I am a Federer fan. His inevitable decline has been a source of grief for me. When it comes to shot selection, imagination and pure magical talent, there isn’t another tennis player who could ever hold a candle to him. Why did he have to go and lose in the second round of Wimbledon? It damn near broke my heart.
Ok, we all know the answer. He is getting too old. But he is only 31, and has to be in terrific shape. I am pushing fifty and can still put in a couple of hours of vigorous badminton. Sure, weekend badminton is no world class tennis, and the effects of aging are very different. Still…, I wish he would stick around a bit longer.
A few months ago, I listened to a series of interesting lectures on the effects of aging on our perception and sensory processes. One thing new that I learned there was that we all have a sixth sense, in addition to sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. It is the kinesthetic, muscle feedback, which is the sense that allows you to apply just the right amount of pressure, for instance, when braking your car, or holding a baby. You may lose this sense when you get angry and break the glass you are holding, if we are to believe Hollywood movies. In certain games, this sense can make an enormous difference. I had a friend who was a pool shark. He once told me that at the top of his game, he could feel the tiny nicks and scratches on the cue ball through the cue stick in his hand. When I knew him, he was well past his prime, but he could still call shots like bank off the point of the side pocket, and double kiss into the corner pocket. And make them. So I believe him and Eddie Felson (The Hustler) when he says the cue stick, when he holds it, has nerves. I bet Federer could feel the seams of the tennis ball and the amount of spin he was putting on them through the strings and the grip of his racket.
Age blunts the sharpness of all of your senses. The most obvious is your sight. In your forties, you have to hold your smart phone farther and farther away from your face to read the tiny screen. At some point, your hand is not long enough and you end up using reading glasses — reluctantly at first, but more readily as the years roll by and the images get blurrier. Apparently you lose your sensitivity to high pitched sound as well. So teenagers can download ringtones that their parents and teachers are deaf to. But the first sense to go is the muscle feedback, which begins to decline in your teens. This, apparently, is the reason why the Olympic gymnasts are all teenagers. By the time they are in their twenties, this sense of theirs is already too weak to keep them competitive at that level. I guess it is this sense that has deserted Roger Federer as well.
Frederer’s brand of tennis with its finesse and artistry demanded more of this sense. His opponents tend to hit flatter and harder. I read somewhere that they use stiffer rackets for this purpose, and can hold Federer behind the baseline. The champion stubbornly refuses to switch to this style and this kind of rackets. May be he is getting a bit too old. Reminds me of Bjorn Borg, when he attempted a mini come-back with his wooden racket.