Roger Federer and 55,000 ways of hitting a ball
Indian tennis stars Mahesh Bhupathi and Somdev Devvarman describe what it is like to play against Roger Federer
When a man speaks for seven-and-a-half minutes, non-stop, with scant punctuation, barely drawing breath, one might presume he is either furious about something or enraptured by someone.
With Somdev Devvarman, at 8am in Tunisia last week, it is the latter.
“The guy,” Devvarman says, using exaggeration to signal respect, “can do 55,000 things with the ball on any shot.”
That guy, you understand, being Federer.
At the French Open in 2013, where the Swiss “mothered” him 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, Devvarman says he “fake-dropped me four-five times”. He’s smiling. The things he has seen from 25ft away.
It’s 20 years since the relic won his first ATP title and 13 months since he competed, so when Roger Federer returns in Doha—and who knows when we will see him again?—people watch.
In Mumbai, Mahesh Bhupathi watches. At the Chile Open, players watch in their lounge. My friend knows a 101-year-old lady, who till recently was waking up at whatever hour necessary to watch Federer.
I have my notepad open as Doha starts. Just in case, you know.
“He’s not going to end up the greatest player but he’s the most beautiful player to come out of tennis. If you compare highlight reels, then with Novak (Djokovic) he wins points he had no business winning because of his fitness. With Rafa’s highlight reels there’s always the amazing running forehand down the line which he bends in. But with Federer it’s always ridiculous half-volleys, or a half-volley backhand pass down the line, or a backhand flick cross-court.
“Against Dan Evans (in Doha), after 13 months, who hits a backhand down the line at match point? Only Roger.”
I note down shanks, forehands that go phrrrr like a bird taking flight, the inconsistent serve. Once the latter used to gleam and Devvarman noticed something when Federer invited him to practise in Dubai in 2014.
“In one drill he hits serves to the same spot for about 30 minutes. I hadn’t seen that before.”
In February, a small, telling coincidence. When the ATP Tour comes to Singapore, my Straits Times colleague asks random players whom they would like to play. Almost all say Federer. You know why. Just to feel that game.
Journalists understand this impulse and it’s why writer Paul Gallico asked to spar with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. From outside, sport is one beast, from inside, another. The strains of Federer’s spins, the medley of pace, lie beyond the watching eye.
It is why I call Bhupathi, who played Federer in doubles, and chat with Devvarman, who collided with him twice in singles.
“His variety is mind-boggling,” insists Bhupathi. “His second serve is the best I have ever faced. He has the ability to hit multiple spots with the same toss and at multiple speeds. He makes people miserable with his slice. He’s got the slice to keep him in the point, the slice down the line, the short slice to bring people in. His game is premised on taking away time.”
Devvarman’s practice with Federer was akin to jamming with an unpretentious Beethoven. “He was casual, polite, at no point did he make you feel you were out there against The Greatest.”
Players know that what he makes look easy is extraordinarily hard. “One of the things that makes him stand out,” says Devvarman, “is how he is able to do things in an explosive way but still do it elegantly. No one has seen that happen in the sport.
“When he’s on song and he goes after his shots, there is absolutely zero hesitation. And one of the hardest things to do is see a ball you need to hit and hit it.”
In Doha, Federer was more occasional lyric than full song, but Devvarman was lucky, if you want to call it that, because he got a taste of Federer on a fluent day.
“I felt I was playing well at the 2013 French Open. I qualified that year and won my first round against a Spanish guy in straight sets. My coach told me, ‘Maybe Roger’s getting older’. Little did we know.
“I thought I was quick but he was hitting winners against me so far away from me. The ball was 15ft away from me. It’s his ability to take it so early, find an angle and hit that angle with speed. I have almost never seen that before.”
This is when Devvarman is rolling and I am just trying to keep up on my keyboard with his vocals.
“Rafa and Novak are also incredible but people can’t do what they do because their physical and mental abilities don’t allow it. But Roger, no one can do what he does. It’s a different kind of beauty. Just the way the ball comes off the racket.
“At the French that day, my coach, Scott McCain told me, ‘Som, I was unbalanced while sitting on my chair because I didn’t know which way Roger was going (to hit).’ And later, Paul Annacone, who was Federer’s coach, said, ‘I also didn’t know where he was going. That’s the genius he has.’
“And he has found a way to do it under the greatest amount of pressure while keeping the elegance. It’s something special, man.”
Eventually, Federer will write a book, but exceptional athletes aren’t always the greatest storytellers. What is astonishing to us is routine to them. Genius can’t always explain itself and it’s why the best books on Muhammad Ali were written by Mark Kram, David Remnick and Jonathan Eig.
Thomas Hauser’s His Life And Times took the most intriguing approach because it is an oral history: a wide swathe of people—cornermen, rivals, activists, journalists—speaking about moments in Ali’s life. It is padded with adulation yet it offers a ringside view— and one day Federer deserves the same.
Sometimes witnesses to history tell better tales than the makers of it.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.
FIRST PUBLISHED27.03.2021 | 07:30 AM IST