Roger Federer retreated beaneath the baseline before volleying a passing shot betwen his legs during Sunday's semifinal. Credit: Simon Bruty/SI
By Joe Posnanski
When I was young, I used to practice tennis trick shots. It was my way of handling the monotony of tennis practice. Well, I was never good with monotony. I would stand in the supermarket parking lot, and hit shot after shot after shot after shot into that brick wall, and I would imagine being on Centre Court facing John McEnroe. Then I would imagine being at the U.S. Open facing Jimmy Connors. Then I would imagine hitting the ball so hard that it would knock back the bricks, a millimeter at a time -- WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! -- until finally I hit the final ball so hard that it would break through the wall and come out the other side, right into the produce section where it would hit the guy spraying lettuce with a water bottle. These reveries would usually sustain me for as long as 15 minutes. Then I would practice trick shots.
The definitive tennis trick shot is going back on a lob and then hitting the ball between your legs. I'm pretty sure that the first person I ever saw do this was Yannick Noah at the French Open one year ... and it animated my imagination. I used to be able to do all sorts of little tennis tricks. I can pick up a dormant tennis ball several different ways. At the net, I could hit a low volley between my legs, I could hit a behind the back shot. I practiced hitting a drop shot with so much backspin that the ball would bounce back over to my side of the net.*
*When I say I could do these things, I mean I could do them roughly one out of every 500 attempts.
But the go-back-and-hit-the-ball-through-the-legs shot was (and is) the gold standard of trick shots. So I must have practiced hitting it 50 times a day. The way to practice the shot is like so: You get close to a wall, and then hit the ball at an upward angle against the wall so that the ball pops up and over your head. Then you run up to the ball and measure the bounce so that as it is coming down you are basically standing OVER the ball -- you actually want to overrun the ball slightly -- and then come through with a full downward swing so that the racket hits the ball cleanly and goes through your legs on the follow through. If you hit it just right, the ball will have some power behind it and come out at a low-line drive, like a single up the middle.
When you practice this shot a lot -- especially when you lack talent -- you will hit yourself in the shins fairly often. This hurts a great deal. You will also miss three or four dozen times in a row and look foolish to anyone who happens to be walking by. But it's worth a little pain and embarrassment for that moment when you strike the ball just right. At least that's what I assume. I never did strike the ball just right, at least not in an actual tennis match. Ever so often, I would get it right in the parking, though. That had to be enough.
All of this rushed back on Sunday, when I watched Roger Federer face Novak Djokovic in a Sunday semifinal. It was a beautiful match to watch -- especially the second and third sets -- because Djokovic is an entertaining player himself, and he played well enough to bring out some magic from Federer. This is how good Federer has become -- most of the time when you watch him play, you barely see his brilliance because his opponent simply isn't good enough to coax it out of him.* Djokovic, on this day, wasn't good enough to win even a set. But he was good enough to make Federer play brilliantly.
*It reminds me of when I saw Larry Hughes play basketball in college. Hughes was playing for St. Louis University then, and he was playing against the University of Missouri-Kansas City -- UMKC as we call them in the American City of Fountains -- and it was clear that Hughes was a remarkable basketball player. But no one on the floor was good enough to bring out his talents. At first, I actually was irritated at Hughes for not showing the full array of his preposterous gifts. He played well enough -- I recall him scoring some points, making a couple of moves that left you to wonder what he could really do. But mostly he seemed like a musical prodigy who refused to play music.
Only then did I realize that it wasn't Hughes at all -- he was just too good for the game. Ali needed Frazier to bring out his boxing courage. McEnroe needed Bjorn Borg to unleash his tennis genius. Michael Jordan needed the NBA to feed his competitive hunger. Joe Montana needed the NFL and the final two minutes to generate his gift for the dramatic. Diego Maradona needed the World Cup to set loose his artistry.
And Hughes simply could not show us what was inside him during a nothing game against UMKC. There wasn't enough energy in the building, not enough competition on the floor, not enough magic in the night. He has gone on to become a good-to-excellent NBA player, and on many nights he has shown what he could not show on that day in Kansas City.
Throughout the match, Federer hit some shots that left people gasping. Here's the most remarkable thing to me about Federer: Seems to me that the more you know about tennis, the more amazed you are by the guy. If you know nothing at all about tennis, he's amazing. If you know a little something about tennis -- maybe you have played a few times in your life -- he's more amazing. If you know a little more about tennis -- maybe you played in high school and once had illusions of becoming a pro -- he's even MORE amazing. And if you were a great player -- if you are a McEnroe or a Connors or a Jim Courier -- then Federer is preposterously amazing.
That's how you know you're watching real greatness. Most people are affected by what I might call The Magician's Standard. That is, a magician who can wow kids is on one level ... but maybe adults might see right through his silly little tricks. A magician who can wow adults is on another level ... but maybe amateur magicians can still see how the trick is done. A magician who can wow amateur magicians is on yet another level ... but maybe professional magicians shake their heads because they notice some sloppiness. And, one last level, a magician who can wow professional magicians is obviously technically remarkable ... but he might leave children cold and bored.
But a magician who can wow ALL OF THEM, yeah, to me, that's real greatness. And that's Federer. He plays such beautiful tennis that anyone -- even someone who doesn't like tennis -- can easily appreciate it. But he also hits shots that leave McEnroe speechless. At one point in Sunday's match, Djokovic hit an impossibly hard forehand down near the line, an almost unreturnable shot. Federer reached down easily -- almost causally -- and, with a flick of his wrist, took off much of the speed and spun the ball into the open court, where it skidded off the line for a winner. McEnroe -- who I think is the best announcer in the game, any sport, and a guy who made his bones hitting near-impossible tennis shots -- was left fumbling trying to explain the absurdity of that shot. "It was ... just ... so ... easy," McEnroe sputtered, and you could tell right then that he wished he could scream the words that would explain to America the almost comical genius of that shot. But there are no such words.
My own favorites in the Federer Collection are the inside-out forehands he hits from deep in the corner of the ad-court -- that is, all the way on the left side. From that side, the average player generally hits backhands but Federer's speed and footwork is so good that he can run around his backhand (which is merely great) and hit his forehand (which might be the best shot in the history of tennis -- there with Connors' and Nadal's backhands, Pete Sampras' and Bill Tilden's serve, Borg and Andre Agassi's return of serve). Federer can hit that forehand down the line, into the middle, he can hit it with ferocious topspin or he can hit it flat. But what's really amazing is that he can hit that forehand crosscourt at such absurd angles that at first it appeared to me he was mis-hitting these shots. It seemed to me the only way to hit a ball at that sharp an angle was to have the ball careen off the top of the tennis frame. But these were not mis-hits. Federer would hit those shots again and again, and on Sunday he must have hit five of them at different speeds that looked like optical illusions.
Yes, it was an entertaining match. Federer won the first two sets -- the first in a tiebreaker, the second on a break of server at 5-6 -- but other than the Federer's indomitable tennis competitiveness, there wasn't much to tell them apart. The point of the match actually belonged to Djokovic who stood at net and returned four straight shots when Federer had him at point blank range. The fourth return was a pop-up -- a set up for a Federer smash -- and Djokovic turned his back and stuck out his butt, as if to give Federer a target. The crowd loved it. Federer smiled too. And Djokovic hit several other brilliant shots -- plus he was uncanny at challenging bad calls. He was a great foil for Federer on this day -- fierce in competition but still aware enough of the moment to flash a sly smile when Federer hit one of his immortal shots. And down two sets, he continued to play with energy, and he held serve all the way until 5-6 again. And then Federer won the first two points on Djokovic to go up love-30.
That's when it happened. Djokovic hit a drop shot. Federer charged, managed to get the ball back over the net, and Djokovich lofted a lob over Federer's head. A great lob. There wasn't much of anything Federer could do except ... well, yes. Federer ran back ... and I could see (you could see, we all could see) he was measuring it. He was setting up for the great. He ran up to the ball, ran over it, and then suddenly swung down hard -- slashed the racket between his legs. A blur.
And ... he ... ripped ... a ... winner into the open court.
"Whoa!" I screamed, and I never scream at the television set. My wife raced down: "What happened?"
"You have to see this," I said, and they showed it again, and then again, and again, and my wife was impressed, of course, because how can you not be impressed when you see a tennis player hit a vicious winner through his legs? But she's only learning tennis now ... and she went back to her day.
I could not ... I had to sit there and let the shot sink in. It didn't surprise me a few minutes later -- Federer won the match on the next point -- when Federer called it the greatest shot he'd ever hit. Of course it was the greatest shot he hit. It was the greatest shot anyone had ever hit. It was absolutely perfect -- the perfect setup, the perfect moment, the perfect shot.
"A lot, actually," Federer said when asked if he practiced that shot. Well, sure he did. Even Federer can get bored practicing tennis. Even Federer needs a few moments of escape, a few moments when he can practice the greatest tennis trick shot in the world. The difference between Federer and every other dreamer who practiced hitting shots between their legs, of course, is that he's the greatest tennis player who ever lived. And for him the perfect moment happened in the semifinal of the U.S. Open, two points away from victory. That's when he hit the greatest tennis trick shot in the world. Only, in that moment, it was even more than that. It was art.