Last night, when Roger Federer broke Gael Monfils in the third game in the fourth set in their quarterfinal match at the U.S. Open, he let out his now characteristic “come on”no over the top combustion here, but a controlled burn, just hot enough to last for hours without exhausting itself. Fans have come to take his reserved passion for granted, but the fact that Federer always seems in control should surprise more and more as time goes on, not less and less. And last night, the superiority of his composure was on full display.
A major part of the delight of being a tennis fan is watching two athletes battle back and forth with their bodies, yes, but also with their minds and spirits. Sometimes successthe unquantifiable “momentum” that seems to infect playersjumps back and forth every few points or games, as if there were an immaterial rally happening at the same time but at slower pace. Each player becomes the racket of some larger force, and his moment lasts as long as it takes for this force to wield him in a blazing swing.
For the first four sets last night, Federer and Monfils battled each other and themselves, but in the final set, it was over. Whatever had been animating Monfils had fled. Federer’s occasional mistake would not matter as Monfils double faulted at key points, hit lazy and pointless drop shots, and couldn’t muster the force, energy, or focus that had sent his forehands and serves screaming past the Swiss.
Monfils’s high moments sailed above Federer’s, but his low moments sank far below. One time he overproduced so much adrenaline that he double faulted and, muttering to himself as he does in intense matches, audibly told himself to relax. His game collapsed because he had excited himself to the point of exhaustion.
I was lucky enough to be at Federer’s Sunday night match against Marcel Granollers in person. Much more one-sided than last night’s five setter (although Federer did drop the first set), he still always seemed to occupy the appropriate mental state. Federer uses his emotionshe doesn’t seem to experience them as one might experience spontaneous joy or sorrow. When he’s down, he’ll try to get his adrenaline going; when he doesn’t feel threatened by his opponent, he’ll maintain that calm exterior fans have come to expect.
David Foster Wallace called watching Federer a religious experience. St. Paul analogized racing to the spiritual life, and we can do the same for tennis. Every aspect of Federer’s on-court presence and off-court work aims at one end: playing the best tennis possible. He has even subjected his passions to that end. Likewise, every part of our lives needs to aim at our one and only goalthat finish line of holiness, of incorporation into the life of the Trinity.
This sounds totalizing, exhausting. How can we dedicate ourselves so thoroughly to holiness? Here it is worth remembering that natural beautywhether in the meadows and valleys of Psalm 65 or in Federer’s gamesings of the supernatural. So as an act of prayer and an expression of my love of God, I’m going to be spending hours this weekend watching tennis.