How Roger Federer avoided the Eddie Felson Trap

The Huslter chronicles a pool player named “Fast” Eddie Felson who seeks to play pool at a level never before reached, but whose personal failings and poor judgment in terms of associations contributed to his banishment from the game he plays like no one ever has.  This scene and abbreviated quote below demonstrate Fast Eddie’s passion for achieving excellence in his craft.

Just hadda show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s REALLY great. You know, like anything can be great, anything can be great. I don’t care, BRICKLAYING can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.  …. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you KNOW you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s uh – pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, it’s got nerves in it. Feel the roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just KNOW. You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way… NOBODY’S ever played it before.

Roger Federer has hit plenty of shots no one has ever seen before and it would not be untrue to say that his racquet seems to have nerves in it from time to time.  David Foster Wallace offered the theory that time might actually be slower for Federer than other people and this contributes to his preternatural shot-making skills.  However, tennis history is littered with talented shot-makers who either never won big or who never consistently performed well despite the occasional paradigm shifting victory.

Destined to Disappoint?

I don’t want to take The Hustler analogy too far as I cannot fathom a situation in which Federer’s thumbs would be broken or he would be black listed from playing tennis.*  Still, Federer’s victory over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon 2001 was not followed by the immediate consistent success many expected.  Andre Agassi mugged him at the 2001 US Open (2004 and 2005 went Federer’s way in New York).  Federer threw in two first round losses at the French Open and one Wimbledon first round loss prior to his initial Grand Slam triumph.

Even after the 2003 Wimbledon title, Federer lost to David Nalbandian at the 2003 US Open and appeared to be one of the top players on tour rather than a guy who would leave Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and Juan Carlos Ferrero so far behind that they can’t now really be viewed as peers of Federer even if they are his contemporaries.  Since 2008 Federer has won as many slams as Roddick, Hewitt and Ferrero won in their careers combined.  However, in the period between Wimbledon 2001 and Wimbledon 2003 Federer looked like a player who would forever frustrate tennis fans.

Federer: Imaginative Workman?

How did Roger avoid becoming a right-handed Henri Leconte who could hit great shots and beat great players if the stars lined up, but who would never be close to dominating the tour?  My short answer is that Federer found consistency.  I am not sure how he accomplished this, as Federer is not a grinder at heart.  However, Federer somehow wed talent akin to John McEnroe or Ilie Nadstase with professionalism and practice habits similar to those of Ivan Lendl or Jim Courier.

I do not say this as a knock against the artists on tour.  To some extent, I think if Boris Becker or Marat Safin tried to be regimented and consistent that they would somehow have lost their ability to overwhelm opponents by drawing on inspiration in big situations.  Federer’s combination of imagination and routine seems almost toxic to the idea of inspiration, and yet he has managed to combine great work habits with a desire to hit shots and play “that game the way… NOBODY’S ever played it before.”  Fast Eddie could not sustain his brilliance, but Federer did and has.  Stranger than fiction.

* I would prefer to ignore the existence of The Color of Money.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Reblogged this on Tennis Abides and commented:

    Out of the archives

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