How do you describe Roger Federer? Do you quote what the best ever have to say about an individual now widely acknowledged as better than the best ever? Do you rattle off statistics about his remarkable achievements? Do you describe the look of disbelief and helplessness on an opponent's face as Roger creates magic out of nothing more than a tennis racket and a yellow ball. Or do you describe what the match he won yesterday signifies?
Maybe we should just invent a new word? Especially since Fedex is such a trashy corporate nickname for someone who does something so exclusive and special.
Maybe not. When describing Roger, let us try to keep it simple like he would. Let us start by using the word grace. A word that has come to define Federer much like speed came to define cyclones, brightness raging fires, and music Mozart.
The grace which is but a sum of the arc that his forehand makes - smoothly piercing through all the right points in space, the flick that unbelievably turns out to be drop shot and the backhand that is unleashed only to dismiss the ball imperiously.
The grace in the simple way with which the Swiss star walks back after playing an unbelievable shot, to ask for something as trivial as a towel. God! Is he really walking? Towel? Shouldn't that be a halo? A magician and he chooses to walk like you and me.
The whole Federer story is remarkable because he was not always so perfect, graceful and calm. He was known to throw tantrums at a young age, and was often asked to leave practice courts for bad behavior. One scary story is about Federer admitting that he was as good a football player as a tennis star at one point in his childhood. Imagine! What the tennis world would have never seen if FC Basel had signed him up.
Whatever promise he showed early on as a junior, he was never really thought of as a child prodigy. He was not someone you would describe to your wife as 'Honey, I think I saw a future world champion today." There was not even a lightening mark on his forehead.
Federer's early years were not noteworthy. He joined the ATP Tour in 1998, and it was not till 2001 that he won his first ATP tour title. I still recall an image of Federer playing mixed doubles with Martina Hingis. He looked like a tall, shy Swede - just another good ball player, just another journey man. Most experts felt that he would probably win a tournament or two. A few had any inkling that Roger Federer would reach the heights of professional success that he has reached, and that he would come to define tennis for all those who watch him practice, let alone play.
So what happened that changed it all?
If we decide to ignore the most obvious explanation of god shrugging his shoulders, deciding to take a chance at tennis, and chancing upon Federer's body, what we probably have to settle on is plain hard work and an amazing level of mental toughness.
Toughness which, more amazingly, the star refuses to visually demonstrate. While those around him feed on moments of passion, the clenched fist, the look at their opponent -- Roger Federer seems to draw his strength from deep within. With his high levels of concentration, and the simplicity to whatever he does, he almost seems to be a natural extension of the tennis court. He belongs there, like the net or the freshly painted baseline.
Doubters of his greatness claim that he does not have an Agassi to his Sampras. If one looks at the Roddicks, the Hewitts and the Nadals, one would know that in a different era these fine players have the game to beat anyone. They would have won more Grand Slams than they have. But, unfortunately, the man from Basel, Switzerland chose the same period to sell his wares and went on to become the point of reference for all his contemporaries. The point where the careers of most of his rivals is judged by who was able to take a set off him, or who was able to deny him that Grand Slam on clay.
The beauty with which the Swiss Master constructs his points, one does not wonder about the result, but about the levels to which tennis would have reached if Roger Federer could have had an opportunity to face a great like Sampras or Borg in his prime. I suspect if Borg and Federer would have played a five setter at Wimbledon, at their very best - god in the end would have asked us all to pack up to declare that there is simply no point in allowing tennis to be played again.
The impact of someone on some event can be judged by the first visual that comes to mind when we think of that event. When we think car, the three pointed star is what flashes across our mind. When we think time, a Rolex is what we see. When we think an evening, Paris is where you want to be. What do you see when you think Perfection?
Probably, Roger Federer.
The longest reigning World Number 1 in tennis. The man who always seems to be relaxed, the man who is so alive, yet so deceptively cold. The man who does not know how to panic.
On second thoughts, maybe Fedex should change its brand name to Roger Federer. After all, Fedex once did market under the slogans -- "Don't Panic" and "Relax it's Fedex".