Sunday, January 31, 2010

Artist at Work

I have never seen a work by Laurie Anderson or any of the other practitioners of what is called "Performance Art." I'm told that Ms. Anderson's works usually involve gadgetry as well as spoken text, music and perhaps projections of images or videos.

Today I submit that the finest performance artist in the world is best known as an athlete.  His name is Roger Federer and the only gadget he employs is a tennis racquet.  He has won more so-called major or "grand slam" championships than any man who ever played the game  -- 16.

There are four "Grand Slam" tournaments every year -- Wimbledon, the crown jewel of them all; and the national open championships of the United States, France and Australia.  Federer has won all of them at least once, as he did just hours ago in Melbourne.  One can recite an array of statistics -- record number of major tournament finals; record number of consecutive finals; record number of consecutive semifinals, record this, record that.  Having done so, one would still be challenged by someone, somewhere, if one contended that Federer is the greatest player ever to wield a racquet.

But I don't think anyone would question the statement that Federer is the sport's finest performance artist, perhaps even the sporting world's finest performance artist. (Muhammad Ali comes to mind as a contender for the world championship.)

No player -- certainly no male player -- has ever been more balletic.  Imagine a video tape of just the lower torso of Baryshnikov at the peak of his career.  Watch the feet.  Now picture a video of Federer from the same perspective.  Watch the feet.  If it weren't for the different shoes, you'd be hard pressed to tell who's the dancer and who's the tennis player.

With only the "thwack" of the tennis ball for rhythm and the grace of his movements as melody, he creates a kind of  symphony on the tennis court.  He might begin a point andante, with carefully placed shots of moderate pace.  Then -- agitato! -- an arpeggio of deft slices, angles, volleys.  When he plays ad libitum he is apt to create a shot that nobody has ever seen before -- not only getting to a ball that few other players in the world could reach, but returning it for a winner with his back to the  net. His codas are masterly -- a service ace, a laser forehand, a topspin backhand that kisses a sideline. Each game he plays in his a capella sport is bel canto.

Tennis is a game of power, grace, speed, tactics, determination, endurance, strength, psychology and sheer mystery.  In the entire history of the game, one or two players might be Federer's better in power, or in speed, or in tactics.  None has ever equaled his total command of every element of the game. Only he, it seems, has solved the entire mystery.

There are more fine tennis players in the world today than ever before, thanks to improved equipment, coaching, diet and training methods.  Some, like Andy Murray, who lost to Federer earlier today in the Australian championships,  are capable of winning a grand slam even with Roger in the field.  It's been done a few times.

And perhaps some day someone will surpass the record numbers he is running up.  But it will be a long, long time before anyone wins so many tennis championships so artistically.


  1. Great post.

    Federer is a genius on the court, no question.

  2. Federer is arrogant. I wish Andy had handed him his head.

    Federer is arrogant. Wish Andy the Scot had handed him his head on an old racket.
    He'll get his comeuppance.