking can only lead to fragmentation, hesitation, and ultimately defeat.

Posted by Rolo Tomassi 09/13/2007 at 06:49 PM

Asad - Great piece. Agree about his dismissal of Roddick boiling down to Fed really turning up his focus on a few big points. I've been haunted especially by those four second-serve aces Fed hit against Andy - why go for those in such a "close" match? Maybe as a way of saying, as Clubber Lang said in Rocky 3, "I got a lotta mo.'" I truly think those aces were a way of letting people, including Andy, know that he could take things to another level whenever he damn well felt like it...

Posted by randomtester 09/13/2007 at 07:09 PM

I think Federer just goes out there with just a "general plan" against his opponent, and then plays with this in mind in "autopilot" mode. The pro game is too fast to have to plan out every single shot. It all boils down to having the right reactions to his opponents shots and then executing winners when given the chance.

I find that planning too much affects my match results adversely. Lately I just keep in my mind details of my opponents game (e.g. a bad backhand, crappy volleying) rather than trying to execute set patterns against him/her. The best players that I've seen and talk to all tell me that out there, everything happens in a reactionary/autopilot frame of mind. You can just imagine how strong Fed's "autopilot" is. Its even scarier when he gets out of it and goes "full manual control" mode in certain points.

Posted by ptenisnet 09/13/2007 at 07:18 PM

Hey asad. very nice.
according to j-mac, federer does have a broad strategy:

"keep the ball in play long enough to hit the shot he wants to hit".
His versatility just gives him more ways/opportunities to do that.

Posted by rgrace 09/13/2007 at 07:25 PM

Great stuff and really thoughtful. For sure, I felt that Fed never really whipped out the can o' whoop-ass on people this time, at least not like the the AO this year. Is he bored with the level of his oppo? I really don't think his game is maxed-out at this point; I just think he does exactly what Asad said; he conserves himself. You only get to see Ethereal Mode in a few points a match, so you'd better keep your eyes open!

If he was indeed in a slump this year (the two losses to Canas were surely not by design) some slump it turned out to be!

Posted by Lucy 09/13/2007 at 07:43 PM


I'm with Nate in that I tire of journalists' explanations of Fed's game in chess or military or dancing terms, as if it's possible to choreograph a match down to how much topspin you'll use on your forehand in a specific situation. He's a genius, in a sense, but it's an unconscious genius. He's just reacting. Actually, that's part of what makes it so amazing that the result is so breathtaking to look at.

This might be a little more controversial, but I never really believed Fed's assertion that he tries to "beat people at their own game" - serve and volley against serve-volleyers, etc. I think the opponent obviously has an impact on how he approaches the match, but I think it's much more subtle than that, and less macho. The beating people at their own game notion sounded to me like Fed grasping at an explanation for something that is really not a conscious process with him, deciding he liked how it sounds, and sticking to it.

Posted by Bob 09/13/2007 at 07:54 PM

This is inherent in sports, which are muscle memory and reaction and pure talent. No matter the sport, the action is too fast for the mind to deal with it. The body deals with it automatically. You can have a strategy generally against a particular opponent, but as in war, once the first shot is fired, the battle plan changes. Fighters don't think about what punch or kick to use. Their body senses it automatically from their experience. Great backs in football respond "instinctively" to the defenders and situation. It's the same in every sport, except perhaps golf, where you have time to deal with your shot. Gretzky was a genius at responding to the entire scenario on the ice, anticipating what would happen seconds from then, without conscious thought. As a match progresses, the player responds automatically to what he's getting, and how he's hitting, and other variables, but it's such a fast sport that this is almost automatic.

Posted by ptenisnet 09/13/2007 at 07:56 PM

To be fair, the only context in which I've heard Federer being compared to a chess grand master is in the sense that he can see 5 and 6 shots ahead in a rally. Not necessarily in terms of a long term match strategy. Nalby, on the other hand, I've heard talked about as being cerebral; "always thinking" is the phrase I've heard used.
Federer doesn't so much strategise as improvise.

Posted by Cheshire Cat 09/13/2007 at 08:14 PM

If Nalby is cerebral, I'm Johann Sebastian Bach.

Posted by Rolo Tomassi 09/13/2007 at 08:20 PM


I bear greetings from Asad Raza. His internet is down at home but we happened to speak tonight and he thanks his loyal fans for all your nice posts, and those to come later tonight. He'll make his way to an internet cafe on Friday to check in, respond to comments, etc.

Carry on....

Posted by Aabye 09/13/2007 at 08:25 PM

This article explains why players people think of as 'book smart' or 'strategists' (aka James Blake or David Nalbandian) seem to go away in matches. While I am in no way suggesting that Roger is not those things, I do think it interesting how he seems so focused but relaxed at the same time. The comment about how everything 'goes so fast' is telling. It does seem more instinctual than mental. A Blake thinks too much, where a Federer goes out there and lets his talent flow. Thus, if he loses the first set, he does not panic, when others might. But then again few have Federer's talent, so they have to think a little more out there. My question though, is if Federer was met with equal or superior talent (I guess it would have to be a better android :P), would he be able to maintain his focus. I mean, there have been only three real times when he has faced a real mental challenge since becoming #1, Austraila 2005,Rome 2006, and Wimbledon 2007. His fans can point to the result of the latter, or his Roddick match at the end of last year, or even his lastest Slam victory, but in the first he was given a reprieve, the second was no challenge for him (he owns Roddick), and the third was in part a Djoko choke. I don't want to sound like Wilander, but the only two who have ever really challenged him, have earned victories over him, despite supposedly not having "half his talent."

Posted by btennis 09/13/2007 at 08:40 PM

"(With, maybe, two secondary questions concerning Justine and Novak.)"

What? Have we seen enough of Novak to know for sure he'll be remembered a few years from now? If anything, I think all the young-guns of the Roger Federer era (and the one right after it) will be overshadowed by Federer's legacy. They won't be remembered much. Except maybe for Rafa Nadal, in a very "and Federer took some time to win the Frech Open because there was this guy..." way.

Posted by la boheme 09/13/2007 at 08:46 PM

Terrific insight - a great read! I also noticed the cellphone moment in his press conference. Fed didn't turn his head toward the sound and didn't even blink - it showed intense focus on what he was doing, almost as if nothing else existed.

I think this attribute was developed very early. In one of the documentaries about Fed, I think his father said that he was never very competitive in practice or just playing with his friends, but in a match he turned it on like flicking a switch. I think the competitiveness and the intense concentration are related. There seems to be an instinctive ability with Fed that's inborn that allows him to flick that switch, but he has developed this further over the years into the intense focus that we now see.

Posted by Matt Zemek 09/13/2007 at 08:47 PM


Something to think about:

Perhaps (and I'm only speculating) Federer talks about beating the other player at his own game because, if he inhabits the mentality of the person he's playing, he can exponentially improve his instinctual reactions to win that match as effectively as possible.


Awesome, and totally on the money. We are all in your debt.

Posted by Cheshire Cat 09/13/2007 at 08:50 PM

James Blake is a strategist? Now I've heard everything.

The true strategists are players like Santoro, Stepanek, Robredo, who try to make life(=tennis) as uncomfortable as possible for their opponents.

Posted by ptenisnet 09/13/2007 at 09:07 PM

I think james blake is the "book smart" one from that comment.

Posted by CL 09/13/2007 at 09:12 PM

Really nice post - so very interesting. Not even sure I agree with a lot of it..not sure I don't...just need to ponder it some more - always a good sign.

On the business of Roger being relaxed in the locker room before a match... I think it is important to remember that, for all his accomplishments, the guy is still VERY young. And boys just wanna have fun. As a matter of fact, fun is something most people would rather than have than not is seems to me. Fed's great skill and /or gift seems to be able to harness the 'fun' and take that energy and relaxation with him out onto the court for more 'serious' endeavors. And that ability relates to the second of Rosangel's anecdotes from the Laver book mentioned: its only a game. As Laver said when he was down 2 sets to love in the first round at Wimby against an opponent he had never lost to - ' well, if I DO lose, its only a tennis match.' And then he won...and that was the year he was consciously going for the Grand Slam. I think maybe Roger shares the same level of perspective. And except for a couple of 'gathering imformation' moments, he's kept his losses in prespective as well as his wins. Sometimes...most times... better than his fans. I should also add that I think Rafa has this sense of perspective as well.

Codepoke - Um, but if Roger is showing his 26 years, just imagine how some of 'us' would look in a nice fully lit close-up as we move muscle and will into a shot. On second thought, better not. :-)

Posted by Yummy Prince Fed/Karen 09/13/2007 at 09:16 PM

Perhaps (and I'm only speculating) Federer talks about beating the other player at his own game because, if he inhabits the mentality of the person he's playing, he can exponentially improve his instinctual reactions to win that match as effectively as possible.


Posted by 24/7 09/13/2007 at 09:50 PM

this is singularly, the best piece of Federer insight I've ever read about the great man. Absolute first-class effort Asad.

It also shows by contrast what an absolute plonker Roddick is with all his deliberation and high-profile coaching. Connors must soon realise you can't make a silk purse from a sows ear

Posted by Sarah 09/13/2007 at 09:53 PM

Last year was when I first thought that Federer had gotten more into the Samras idea of "one break" or "just enough".

I'm not saying that Federer does that as much as Sampras -- after all, Sampras beat plenty of people 2-3-2 . . . but I did suddenly realize last year that he was conserving energy or something.

I like the "economy of focus" idea as a good explanation for this.

Posted by 24/7 09/13/2007 at 09:54 PM

Asad is our Ray from Buffalo? Who woulda thunk it?

Posted by codepoke 09/13/2007 at 09:54 PM

> Codepoke - Um, but if Roger is showing his 26 years, just imagine how some of 'us' would look in a nice fully lit close-up as we move muscle and will into a shot. On second thought, better not. :-)

Great writing. Cool.

The thing I think was missed is that I meant it as a compliment. Really. Battle-hardened, and even battle-weary, can be worn well and it looks like he's heading in that direction.

Posted by ndk 09/13/2007 at 10:27 PM

I am not sure if I agree with Fed saying he doesn't "prepare" for more than 15 seconds. He knew without a doubt that Ferrer was the best returner on tour. You don't just instinctually know that IMO.

I think what Fed does on court is largely guided by instinct, but he doesn't leave anything before walking on court up to chance or instinct (So what if he doesn't focus during a Kiefer practice)... Whether it's the intense preparation in Dubai
as evidenced by the comments of his practice "partners" or the fact that he > knows every player on tour's game pretty well. Also remember the comments that Pete Bodo made a while ago about how both Sampras and Fed took a while to win on tour, because they needed time to figure opponents and their games out?

Posted by ndk 09/13/2007 at 10:29 PM

Pressed post before finishing: nice post Asad!

Posted by MrsSanta 09/13/2007 at 10:44 PM

What NDK said.

Instinct is more often than not the result of training and practicing so hard that some things become second nature. Not to say that Fed isn't talented (no amount of practice will turn F.Lo into a 11 time GS winner) but there have been equally talented players who produced squat.

Fed is a case of there but for endless practice and discipline go Marcelo Rios.

Posted by Sam 09/13/2007 at 10:58 PM

ndk: Good thoughts. I interpreted that as Fed putting in his time but not overthinking things, i.e. being efficient in his preparation. He knows how much time to put in, and when to focus the most. I think that is very much like Sampras, who was another self-sufficient player.

Posted by Ro'ee 09/13/2007 at 11:06 PM

great post, Ray
but I do think he was thinking his way through the final, at least.
At one point he all of a sudden figured out that Djoko wasn't handling the slice to his backhand, and started employing it more, kinda like at last year's Wimby. Too bad he didn't notice Nadal dumping the backhand every time he sliced to it at RG.
Also, he's talked about trying to "figure rafa out" so many times, that i'm pretty sure some players have earned more concentration (Nalbie, take a bow)

Posted by FoT 09/14/2007 at 12:43 AM

Great piece!

I agree about Roger being really relaxed in the locker room. In the Duece magazine they did a piece about "when was the last time...."... and asked Roger a series of questions. Here was one of them that explains why the guys still think, in spite of all the accomplishments Roger has, that he still is 'one of the guys':

The question to Roger was: When was the last time....
I played a practical joke in the locker room?
Basically everyday with everybody. In Cincinnati we had a fight in the locker room with Dmitry Tursunov. There were probably six people involved, including three or four players, throwing about 50 balls at each other for 15 minutes. I won! [Editor's note: Towards the end of the fight, the Penn ball mascot chose the wrong time to return to the locker room and was mercilessly pummeled.]

Would you have caught Pete, John, Ivan, Jimmy or any other #1 doing that? Roger is still 'one of the guys' and that is one reason the other players really still like him even though he beat the pulp out of them on court most of the times!

Posted by Birdie Lane 09/14/2007 at 01:17 AM

Loved the comment - "something more than confidence, something like faith". Indeed, his calmness at critical junctures suggest just that, a 'faith'. Saving 7 set pts? Wimby final? Match with Hewitt before Open? Too often, just when the curtains seem to be falling, Fed steps into the spotlight... while the rest of us less faithful waiver.

One more thing...the beating them at their own game thing... Truth is, with Feds talents, it's often the easiest way to win. A serve/volley guy is not going to have near the quality of returns and passes to trouble Feds net game. Likewise, the baseliners why not just stay back and work them over.

Posted by Marian 09/14/2007 at 03:13 AM

Great article, Mr.Raza.

I think Roger's faith flows from his supreme athletism, his mastery of every shot in the book and at this point of his career his experience.

He doesn't fear anyone and his matches against Nadal show that he plays "his" game: the instinctive reaction to Rafa's game. If he loses, well it's just a match. Next time he adjust "his" game trying to improve his handling of the balls that are fired to him but as "this goes so fast" Roger has had to add these new handlings to his instinct in order to win.

The concentration required in performing even simple routines properly is tiring. In matches, the quick thinking, mental alertness, and the assessment of each situation while trying to outwit and outmaneuver the opponent is a great cause of fatigue, to say nothing of the tension and stress which surround every competition.

When the mind is stressed due to an attempt to continuosly focus, wandering moments will provide relaxation or relief and they will ease tension.

Like his fans have so uptly described as Roger's wandering to "Mirkaland".

Posted by Marian 09/14/2007 at 03:17 AM

See, I just had a wandering moment. I meant aptly. Uptly does only exist in my unfocused mind :)

Posted by The Original French(ie) 09/14/2007 at 04:38 AM

"contorno", "encomium": WOW...even Amis (the son) does not use that sort of words!

no seriously, I do agree with the general argument that the fed "concentrates" at the right time instead of systematically "strategizing" too much (if I understood correctly) but I think the rest is really a bit of a stretch, particularly the "he looks down when all the others look to their left" kind of observation. I think that's a bit, if I may, ridiculous.

Kind of like: The Fed wears one his right sock down while the other is straight!! No wait, it is the right one!!!! Could that actually be a message of some kind?????

Also, the bit about deciding not to react when a mobile rings and focusing on his "interlocutor": it's just a mark of politeness (at least in Europe and in the corporate world). That's all. Besides, in press conferences with the German-speaking press (which can be separate from English-speaking ones), the Fed is quite different and more outspoken, so here you go...

The Fed his currently achieving quite a fantastic feat but I don't think too much needs to be interpreted of his every "moves". If everything and anything is used to infer about his "character" or his "state of mind" during his actions then nothing makes sense in the end. ...although one needs to say that Federer is sometimes very difficult to read. Basically,what is important is to selectively focus on what is relevant about Federer's achievements: yes, absolutely he concentrates at the right time and has an incredible degree of sang-froid at crunch times.

Posted by 张奔斗 09/14/2007 at 04:40 AM

I really believe that if Nadal weren't left-handed, Federer would have beaten him already on clay, and certainly everywhere else without much trouble. Because so much of Fed's response is pre-programmed and subconcious, it gets skewed when the opponent is left-handed.

Posted by Eric 09/14/2007 at 05:01 AM

Wow. Finally, a beautiful article that puts a beautiful athlete in perspective better than anything I've read on Mr. Federer in a long time. While I was reading through this article I found myself stunned at times by the eloquence, but stunned more so because the banner at the top of the page read: Peter Bodo's TennisWorld. I thought No, this is at least Steve Tignor, can't be Bodo. Admittedly in my haste I missed the construct entirely, and alas I reach the bottom of the page to see that it was written by Asad Raza from over at 3Quarks. But of course. Still, the point being that it's so nice for a tennis public that's quite starved to hear anything but the same old cliches regarding its transcendent world's number one, to be treated to a brilliant piece of writing with some actual thought and bite behind the prose.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 09/14/2007 at 05:28 AM

well I can see that Maria Sharapova is not the only one taking the occasion to do some free PR stunts for others !!!!!

Posted by The Original French(ie) 09/14/2007 at 06:38 AM

Davenport has just beaten Jankovic in Bali (6-4, 2-6, 6-2)

Next the semis!!!

Posted by mick1303 09/14/2007 at 08:17 AM

I also remember reading somewhere, that after the lost semi in AO 2005, Federer had a pillow fight with Safin in a locker room.

Posted by ptenisnet 09/14/2007 at 09:06 AM

Other people taking up on the "Federer" story.
Warning: Gratuitous use of p-word.

Posted by Rolo Tomassi 09/14/2007 at 09:22 AM

Hi, gang - Regarding Fed and strategizing versus not strategizing, sometime in the not-too-distant past (during The Championships/Wimbledon, perhaps?) Fed answered a question about whether or not he improvises against Rafa or comes out with a game plan. He said something to the effect of (paraphrasing) "no, I've said this already, against other guys I can do that, with Rafa I need a plan."

I think a lot of that has to do with Rafa being left handed. I also think that Rafa's superhuman ability to run down would-be winners really messes with Fed's head (ditto Canas?)- if Roger does indeed construct points (even somewhat spontaneously in the middle of a point), the problem Rafa poses is that the points extend beyond where they would end against any other player, forcing Federer to play from a losing position, or to start improvising (or just plain running/retrieving) all over again.

Posted by Aabye 09/14/2007 at 09:52 AM

I agree to a certain extent that Rafa being a southpaw is part of the reason for his success, but IMHO I think it is less then people think. I am trying to remember JMac's plea to stop touting leftiness as some secret weapon. Rafa is number 2 for quite a sevral very good reasons. I mean he is no Canas, who beats Fed, and really only Fed, a couple of times in a row. He beats a lot of people on every surface but a fast hardcourt, and he is not completely hopeless there. Speaking of Canas, a righty, he is an example that it has more to do with his and Rafa's respective games than what hand they prefer to hold their racquets with. That other Spanish lefty, F. Lopez, has a dismal record against Federer, but Canas's record is at least respectable.

Posted by Todd and in Charge 09/14/2007 at 10:21 AM

Pete, feel free to take a break -- let this guy write and get out of the way....

Posted by Robin Pratt 09/14/2007 at 11:07 AM

As a sports psychologist working on such matters in business mostly, I am always fascinated about the relationship between thinking/planning and focusing or being in the moment as you described so well.

I think you have captured so well why I would not want to touch Federer as a sports psychologist for fear of messing up the way he stays in the now and watches the ball so unworldly well.

I think this economy of effort couples with the nervousness Federer feels as he approaches Sampras' record (and the relentless burden of constantly being expected to be the GOAT and bagel everyone) to cause Roger to hit his transcendent high less frequently than he did in the breakout yaar of 2004.

From Andrew [below]. [I think this insight from the Bryans reminds me of how relaxed Michael Jordan always seemed when he was on the bench. He really was recovering, comserving his energy. On the other side, we see the extraneous energy by Nadal, Roddick and Djokovic. I think it cost Nadal against Roger in Miami 2005 final. Obviously his youth and enormous strength have overcome this waste of energy, leaping around, but many wonder if he will leave some of his longetivity on the courts due to excess expenditure of energy.]

There was a lovely inteview with the Bryan brothers a few weeks ago where they talked about how Federer is able to be supremely loose in the locker room, laughing and joking, then "switch on" his game face five minutes before a match.

Posted by FedFan_2007 09/14/2007 at 11:35 AM

We already knew he was JesusFed!

Posted by superSnark 09/14/2007 at 11:37 AM

Watching the Fed vs Andy match, I was amused at how much mental, emotional and physical energy Roddick wasted between points. He got himself so worked up early on, at one point I hid behind the couch afraid he might explode. When he didn't win the first set, the end was nigh. High level tennis is maddeningly tiring and any 'aloofness' or 'laziness' that some players display often has its energy-saving/stress-minimizing benefits.

Posted by 09/14/2007 at 11:41 AM

lolol...........Roddick is always like that when he plays Roger.He will never beat Roger again. He has accepted his 'supremacy' over him.

Posted by Abbas Raza 09/14/2007 at 11:49 AM

Good stuff, Asad. Cheers.

Posted by Heidi 09/14/2007 at 11:50 AM

This occasional brilliance thing from Roger is what is confusing many people, like my Dad... it's as if he is, as Asad says, conserving his energy as much as possible for the years ahead. It also bemuses the more occasional tennis writers, I think, because if you are writing for the fourth year in a row about Federer at the Slams, you would probably like either 1) a 5-set battle, 2) vomiting, injury, personal tragedy or 3) three love sets. How do you write about economical genius?

Posted by Pete 09/14/2007 at 11:57 AM

Hey - anyone out there have the link for filing for unemployment on-line?

Posted by DMS (UI claims) 09/14/2007 at 12:04 PM

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 09/14/2007 at 12:30 PM

I'd love to write more, and when work slows down a bit perhaps so.

But Ray, way to go!

And also, just becuase in a particular match Federer is not blasting winners all over the place does not mean he is not playing "brilliantly."

Many times, over the last two years, he basically plays a waiting game, using his exeptional defensive skills to prolong sets 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, that by any reasonable estimate his "out of his tree" opponent should have won.

The opponent, believe me, knows how well he is playing, and also knows he hasn't yet won the set.

The fact that the opponent eventually slips a bit should not be taken as if Federer has intentionally deprived us of some magic.

Magic or no, matches are won on your opponents mistakes.

Posted by CL 09/14/2007 at 12:33 PM

supersnark - I tend to agree about Andy - though on the other hand the guy is just so naturally juiced that I'm sure he has plenty to spare. He'll probably be challenging his fellow seniors to thumb wrestling contest when he's pushing 100.

Heidi - lol re the sportswriters. Esp. #2. :-) And I think the reason... or at least PART of the reason.... that Fed gets tagged with the boring lable is that the writers are a bit bored with their own writing about him.

Er, Pete - everything ok? Have I missed something??? Um, if so, could you leave the keys to the blog in the GE room? Thanks.

Posted by fastbowler 09/14/2007 at 12:38 PM

This was worth delurking for, Ray/Asad. Gorgeous, spot-on article!

Include in Federer's immense abilities to have tennis journalists, bloggers and blogger-commentators ponder the nature of genius, physical attributes and the mere act of consciousness as key to tennis greatness.

Well, the real gift is that we ponder this over and over, and it never gets old! What's the name again? TMTG?

Posted by Asad Raza 09/14/2007 at 12:49 PM

Guys: Finally found some internet, sitting on a low wall on the street.

These comments! Pfffft. They're way too kind (not that I don't appreciate it). Every tennis conversation these days touches on Fed. And I've been the beneficiary of a lot of great conversations during the Open, with Pete, Steve, Jon Levey, James Martin, Andrew F., Ed McG., etc. Some of it had to stick!

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 09/14/2007 at 12:51 PM

I think not so much Rafa simply playing left handed, rather the fact he is a right hander playing left handed. The extreme grips, heavy top all create a unique ball and game for any player to counter. As guys don't play tons of leftys versus rightys there is that but with Rafa one has a unique lefty - and benefits on two handed backhand that is quite a bit like a right handed forehand.

Combine that with his quickness, strength and will = that is why Rafa is so difficult to beat by anyone. The most successful seem to be able to flaten out his short heavy top spin balls and hit through the court taking Rafa's quickness out of the mix.

Trying to outrun and outlast him has not worked for anyone recently. Even harder on clay that buys Rafa extra time.

Who knows but I suspect a right handed Rafa would still be a very, very good player but not as lethal as the current version.

Posted by embug 09/14/2007 at 12:52 PM

Thanks for your provocative post, Asad.

In the last game of the final, the camera zoomed in on Roger's face. The shot lingered. His eyes looked as black as his shirt. He was not fooling around anymore. Time for things to come to a close. It took him another point loss, then bang... the trophy was his for the taking.

Discussions concering "the zone" or "getting into the zone" are ones that gain infinite dimensions as comments are contributed. Time magazine wrote about Tiger and his routine that makes available his zone, which to some readers must have sounded like voodoo hoodoo nonsense. However, Tiger appears to have mastered his mojo.

With Federer, "it" could be faith, intuition at its apex, and certainly his readily-available sixth sense to move from one point to another and from one moment to another without losing enthusiasm or concentration about the importance of the event... for him. Make no mistake, Roger is there for Roger, which is tantamount from his willingness to suspend judgment and self-criticism when points, games, sets and matches progress in directions unforeseen and upsetting.

I guess Roger has found his own private Idaho and it continues to work. It takes him 15 seconds to assess his opponent. Perfect. He doesn't need to do a hundred things to accumulate a couple more points than his opponent racks up; he just has to perform them well, which he seems to do with regularity much to fans appreciation.

During the final, too, his "come ons" were few and far in between. But, they were meaningful. The audience and at-home viewers knew he had ramped up his play by winning that point.

Posted by Rolo Tomassi 09/14/2007 at 12:56 PM

Not sure I agree that Roddick is wasting his energy by getting all hepped up during his matches. To put it mildly, not everybody has the genius and ability of Fed. Most players need a battle plan, and many need to get fired up in some way to perform at their best, or maybe even a little beyond their best. (I once heard Kafelnikov say of an opponent who beat him, "he played beyond his potential today." Classic.) Not saying Andy is in Jimmy's league, but was Connors wasting energy when he went through his on-court antics? Many would argue that they had almost as much to do with his victories as his talent. I believe that Andy could not have played as well as he did the other night (which still wasn't good enough, alas), without being fired up.

Posted by btennis 09/14/2007 at 12:56 PM

Tennis is a game of match-ups. Sometimes, no matter how brilliant you are, someone comes along who throws you off, for whatever reason. Canas, Nadal and Safin (when he's on) can do that to TMF.

Rafa (who is more resilient than talented) can work Roger Federer out, but is at loss on how to deal with James Blake.

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 09/14/2007 at 01:04 PM

bt - I have thought about those very match ups= I think the difference is Fed simply does not have that go for broke mentality that defines Blakes game at his best. Fed's most amazing shots seem to come from either a position he choses or as the only chance he has to win the point, whereas Blake only has that one gear. Against Rafa, he can handle the short heavy top balls, and gets enough he can drive them through Rafa enough to win. While not in possession of numbers, I would guess a Blake - Rafa match has far fewer strokes per point than a Rafa - Fed. Fed, while waiting for the opportune moment allows Rafa to physically get into the match and use his speed and movement to unsettle Fed.

I also think Rafa's swing serve to the add court is hard to tee off on - and at the end of the day, I think Rafa is quite happy to use his serve to get into a neutral rally point - expecially on clay and grass.

Posted by ajv 09/14/2007 at 01:20 PM

On roddick during his Fed match at the Open, and I apologize if this has been mentioned before, his whole "energized" vibe went way overboard in terms of sportsmanship. When he had a crucial break-point against Fed, I don't remember if in the first or second set, just before Fed was set to serve the cameras caught Andy raising his hands to exhort the crowd on his behalf. I know he's playing someone who has beaten him, what, eleven of twelve times, and is a dominant number one, but that kind of exhortation, even in your home slam, is just not done, particularly to a player like Fed who is quiet as a mouse in all circumstances on the court. I can't think of any othe player doing something like that in a Slam event in recent memory. I have never liked Andy's game, finding it jerky and unpleasing, and I found him arrogant at first. Lately, as his losses have mounted and he has gotten his comeuppance, I've grown to appreciate his obvious sense of humor and intelligence, as well as the classy way he has absorbed the punishment which I am sure, given his early success, he never imagined would be his due. But the on-court behavior keeps getting in the way, and I end up thinking that no matter how much perspective he has off the court, the on the court stuff (in addition to the exhorting, he spent much of the first two sets strutting around the court and snorting like a bull in a china shop in an obvious attempt to let Fed know that this time he was ready) is too much for me to overlook.

Posted by Tari 09/14/2007 at 01:21 PM

Aww...*hugs Pete* You're not going anywhere! :))

Posted by Bob 09/14/2007 at 01:31 PM

Andy was a bit overzealous at times, but he sure played great tennis, and that zeal when overdone is something Federer probably doesn't like and gives him a bit of extra focus on the next point. Roddick and everyone else are frustrated. After his 2003 Open win he probably thought he was on his way to years of glory, even though he didn't beat a top hard court player in the final. Then the Federer era truly began, and we've had new stars, including Djokovic, who is several years younger than Roddick, and more talented. The top three spots in tennis are pretty well taken for the foreseeable future, though Djokovic still has to show over time that he's #3, now that he has a target on his back. Roddick, Hewitt, and several others are getting older now, and their best tennis is behind them, or soon will be. Barring health problems, Nadal only has to worry about Federer on the clay, and he's only 21.

Posted by Dragonfly 09/14/2007 at 03:45 PM

Very insightful piece, Asad/Ray. Keen observation on the minutest detail and your writing rocks! Thank you for giving us a fresh perspective on Roger.

Posted by CM 09/14/2007 at 04:29 PM

As for Roddick's behavior in his match with Fed, yes...I thought he was going a bit overboard in an attempt to un-nerve Fed. But since his coach is Connors, that is not unexpected. I remember the point where Roddick used his arms to incite the crowd to get louder. Again, not what Fed would ever do, but not completely surprising for Roddick given the situation.

The thing that Roddick did that really bugged me was when he was talking to the courtside fans between Roger's first and second serves. Roger even had to stop his motion and start again. I thought that was completely unsportsmanlike.

Posted by CL 09/14/2007 at 04:32 PM

Rolo - don't know if Jimmy wasted his energy with his on court antics but he sure as heck wasted my time and good will. Not of course that that would have mattered to him in the slightest. I don't know why, but for some reason I always found JMac's shenanigans SLIGHTLY less boorish than Connors'. Maybe because JMac seemed more committed to the game itself instead of purely and only committed to HIMSELF the way Connors did. That is probably just a preception thing, but there it is.

ajv - I'm prepared to cut Andy a little slack for his atempt at crowd rousing. I'm sure I'd feel differently if it had changed anything. (THAT would strain Fed KADism too much.) But after all he was just, a little wanly and desperately, doing what he thought his coach probably wanted him to do... plus, at that point, it must have seemed the only card he had left to play.

Pete- Jeez...I am SO slow on the uptake pass me a GE, 'Kay?

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 09/14/2007 at 04:59 PM

Don't lose track of the fact the Fed really likes Andy and respects his game - and still does - so I doubt if what Andy did bothered Fed. He always gives Andy props.

Besides it was exciting and got people all worked up in Ashe for a night match - it is not like Fed was not getting tons of support as well.

Even Roddick said - after the US lost the Davis Cup finals in Spain where it was like a Real match, that it was an electric atmosphere and unreal experience. If anything the current players understand they are entainers and excitement means more $$ or E or Yen in the purse next time around.

Posted by superSnark 09/14/2007 at 05:00 PM

I respect Roddick's will to win and striving in the face of almost inevtable defeat. The manner in which he goes about it leaes him open to ridicule when he loses, but that's who he is so... whatever, he's not hurting anybody. The Neo Patriots proclaimed him the next Jesus a tad prematurely and the rest is Fed history (still in the making). The seeming inevitability of the the result + the immense effort Roddick put it + the strange role of Roddick (Mr. America) as the underdog, made for a very entertaining match. Kudos to both (but a little more to Fed coz he won). For Andy, may I suggest roiding religiously and taking mind-focusing drugs.

Posted by 24/7 09/14/2007 at 06:59 PM

the loss for Roddick against Fed again, although standard presents Roddick with a new difficulty:If he was, as stated, satisfied that he gave his best and "left nothing on court", well, this becomes problematic for him:If on the other hand he had played badly and lost, he might have walked off frustrated but with things to work on for the fuure. But this time, he played his best, was defeated in straights, which leaves him absolutely no where to go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by 09/14/2007 at 11:33 PM

That is why I say, 24/7 that Roddick will never beat Roger again.Besides I keep wondering why Roger keeps 'proping' Andy's game. Why does he do it? Of all his so-called rivals, this one is the easiest to beat so why does he keep saying,'o yeah...Andy's coming up.....tough one regardless of my record against him........blahblah.' That's what I'm puzzled about. Thanks

Posted by Tony C. 09/14/2007 at 11:57 PM

I always enjoy your tennis articles, Asad, and this one was no exception. At the same time, however, I think it worth mentioning that as great as Federer may be, his reliance on a combination of confidence, extreme skill, and highly focussed concentration when needed, reveals an obvious flaw: it is not always enough.

His unwillingness – at least until now – to adjust his game when he faces Nadal on clay, underscores that he is not yet a fully mature player. Great? Yes. Brilliantly talented? Definitely. One of the best ever? Certainly. But he has yet to make the simple adjustment (i.e. go to the net far more often, and use his superb volleying skills) against Nadal, preferring to arrogantly (and vainly) attempt to out-slug him from the baseline.

I love watching Federer, and your observations are very interesting. But it will disappointing if he fails to improve further, which he must do in order to be comparable to Borg in terms of versatility.


Tony C.

Posted by monterey 09/15/2007 at 10:40 AM

Tony C., Borg was absolutely phenomenal but he also had his problems, namely the inability to win the USO despite being in the final 4 times. But, yes, winning RG 6 times and Wimbledon 5 times with three consecutive back-to-back victories is one of the greatest achievements in the history of the game.

You're right that Fed has to do something differently to beat Nadal at RG. Attacking more is the key, as many have said, but Fed himself has said that it's very difficult to S&V against Rafa on clay and that it's not so easy to keep playing aggressively against a great retriever like Rafa. It's the classic problem of control vs. aggression, finding the right balance, otherwise errors and Rafa's exceptional steadiness will kill you. Also, Fed has said that his slice sits up too much at RG, thus giving Rafa easy putaways.

Anyway, a difficult problem for Roger but you have to remember that Roger is 4-2 against Rafa on non-clay surfaces.....on clay he's 1-6. So he knows how to beat him but the real problem is that Rafa doesn't let him play his game on clay, he's so damn good on that surface, and that's in the end what you have to deny your opponent, the luxury of being able to stay in his comfort zone.

Posted by Another Perspective 09/15/2007 at 10:47 AM

Never simple attempting to decipher how the human mind works, never mind it’s Roger Federer’s or Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan’s or Wayne Gretzky’s or Muhammad Ali’s.

First, Federer is unlikely to divulge information that could benefit his opponents so it’s possible that he’s not telling reporters the truth or the whole truth.

But it’s also conceivable that Roger revealed part of the truth or, as like many other ‘geniuses’, he’s just not good at articulating what comes naturally and easily to him. E.g., what does Federer mean it takes about 15 seconds to prepare for an opponent, if he was honest?

- When Federer practiced with Jesse Levine in Dubai, he probably expended 15 seconds or so worth of mental effort -- thinking in his mental shorthand or cipher -- to analyze Levine’s game, instantly updating his mental notes as he learned more. (Other players have said that they feel Federer probes and tests them during matches, trying out different things to see how they respond.) Levine said Fed gave him tips to improve his game, so it would be interesting to find out how long Roger took to verbalize the flaws he noted in his practice partner’s game -- 5, 10, 15 minutes? Put in another way, that would have been Fed’s game plan for beating Levine. Would it have taken a tennis writer longer to verbalize exactly what Federer had thought? What Federer is able to do in 15 seconds, most of us take a lot longer to think through and still not get it right. That doesn’t mean Fed isn’t thinking; it’s just that he doesn’t think as inefficiently as we do on these issues. Even intense technical analysis probably complicates things for him and muddles how he thinks.

- Federer does think better than his opponents on most days, but he probably thinks in a different way than most of them. Federer might take 15 seconds if he thinks about these issues in an intuitive way rather than in a linear manner. Linear thinkers need to spend more time thinking the nitty-gritty through logically in some step-by-step order. However, by thinking intuitively, Federer is able to quickly see the big picture of each opponent and zero in on how he intends to basically play each individual. As well, he recognizes that matches are dynamic and nothing goes exactly to plan; so he accepts that he will be ‘improvising’ a lot during a match. By ‘improvising’ he probably means intuitively and automatically drawing and combining from hundreds of past plays to respond to the demands of the moment, rather than creating too many new plays on the fly. We saw this aspect of Federer at work in the Wimbledon finals, when he changed his game plan in the fifth set, while the shell-shocked Nadal had no Plan B when Plan A failed.

Second, after 4 to 5 years of dominance, Federer has a big mental repository of game plans and point plays to deal with a variety of playing patterns from his opponent. Going into each match, Federer may have quickly decided on basic game plan that’s far more sophisticated than most of his opponents, without having to think about things for too long. Because he’s done it so often, time and time again. After winning over 500 matches, he rarely needs to think about it too consciously anymore -- it’s become like an automatic mental program. Federer has developed a sort of practical intelligence and common sense into his game. What’s ‘common sense’ to a person who is exceptional at something isn’t so common sensical to someone who isn’t good at it. The rest of us who are incompetent -- relative to Federer -- are unable to comprehend what comes so easily to him so quickly. There are probably tennis strengths that are common sensical to Nadal or Borg or or Sampras or Laver that even Federer has a hard time understanding.

Federer has the ability to manage the key moments of most of his matches into a winning outcome with relatively efficient effort. Unless he opens a match playing well, he tends to cruise along: "I think he likes to win easily," said biographer Stauffer, who has known Federer since the world No. 1 was a teenager. "I see him now economizing the way he wins, waiting three or four games and then doing what's necessary to get the [service] break he needs” (see link). Until he sees key moments in the match to switch on his A game and then locks into the moments, zoning into a zen-like state of deeper concentration. When he’s down, he has supreme confidence and self-belief in those situations, having done it before numerous times and so rarely gets rattled. His opponent suddenly faces another Federer, not the one cruising they had been playing earlier, and they feel self-doubt and incapable of winning. Federer’s brain waves in that state are probably different from, say, Nadal, Roddick and most other players (who become more ‘intense’). Being in that mental zone allows Roger to raise his game just a bit more than his opponent and his shotmaking becomes more fluid, accurate and deadly. He’s hit the sweetspot in optimal shotmaking, without expending intense physical and mental effort that other players have to. His mental programming kicks in and he automatically reflexes to his opponent’s playing patterns, based on his repository of plays. He can pull the trigger on big points and it works 9 times out of 10. Given his experience and mental approach, he wouldn’t need to think too much about what to do in the middle of points. It does go too fast, in any case, and his thinking occurs in Fed’s mental shorthand.

But whether he thinks about it consciously or not, he does make certain adjustments depending on how he’s playing. Next time Fed has a bad forehand day, check out his backhand -- even in pressure situations, he’ll probably be slicing it relatively more than hitting it with topspin.

Asad has a point: Federer often doesn’t seem to concentrate as intensely as or in the way other players tend to concentrate throughout a match (Nadal being an extreme example). No wonder he doesn’t want a coach telling him to concentrate harder! As Federer once said: “I obviously prefer to dominate my opponents than having to fight for it. But as long as I keep on winning in the end, that's what I really care about, not how straightforward it was.”

Posted by Fo 09/15/2007 at 12:34 PM

When I studied for the GMAT, the test for business schools, I recall starting out pretty confident that I could achieve a good score, but nowhere near there at the beginning. For me that meant getting a 700+ eventually but being at 550-600 at the beginning. I had to put a lot of focus in unlearning my shoot from the hip style of approaching the questions, and become more of a bricklayer than an intuitive artist. Painstaking work, but as I focused week after week on details, my score steadily improved. After a few months, my score jumped from that steady improvement in the low 600s, to 720-800 range and it didnt matter if I was tired or very concentrated, I was no longer going below that range. I think what happened was as a result of this painstaking, detailed focus over time, at some point, it did become *natural*, a habit, a kind of earned intuition, which was definitely new for me. I ended up taking the test twice successfully. The first time getting a 750 but slightly annoyed by not getting even higher. I decided to take it again since why not, I had the first score in the pocket. The second time I took it three weeks later, but I barely studied in between, probably because I was burned out on studying with my work schedule. During the 2nd test, I thought it was hard and boring and I realized I just wanted to get out of the room. So I was just running through the questions at a certain point, doing everything in an instinctive, low focus way opposite to the methodical approach that had already worked for me, thinking that I would get about 550 again. My score was exactly the same, 750. I couldn't believe it. Two totally different mindsets- one with a lot of pressure, the other pressure free. One with extreme focus, confidence, discipline and determination, and the other somewhat lackadaisical for the last 3/4 of the exam. Two same scores. I feel that what happened was that my methodical approach became ingrained in my brain, and suddenly felt natural to me, in such a way that I had 'new' instinct.

Could it be that Federer, having been so gifted naturally and so determined and disciplined to his art growing up, and throughout his early career, is NOT thinking of microdetails anymore, because he instinctively takes this into consideration, but only on larger strategic considerations. Even in the cell phone press conference example, if Federer gets distracted by the ring, it basically delays his press conference and makes it longer for him. Add up the number of cell rings and the fact that he does many many press conferences, and that's a sizable waste of his time. With his life being much broader than tennis, time must be critical to him. On the court, if his moment to moment decision making can be on autopilot and with his experience and incredible physical skills, it can, then he can simply focus on higher view trends in the match, such as the pattern of Djokovic's backhand up the line being less well struck over time and hone his focus on the important points as needed. I agree with Another Perspective particularly on the second point about what is common sense to one unskilled person, being different to one who is, and the repository Federer has access to.

Posted by ven 09/15/2007 at 01:36 PM

Wonderful piece Asad. About Roger's focus, I would also like to point out, when he won wimbledon this year for the fifth time, he was so into the moment that after the match Roger wore his pants the opposite way! That showed that for Roger, he was not going to be bothered by how he wore his pant, but what a historic occasion it truly was. I am sure he would have realized that he wore the pant the opposite way when he was wearing it - for any male will consciously know that the zipper is in front and not back.

In that moment and countless other small moments like that for Roger, his mind constantly filters out the unimportant from the important.

Roger has a radio in his mind. constantly fine tunes the channel he wants to listen.

Posted by Another Perspective 09/15/2007 at 02:35 PM

Rene Stauffer: The secrets of Federer's success (audio)

Sports psychologist: What makes Federer tick (audio)

Asad: “you can't blame most sportswriters for not wanting to write yet again about how remarkable Federer's dominance has been.”

Actually you can blame the double standards and jingoism of sportswriters, considering sportswriters and golf writers have been quite happy to write about Tiger Wood’s dominance over a period almost twice as long as Federer’s. Read Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford: “If It's Not Our Star And Our Sport, U.S. Just Doesn't Care.”

Next, Federer’s behavior at press conferences may or may not have anything to do with how he plays his matches. Federer has probably been to well over 500 pressers and has played with multiple distractions in many noisy stadiums (e.g., when he aced Roddick on setpoint). These minor distractions have become routine, blase and irrelevant to the interview, rather than ‘beneath his attention’. It really is not that unusual a behaviour -- think of people walking busy downtown city streets while furiously text-messaging and only looking up when necessary. It’s routine for some people, but not for others.

Furthermore, as a top sportsman without an entourage of assistants and coaches(except Mirka), the $30 million-a-year Federer probably walks around mentally organizing and juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities.

In the interview room, Federer knows some reporters might misrepresent what he says or does to put him down at the slightest chance. When Federer honestly admitted at a presser that he wasn’t aware of Althea Gibson -- largely a fault of the US Open organizers/hosts for not briefing non-American stars -- Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim made a mountain out of a molehill to portray it as a “gaffe” and imperfection. Another writer suggested that Federer was almost dismissive of Djokovic’s chances at a pre-match presser, basing it on comments clearly taken out of context (even if Roger’s non-verbal communication -- body languauge, intonation, etc.-- had been in uncharacteristic pantomime over-drive). The New York Post suggested a scandal when Federer was at a fashion show with Anna Wintour.

No wonder Federer’s biographer Rene Stauffer says Roger speaks more freely in interviews he gives to the Swiss press (link is worth reading).

Posted by Deborah 09/15/2007 at 06:14 PM

This has been fascinating reading. I was struck by something Roger said at one of his pressers during the US Open, maybe it was the one following the Lopez match. The gist of it was in his earlier days, he would judge an opponent's technique and if he didn't think it was good, he would dismiss it, only to find himself down a set and a break. He also said he didn't have much of a fighting spirit at that time so he would pretty much be done. Among the many intangibles to admire from Roger is his ability to learn from his own shortcomings.

Posted by shez 09/17/2007 at 04:09 AM

Excellent post Asad,well done!

Posted by John Diffenthal 09/19/2007 at 06:28 AM

I thought that this was an interesting article, but like so much about Federer, it just scratches the surface.

After the USO final he mentioned that he was more nervous this year than in previous years which doesn't fit with someone who doesn't spend any time thinking about a match prior to its taking place.

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