IT IS becoming increasingly apparent that Roger Federer was Leonardo da Vinci in a previous life. It is not just that Federer is a genius. It is the form that his genius takes that convinces me that the two of them have something important in common.
Think of the famous notebooks: the mirror writing and the extraordinary drawings of helicopters, parachutes, wheel-locks, siege towers, tunnelling machines, submarines, dredgers, foetuses, dissected corpses, muscle formation, plants and geological strata. It is not just the fertility of the mind that entrances, it is also the beauty of the pages.
Leonardo, it seems, was physically incapable of the unbeautiful. He could draw a dredger but couldn't make it anything other than beautiful. He was doomed to beauty, condemned to beauty, shackled to beauty. For Leonardo, beauty was more than his genius. It was also his method.
Leonardo was perhaps the last man on earth to understand the entirety of Western thought and culture. For Federer, it is enough to hit furry balls. Federer seeks only to defeat other tennis players, but to do so in a way that avoids beauty is beyond him.
And -beautifully -he moved into the semi-finals yesterday, defeating - beautifully -Fernando Gonzalez 7-5, 6-2, 7-6. Let's have a little taster: a perfect drop shot from Gonzalez, but Federer is there with a quick float over the court and little dink over the net, going cross-court to make it a winner. Now let's have another: on the next point he is pushed far beyond the tramlines and, at full pace and full stretch, hits a fizzing forehand slice that surprises the hell out of Gonzalez, who can only shovel the ball into the net.
Bemused, poor fellow, utterly bemused. He played his best tennis -a shot a ball, a forehand that could knock down walls, mad running, total commitment -and yet Federer dealt with everything with a kind of gentle sorrow, tying his opponent up in silken threads in the manner of a spider.
As you may have gathered, Federer is coming into a bit of form. He will play Lleyton Hewitt in the semi-finals tomorrow and he has a seven-match winning streak against him. You might deduce that Hewitt's game dovetails rather nicely into Federer's. Which is true enough, but so does everybody else's.
ez played out of his skin yesterday, but Federer was out of this world. He took the big-hitting style of Gonzalez and turned it into a weapon against the man who wielded it. He appeared to do it without malice, without animosity; almost with reluctance. As he did so, he created patterns and cross-patterns. He did things that delighted because they were so sweetly inevitable and others that thrilled by their unexpectedness.
Federer could not invariably take the initiative against someone so determined to hit a winner every time the ball came over the net. Nor did he try. He can play a thousand different styles and all of them beautiful. At times he was content to play his -beautiful -defensive tennis against Gonzalez, sometimes to lure him into an error out of sheer exasperation, and sometimes -most beautifully of all - turning defence into attack with a change of pace or angle.
Beauty is not his aim, of course it isn't, but if you are condemned to the beautiful, beauty is the way you must live. Federer often looks as if he is playing a slightly different game to everybody else, or perhaps using a slightly different device with which to play it.
Nobody else plays like that. Nobody else could.
Racket-head control is only an aspect of it. Hidden behind that mostly serene manner is a ferocious competitive will. It is deceptive, because it is invariably expressed in a beautiful form. It looks as if Federer is hitting his opponents with a flower, but the opponents get knocked to the floor just the same.
Federer had to raise his game for Gonzalez, but don't worry. He has plenty more raises available to him should he need them. He is not just Leonardo, he is also Sergey Bubka, the pole vaulter who made a career of raising the world record centimetre by centimetre. If his next two opponents raise the bar, Federer has it within him to raise himself that little bit higher. He has more raises within him than anyone else in tennis.
Yesterday he gave us tennis from another dimension. Gonzalez played flat out, Federer appeared to be moving in slow motion, but by doing so was much the faster.
The balls he hit had a magnetic attraction for the lines. The ball did whatever his racket told it to. It was beautiful, but it just wasn't fair. Poor Gonzalez: beaten up in three rounds by the Mona Lisa.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2005
Winning style: Federer, the defending champion, hits a return during his straight-sets quarter-final victory over Gonzalez. Photograph by FABRICE COFFRINI / EPA
"Federer the genius, an artist with a racket for a brush; Wimbledon." Times [London, England] 30 June 2005: 86. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.
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