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Why Roger Federer is the most graceful athlete of our time

Roger Federer plays against Borna Coric during the Italian Open in Rome on May 16. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Roger Federer arrives at the French Open tennis tournament this weekend not just as the king of the courts and an icon of class, but also a poetic inspiration with a racket. 

It’s not only the ancients who looked at athletes and saw classical ideals and paragons of beauty. To many hardcore sports fans and tennis lovers, as well as to the passionately idiosyncratic Fedfans, the 37-year-old Swiss belongs equally to the realm of aesthetics as to sports. 

Of course, there may be skeptics on this point. To think there’s such a thing as a poetic tennis player! And yet, why not? Let’s agree that Federer is unique in stature, and if his place in tennis history is far from settled, there are plenty who consider this holder of 20 Grand Slam titles to be the all-time greatest of the sport. But his record and ranking are somewhat beside the point here. I’m interested in the living, continuous, moment-to-moment pleasure of watching him play, and the artistic value of this. 

That light, fluid footwork, the great coil in his midsection at the start of his stroke, the way he transfers his weight as if there’s no weight, only air and rhythm, his staccato steps and lingering leaps, and the lag in speed between his racket and his wrist. In Federer’s mix of dependable organization and electrifying spontaneity, performed with transporting ease, he produces an effect on the viewer that transcends tennis, athletics and even the body.

Federer “is a classical musician whose symphonies have the power to enrapture us,” writes an admirer on the fan site Federerism. “He is the artist who paints a masterpiece with his every move. He is a ballet dancer.”

Such praise is rather understated, as Federer tributes go. “On the 8th day, God created Federer,” proclaims the Twitter account Federer_Fans. David Foster Wallace redefined the tennis star as a means of spiritual conveyance in a superb 2006 essay titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.”

What Wallace was talking about — and what Fed fanatics know — is that the subtlety, intelligence and beauty of Federer’s play can pull us into a direct and instant involvement with grace. We experience a dimension of humanness that feels perfected and free, even close to divine. Great artists can do this to us. When Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov flew into the air, he took thousands of opera-house hearts with him, because the effortless stretch and expression of his body released some unnameable, pleasurable sensation in the audience, deep within its nervous systems. The effect was complicated and confusing. There are times when, watching Baryshnikov dance, I was aware of only a dazzled feeling, like a burst of light that left me dizzy.

That’s the kind of mind-blowing awe I feel when Federer sweeps across the clay and, oh, I don’t know, twirls halfway round and whips his racket between his legs or over his shoulder without looking and sends the ball streaming to the opposite baseline like lightning from the fingertips of Zeus. We see the shot and don’t see it at the same time. The conscious mind can’t understand how it happens. But the interplay of his movement and our emotions affects us on a level of pure feeling. Science and grunt work create that kind of casual-looking flick, a combination of Federer’s uniquely wired brain and years of conditioning. But it seems like a miracle, not only amazing but effortless. That’s the grace of Federer. He hardly breaks a sweat, and we are left without air in our lungs.

Federer’s extraordinary moments of precision may be fewer now than a few years ago, but his ease of motion and the harmonious flow of his game remain. Whether he’s airborne or skittering on the surface, Federer’s motor impulse is continuous; one move rolls into the next. The tempo and dynamics change — explosiveness is subtly cushioned and slowed, a forward dash comes to a crisp halt, before he bounces away again. But there’s always a sense of smooth responsiveness, and an awareness of line and form.

He knows how good he looks. “I always think that shots really look nice when you are on the move,” he told the website Tennis­world recently, speaking of his forehand and his slice. “It’s much more spectacular and elegant than just standing here and hitting a shot, so I like to hit a shot when I am moving.” 

Spectacular and elegant, or we could just call it graceful.

We don’t usually speak of professional athletes in terms of grace, though this is odd when you think about it. If grace is the sweetest, most pleasing aspect of the body, we should find it in abundance among athletes at the elite level. After all, their bodies perform to extraordinary standards, and it’s their job to perfect the way they move. Yet we mostly talk of sports in uber-manly terms, such as toughness, dominance and power. Also, let’s be honest: There’s not a lot of grace to see in sports anyway. A steroid aesthetic prevails, and explosive force and aggressiveness are prized over the refinements of agility, balance and coordination.

As for the grace of behavior and social interaction, sports heroes don’t always shine here either, where scandals are more likely to grab headlines. Social graces aren’t top of mind when we think about pro sports. 

Federer, though, glides right into both categories of grace, the physical and the social. He floats in, relaxed and natural, bearing this burden of perfection as lightly as one of those glossy, twirly strands of hair that flop over his Uniqlo headband when he’s on the court. He doesn’t grunt or wail. (Losing to Federer last week at the Italian Open, the young Croatian Borna Coric groaned mournfully with every shot, as if releasing puffs of agony.) Federer is under pressures of fame and the inevitable effects of aging, but you don’t see him suffering from existential problems. Instead, there’s his seemingly stable marriage, four adorable children who travel with him, the warmth of his friendship with rival and near-opposite Rafael Nadal. He even fan-girls over Hugh Jackman.

He cares about grooming and style and he treats people, by a preponderance of evidence, with respect. It’s all rather consoling in an era where . . . well, we shouldn’t ever take such decencies for granted.

Perhaps the greatest manifestation of Federer’s grace is the way he carries it so easily. It is uninterrupted, on the court and off. 

That’s the mark of a truly graceful athlete, in my opinion. Federer isn’t the only one — far from it. Grace is subjective, and it can mean different things to different people, but for me it comes down to ease and generosity, unified in body and spirit. Muhammad Ali was the total package, with his floating, almost musical buoyancy in the ring; his Michelangelo-designed body, beautifully sculpted but not over-bulked; and his exuberant showmanship and audience appeal that was upbeat rather than off-putting. Ali was also a committed humanitarian, using his celebrity to fight racism and uphold tolerance. Even when weakened by Parkinson’s disease, he pursued his causes, including helping to release American hostages held in Iraq.

Muhammad Ali’s grace broke the mold of a heavyweight champion

Baseball offers up notable examples of grace. St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith was gloriously, effortlessly acrobatic on the field. He earned the moniker “the Wizard of Oz” through an acute sense of his body in space that allowed him to redefine what a shortstop could do (including turning backflips at will). He didn’t have a towering physique; he was a human-scaled hero, with a joyful, pleasure-giving nature.

Joe DiMaggio was known for his loping grace on the field, but less talked about is the grace of Lou Gehrig, to name another old-school Yankee. His consecutive-games streak stood for 56 years as an emblem of humility and responsibility, and his “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech is a shining example of focusing on others, by bucking up his fans and expressing gratitude rather than dwelling on the difficult hand fate had dealt him. He improvised that simple, eloquent address at Yankee Stadium after the disease that would bear his name put an end to his career.

Consider Jerry Rice, the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver whose secret wasn’t brute strength but agility, an aerial leap and astonishing speed and coordination, born of ceaseless drills, which made him the uncatchable king of the game-winning touchdown. And tennis’s Chris Evert, with her beautiful manners and air of mystery, her composure under pressure, remaining error-free in the tightest situations, and her quiet professionalism. Figure skater Michelle Kwan was an artist on the ice and is a role model off it. The multiple world-record-holding Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky radiates happiness and is prized as a generous teammate. She possesses an unshakable work ethic and a useful tendency to rail about drug use. 

This is a partial list, but you get the idea. Graceful athletes are living art objects, poetry in motion. Their bodies are honed according to principles of art, with pleasing proportions and balance, and they operate harmoniously, with a sense of organized movement and a lively and exciting rhythm. They seem carried along by an unseen force, weightless and frictionless. Time slows for them, gravity looks the other way. Equilibrium is their soul mate. 

Of course, Federer is not immune from mortal afflictions, as his recent withdrawal from the Italian Open proved. Yet he triumphed there with characteristic fluidity, and it’s not easy to spot the bad slide in his match against Coric that he blamed for his leg injury. It might have been at the start of the second set, where he skidded on the lines and slammed on the brakes, sending his weight back and nearly, just for a flickering millisecond, losing his balance. He finessed it largely with his knees — in their crisp, right-angled bend, you see an instantaneous rise of tendons under the skin, part of a network of muscle and connective tissue rallying to win against gravity and the backward thrust. He recovered instantly, Federerly.

He won that match, reaching the quarterfinals, but he didn’t emerge unscathed. The subsequent news of his withdrawal made thousands of hearts uneasy. Every injury to a 37-year-old athlete, or dancer for that matter, feels monumental, and this is Federer we are talking about. But if Federer was among the worried, he didn’t let on. His announcement was generous and warm, touched with a slight reserve, like something an E.M. Forster character might write: “Rome has always been one of my favorite cities to visit, and I hope to be back next year.” 

Nadal, Djokovic advance; Federer and Osaka withdraw injured

There’s something humble and human in the phrase “I hope to be back next year,” something that encapsulates Federer’s grace. It’s simultaneously a statement of desire and an acknowledgment that it’s not all up to him, and that he might fail. However much he loves this game, there’s an X-Factor of fate determining whether he shows up for every tournament on his schedule and how far he progresses. 

That glossy hair will one day thin and go gray; the time will come when he can’t dance across the tennis court and our TV screens any more. But the way Federer lives and plays now, the way he hopes, never settles — this all feels like a promise that whatever buoyed him through years of greatness and revelation will stay with him. And will continue to inspire us. Federer exhibits enough of the ideal for the rest of us to know it’s possible.

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