A Tennis Genius

082806 article kaplan A Tennis GeniusThere is a spookiness about athletic genius, a strangeness that resides in subtle contrasts. Why, amid others similarly gifted, does one competitor give us goose bumps?

You can talk all you want about stats, break down the biomechanics till the cows come home. Sportswriters used to rhapsodize about Ted Williams’ extraordinary vision, as did Williams himself: He could, he claimed, see the spin on a breaking ball when it was halfway to the plate. He compared the motion of his swing to that of a metronome. This was all nice, but other players could see spin, others had sweet swings. It just didn’t quite explain how Williams could hit .400.

In the space of a couple of years, Roger Federer has claimed a unique place at the top of professional tennis. Arthur Ashe once said that the distance from No. 10 on the men’s tour to No. 1 was comparable to the distance from No. 50 to No. 10: The slope, in other words, gets steeper the higher you go. Mr. Federer hovers, balloon-like, somewhere over the game’s summit.

And yet his great gifts aren’t glaringly apparent. Andy Roddick hits a more crushing serve, Fernando Gonzalez a more thundering forehand. Marat Safin’s backhand is said to be the best in the game. When, a couple of years ago, the possessor of a far sharper eye for tennis than mine, John McEnroe, opined on TV that Mr. Federer had the wherewithal to become the greatest of all time, I was slightly stunned, not only at Mr. McEnroe’s modesty, but at the assertion itself. I frankly didn’t quite get it at first.

But the claim has borne up, as the 25-year-old Swiss has amassed enough winning streaks and Grand Slam titles to set him on a course toward posterity. What Mr. McEnroe saw was a game with many great strengths and no apparent weaknesses. This last is key: Even at the top levels of tennis, Achilles’ heels abound. Pete Sampras had perhaps the greatest serve ever (especially his second serve); he possessed an amazing running forehand and a beautiful volley. His backhand, though, broke down under pressure. Nothing much in Roger Federer’s gorgeous game ever breaks down.

Yet I think what Johnny Mac, as a tennis genius himself, was also appreciating about Mr. Federer were qualities subtler than beautiful strokes. I was once fortunate enough to spend an hour hitting tennis balls with Mr. McEnroe, and the thing that raised the little hairs on the back of my neck was his absolute ability to be—no matter where I happened to hit the ball, accidentally or on purpose—in precisely the right place at exactly the right time, and always in perfect balance. There was a musical quality to it, a Mozartean magic.

Mr. Federer has that, in spades. Watch him play the most powerful hitters, and he’s simply always there, perfectly poised to return the screamingest missiles. And his balance is more than physical. Watch his head—always poised and steady, the features placid—as he hits those glorious forehands and backhands. It’s human nature to glance up right after you’ve hit a tennis ball, to see how well you’ve done. Mr. Federer, knowing exactly how well he’s going to do, stays focused on the point of impact for what feels like seconds after impact has actually occurred.

The single chink in his armor is Rafael Nadal. For a while, it seemed that the cute, beefy, supernaturally peppy young Spaniard had Mr. Federer’s number: He actually ran off a streak of five matches in a row against the Swiss, climaxing in this year’s French Open final. But even as he was cleaning Mr. Federer’s clock, Mr. Nadal—the politest phenom in recent memory—kept deferring to him, saying how great Mr. Federer was. With a less ingenuous player, you might’ve suspected a head game. As it turned out, he was just stating the obvious. At Wimbledon this year, Mr. Nadal held serve an incredible 80 times in a row as he marched to the final. In the final’s first set, on his way to a thumpingly convincing four-set win, Mr. Federer didn’t allow Mr. Nadal a single game.

In these same pages three years ago, I compared Mr. Federer’s personality to a bowl of Cream of Wheat. In retrospect, I was mistaking equipoise for blandness. There’s an appealingly puckish quality to his beetle-browed face: He’s clearly relishing his success, amused by the dance the world does at his feet. He shows a healthy, non-arrogant respect for his own achievements. “I use my skills, my technique, my tactics and my mind to try to win matches,” he said after Wimbledon. “And it’s been working.”

Imagine that—a great athlete talking about his mind. In the end, balance is what it’s all about.