||05-15-2006 10:48 PM
Roger Federer Saved My Life
Four years ago (January 2002), I was carrying 40 extra pounds and supporting a 2 pack a day Marlboro habit. My only exercise was walking to the back yard to smoke (my wife wouldnít allow it in the house) and to the refrigerator for an extra piece of pie. Sleep came only with great difficulty, and acid reflux was a constant companion. I felt horrible, and knew I would not make my life expectancy as set by the actuarial tables. I hadnít always been such a physical wreck---as a kid I played all the team sports in their season, and was a pretty good athlete---but I allowed life, a wife, and three kids to beat me down and turn me into a couch potato.
One sleepless night I was channel-surfing and happened upon a tennis match. I donít know what prompted me to watch---I hadnít been interested in tennis since my college days back in the late 1970ís. But I sat up and took notice as two identically dressed players (shiny red shirts, black pants, black headbands) were absolutely crushing the ball at each other. This was not the type of tennis I remembered! I became enthralled as the match went to a fifth set tie-breaker and was eventually won 8-6 by a big German kid named Tommy Haas. It was his opponent, however, that held me rapt. This kid seemed to just float around the court with the grace of a ballerina, and he just crushed the ball with the power of a lumberjack. And he just looked so . . . cool. I later learned that this kid, Roger Federer from Switzerland (who the heck even knew they played tennis in
Switzerland?), had ended Pete Samprasí Wimbledon domination the summer before, and I decided to keep an eye on him.
I continued to watch the tournament (the Australian Open), and then did something totally out of character---I got my old tennis racket out of the garage, dusted it off, and decided (at my wifeís prodding) to inquire about tennis lessons. My research showed that one of the finest public facilities in the nation was near my house, and I inquired about lessons at the front desk. I was told that before a player could take lessons they needed to be ďratedĒ, given a number between 1-5 in half point increments based upon their ability, in order to take lessons with people of similar ability. The rating session consisted of a ten minute practice with a club pro who checked your forehand, backhand, serve, volley, and overhead. I fully expected to receive a ď1Ē, the rating of a rank beginner, but I had retained enough athletic ability over the decades to warrant a ď2.5Ē. I was thrilled!
Following the session, the club pro asked how long it had been since I last played---20 years? I asked him how he knew and he replied that my old wooden Wilson Advantage racket was a dead giveaway. He suggested investing in some new equipment, that the new rackets were more powerful and forgiving than the old woodie. My head spun as I looked at the multitude of racket choices at the local sporting goods store. The pimple-faced kid working the section recommended a pretty yellow stick that happened to be on sale, so I ended up buying a heavy players racket that was probably no better suited for my game than the old woodie was. Fortunately I finally learned about the full service tennis shops in the area and was outfitted with a racquet more suited to my ability.
My lessons did not begin for a couple of weeks, so I decided to practice my serve at a park near my house. There was another young guy doing the same on the adjacent court, and eventually asked if I would like to hit some balls with him. It did not take long to see that I was totally outclassed, and the sadistic young creep took a perverse pleasure in running me all over the court. My lung burned and I quickly became winded between balls. Watching my young protagonist laugh at me across the net as I stood with my hands on my knees gasping for air made me that much more determined to get into shape. I learned a valuable lesson---you get in shape to play better tennis, not play tennis to get into shape.
My group lessons began, and our instructorís patience was matched by his ability to make the lessons enjoyable. I could not wait for my lesson to begin each week! To help get into shape faster, I ran everywhere on court---to get a drink, to pick up errant balls---everywhere (a word of advice---get in shape to play better tennis, donít play tennis to get in better shape). I made fast progress, both in my tennis skills and in dropping weight. But then, halfway through my session, I suffered an injury. Warming up before class, I stretched out with my leg to get a drop shot and heard a loud ďslappingĒ sound. My calf was in enormous pain as I fell to the ground. My first thought was that I had been shot, but the absence of blood gave lie to that assumption. A visit to the Emergency Room revealed a torn calf muscle and many weeks of rehabilitation.
During my rehab, I continued to absorb all I could of my new passion. If I could not play, at least I could read every book I could get my hands on and watch every match on television. I even took the exam and became a tennis umpire (the test is much harder than I imagined it would be.) I also continued to monitor the progress of Roger Federer. A big breakthrough occurred when he won the Tennis Masters Series event in Hamburg over Marat Safin, the talented and personable Russian. The win on clay demonstrated his potential to win on all surfaces. But the victory was followed by a funk, as a loss in the first round at Roland Garros to Hicham Arazi will attest. A few weeks later at Wimbledon, Roger was again knocked out in the first round, this time by Mario Ancic in straight sets. I was disappointed because everyone was saying that grass should be Federerís best surface, and I had anticipated seeing him often on television.
Fortunately, my success, although at a much lower level, came quickly following rehab. My development of a serviceable service and workable backhand pushed me into the 3.0 level. Consistency, a slice backhand and service variety helped me climb the ladder to the 3.5 level. During the course of my journey, Iíve learned some things about myself---some of which I like, some I donít. I donít like the fact that I just donít enjoy singles. Having played team sports all my life, I donít have the competitive juices to play individually. A gregarious person by nature, having to suppress a yell after a particularly good shot proves difficult, and my joy at winning was tempered by feeling bad for the guy I just beat. And of course, everyone hates to lose. Doubles is a different story. I took a doubles strategy course and became hooked. I enjoy the constant chatting between partners, the encouraging words and support, the strategy, and the team aspect of the game. I had found my niche and hit my stride.
The same could not be said of Roger Federer. The remainder of the 2002 season was lackluster, and a loss to Lleyton Hewitt in the semiís of the Masters Cup in Shanghai demonstrated his only true weakness---mental toughness. Everyone knew he had the talent, but it just shows the fine line between those who make it big and those who never rise above a journeyman---the mental edge. In March of 2003, Tennis magazine featured Roger on the cover with the headline, ---ďRoger Federer: Heís supposed to be the next great player. So whatís he waiting for?Ē We didnít have to wait long for an answer. Despite a horrible showing at the 2003 French Open (a straight sets loss to---Louis Horna?), Roger began to gear up for Wimbledon. He won the tune up event, the Gerry Weber Open, by destroying the man who beat him in the championship the previous year, Nicolas Kiefer, 6-1, 6-3. At Wimbledon, Roger tore through the field giving up only one set to Mardy Fish before his showdown with Andy Roddick in the semi-finals. The tennis world was eager to see how this match between the huge hitting American and the flashy Swiss would turn out. I pushed patriotism aside and watched enthralled as Roger put on an exhibition of tennis that many people had never seen before on the biggest stage in the sport. His crushing topspin forehands from no-manís land made even Roddick grin in disbelief. The final against Mark Philippoussis was a foregone conclusion.
Often times a great player will need a big victory to convince themselves they are the best in the business and the floodgates open for more victories. The Wimbledon victory was not it for Roger. Sure it was his first major, but it was followed by more lackluster performances. The rest of the season was somewhat of a disappointment, and as the top eight players gathered again in Shanghai for the Tennis Masters Cup, the odds makers favorite going in were Andy Roddick (8-5), followed by Juan Carlos Ferrero (3-1). The sentimental favorite was Andre Agassi. But Federer plowed through the field losing only a single set in his first match with Andre Agassi, then redeemed himself with a straight set victory over Andre in the final, even throwing in a rare bagel against Andre in the second set. Rogerís dominance became apparent with the victory, and as 2004 began, everyone expected great things from the Swiss. He didnít disappoint, finishing with a 70-4 record and all the slams save Roland Garros. The rest, as they say, is history. Rogerís bandwagon grew and he was no longer ďmyĒ discovery.
Life is full of pivotal moments, most of which are discovered only retrospectively. I often wonder how things would be had I not been channel-surfing that night, had I not seen Roger Federer demonstrate the beauty of the modern game of tennis. I can only assume that I would be a middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking couch potato---not the reigning 3.5 round robin doubles champion of Scottsdale Ranch Park.