Roger the Liberated

Roger Federer is a phenomenon. He has won more Grand Slam tournaments than any male tennis player in history. He has won the Davis Cup; he has an Olympic gold medal. And at 35, he won the last Grand Slam in January in Australia after a six month layoff and the two major non-Grand Slam tournaments this year. He has 91 tournament victories after Sunday’s win in Miami. All this is phenomenal. He also appears a devoted husband and father. He is a true role model in addition to his tennis prowess.

But does Roger Federer have fears?

We all have fears and phobias. Snakes, airplanes, heights, spiders, being ridiculed, closed elevators, whatever, Nightmares are the subliminal acting out of what we fear. They point to that which we seek to avoid at any cost. Below the surface, they are always there however deep in the background.

Psychologists are there to help us overcome these fears. They try to persuade us to be conscious of our fears and, hopefully, how to overcome them. Afraid of heights? Let’s walk together in the Alps or skydive. Afraid of snakes? Let me hold your hand while we visit a vivarium. We are told that fears can be overcome, that we should and can be liberated. To be liberated is to be fully in control of who we are. To be liberated is to overcome fears.

Roger Federer understands fear. In a recent interview he said that usually when he was behind at a crucial point in a match, he would chip and charge, not taking a risk on an extended point. He admitted to being afraid of losing the point during a long rally. Now, he said, he felt liberated to play however he felt best, meaning no need to chip and charge. He said he believed he had overcome his fear of long rallies.

Federer came back from 1-3 down in the fifth set to overcome Rafael Nadal in the finals of the Australian Open. He was down two match points in the quarter-finals of the recent Miami tournament and played without chip and charge. He was down 5-4 in a third set tiebreaker in the following match with his opponent serving. In both situations, he won. In both situations it was obvious that he had no fear of losing. He was able to play exactly as he wanted. There was no fear in the back of his mind. But he was not a reckless young player blasting the ball hoping it would land somewhere within the lines. He was just swinging freely.

(Do I still feel guilty about chipping and charging against a much higher ranked Swiss Davis Cup player at a crucial point in a match thirty years ago? Do I remember the fear of a long rally? Did he pass me effortlessly to go on to win the match? Ouch. It still hurts.)

I don’t think Roger Federer sees a sports psychologist, as do many of his fellow players. No, at 35 years of age and with all the trophies any player would dream of, he is playing differently. We all know that young players can be overly aggressive because they don’t realize what is at stake in important matches. Boris Becker at 17 was fearless at Wimbledon because he couldn’t imagine the stakes at hand. He played with reckless adolescent abandon and won.

Federer is the exact opposite of the young Becker. Federer is a veteran who has won so much that he has nothing to lose. He has all the important victories; he has all the trophies; he has all the money. He is now free to play for the pure joy of playing. He can hit whatever shot he wants. If it goes in, so much the better. If he wins, so much the better. But, if he loses, it is no big deal.

What is fascinating to watch is not only his joy at playing. That’s only on one level. What is fascinating to watch is to see a liberated person winning. It is the secret to his recent success. Perhaps he has never played so well. Perhaps not needing to chip and charge he is able to strike the ball as he wishes. And the ball is going in. Witness the half-volley backhand he stroked Sunday down-the-line that left Nadal motionless and the spectators in awe.

This freedom has become the key to his recent success. Roger the Liberated has become a different player. Behind the joy is a self-assurance and grace that comes from knowing who you are. He is no longer afraid of striking his backhand at crucial moments. He is striking the ball with boundless confidence, not reckless abandon.

What we watch when we see Roger today is someone who is in full possession of all his abilities. We all dream of being in that situation. We catch glimpses of it when doing those things we are passionate about. It may be a move on a chess board, writing a sentence at a keyboard, playing a note on a guitar, singing a particular melody, saying a kind word to a friend or making the proper gesture at the right time. We may feel liberated for a short time; we may even be privileged to have longer experiences of that feeling. To watch Roger on the court these days is to partake in a similar experience with which we can all empathize.

May Roger the Liberated continue for as long as he can. For as the example of Tiger Woods shows, sports liberation can be ephemeral. But to watch him play now is much more than fun or inspiring. Roger is both liberated and liberating.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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