Michael Lewis profiled Barack Obama for the October issue of Vanity Fair. The full version isn’t available online yet (and I have a hunch they’ll keep it that way)is here, but the excerpts might just compell me into a purchase.
At play, the president wears red-white-and-blue Under Armor high-tops, but at work it’s strictly blue or gray suits. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make,” he tells Lewis. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” Lewis says that if he were president he might keep a list in his head. “I do,” Obama adds. “That’s my last piece of advice to you. Keep a list.”
I got another sense, however: a sense that he was conserving focus. Fed went through all his subsidiary responsibilities as the President of Tennis (as Steve Tignor calls him) without concentrating on anything, or at least on as few things as possible.
Concentration takes mental energy, as anyone who has fought off five break points before shanking a ball on the sixth knows. And whenever I saw Federer on the grounds, he seemed to be using as little of it as possible. Practicing with Nicolas Kiefer on Ashe a few days before the tournament, he mostly just messed around. He would hit a few familiar Federer shots, the heavy forehand, the penetrating slice, then shank a ball and grin, or yell. Either way, he wasn’t really concentrating all that hard.
And is it possible that Obama has read one of my favorite books about technology, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet?
Obama points to the 1849 patent model of Samuel Morse’s first telegraph: “This is the start of the Internet right here,” he tells Lewis.
Both players, clearly, were serving well. But their ground strokes were near-perfect, too. They made almost no mistakes. Isner remembers feeling so happy with his game that “it’s hard to explain. I never thought about technique. I had no dark thoughts in my mind. I was just swinging away and the balls were going in - no matter if it was a big point, or whatever. It was crazy.”
Mahut, meanwhile, recalls an almost spiritual dimension to his play. “When we got into the money-time at 6-6 [he says ‘money-time’ in English], there was only John, myself, and my team. No one else. I didn’t hear the crowd. There was only the present time. I didn’t think about the point before, or the point after. I just stayed in the moment. I had absolutely no fear. The level of focus and awareness I had was so high. Normally, you don’t keep up for a long time. But that moment - I kept it for a long time.”
Mahut’s enjoyment, he says, was triggered by more than competition. After the many frustrations in his career, his pleasure came from fulfilling his potential. In this regard, his experience recalls Jean Bobet, the French cyclist of the 1950s, who wrote about experiencing “La Volupte” - the rare and sensual state of perfect riding. “La Volupte,” wrote Bobet, “is delicate, intimate, and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness.”
How did it feel, to play tennis like that? “It was the biggest moment of my life,” says Mahut, gravely. “It was magical.”
Roger Federer has spent longer as a “still” athlete than any great player I can remember. You could even argue that it’s one of the signs of his greatness. Other top players hit the “still” moment, hang around for a little longer, and then whoosh, they’re gone, broken up into memorial clips and Hall of Fame inductions, classic rock bands who’ve sold their copyrights. Federer, after three straight years of diminished results — 11 to 12 singles titles a year from 2004 to 2006, then eight in 2007, and four to five every year since — is … well, still really amazing. He’s still near his best, which means he’s still playing some of the best tennis the world has ever seen. If anything, he’s improved his serve to compensate for what’s maybe been a slight decline in his movement and shot-making — although, as McEnroe pointed out during the French Open, his movement is “still great.” Heading into Wimbledon, historically his best tournament, he warmed up at the French by sensationally ending Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak and playing as well as Paris has ever seen him play against Nadal.
But because he’s been “still great” for so long — because we keep seeing the end coming, even if it never actually comes — Federer has also acquired an aura of weird sadness over the past few years that’s hard to reconcile with the way we used to think about him.
Speaking of sports, Grantland, and Federer, Bill Simmons said of Lionel Messi earlier this year that “he’s better at soccer than anyone else is at anything”. That’s a pretty short list but got me wondering, if you expanded the criteria slightly, who else might join Messi on the “better at their sport than almost anyone else is at anything at some point in the past 5-6 years”. Off the top of my head, possible candidates include Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, Tiger Woods, Marta, Shaun White, Jimmie Johnson, and Annika Sörenstam. I don’t know much about hockey, but maybe Alex Ovechkin? No basketball, baseball, or football players on that list; Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds are the most recent candidates in basketball and baseball (please, don’t give me any of that LeBron crap) and I can’t think of any football player over the past 20 years who might fit the bill. Barry Sanders maybe? His team never won a lot of games and didn’t win championships, but man he was a genius runner.
It’s gotta be weird for Roger Federer. Last year at this time, people were saying that he was the best tennis player of all time. Now, near the top of his game and height of his powers, he might not even be the best current tennis player. And if you look at the statistics, Rafael Nadal may turn out to be the best tennis player ever.
Federer won his first Grand Slam title at age 21 and, by his 23rd birthday, had won two more. Sampras had won four by that age. Nadal is well ahead of that pace, having won his first Grand Slam at the precocious age of 18. The Australian was Nadal’s sixth and he will be a prohibitive favorite to capture his fifth consecutive French Open just a few days after he turns 23 in June.
1. The Federer/Nadal final at Wimbledon was epic. I was tense for the entire duration of the final three sets, which lasted about 2.5 to 3 hours. After years of sportswriters declaring that Roger Federer is the best player of all time, we might be faced with the possibility that he’s not even the best player of his generation. Two data points: 1) Nadal has shown that he can win on any surface, including Federer’s specialty, and 2) Nadal’s head-to-head record against Federer is 10-5 (although many of those wins came on clay). The match also clearly reveals the idiocy of this lame Bill Simmons article about how tennis needs to change.
2. Joey Chestnut successfully defended his title this weekend at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, eating 59 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. He needed a 5-dog overtime to hold off long-time champ Takeru Kobayashi, who has lost to Chestnut the last two years. Chestnut weighs 230 pounds while Kobayashi is only 160 pounds.
3. The US Olympic swimming trials are over and Michael Phelps qualified in 5 individual events and will likely participate in three relays as well, giving him a chance to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympics. Overshadowing Phelps’ achievements was “41-year-old mom” (that’s how they kept describing her on TV) Dara Torres, who qualified in both the 100-meter freestyle and the 50-meter freestyle.
Update: Ok, Nadal can’t consistently win on hardcourt. But he’s 22…give him time. (thx, everyone)
I love the idea of conservation of concentration conveyed in this piece about Roger Federer, that we’ve got only so much intense focus to go around and successful athletes like Federer are really good at saving it up for the big moments.
A couple of times during press conferences, I noticed something kind of interesting about Roger Federer. I’ll get to it in a minute, but let me describe the scene first. Players enter Interview Room One, where all of the Rajah’s pressers take place, at the corner diagonally opposite from where the players enter. The players come in and turn right, to take their seat behind the microphone on the little dais or stage. Most players look to their left as they enter, just gauging the room and who is in it and how full it is. Federer, though, always keeps his head down and eyes averted, until he sits and begins to answer questions, when he makes direct eye contact with each questioner.
Anyway, a couple of times during his press conferences, someone’s cell phone went off, each time with an annoyingly loud ring tone. Both times, everyone turned, first to locate and then to glare at the culprit: have you no shame? And both times, I noticed, Roger kept his eyes locked on his interlocutor, never glancing in the direction of the phone. I’m sure he was conscious, on one level, that there was an interruption occurring, but he had decided to ignore it. Not even a darting of the eyes towards the irritant. Both coming in the room with his head down and refusing to allow himself to be distracted or interrupted seemed to convey the same thing: he chooses to focus selectively, and focuses intensely once he does.
Update: Via email, a nomination for Pakistani squash player Jahangir Khan, who engineered a 5+ year unbeaten streak during which he won the International Squash Players Association Championship without losing a single point. (thx, abbas)
Update: Also via email, a vote for darts champion Phil Taylor, who has won 13 world titles, including 11 out of the last 13. (thx, krush)
Oh happy day, a new nonfiction article by David Foster Wallace! This one’s on Roger Federer. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.” The footnotes appear on a separate page and almost comprise an article of their own. I love reading his writing about tennis. (thx, stephen)
Update:Here’s a short clip of Wallace on NPR talking about Federer. When asked about the similarities between great athletes and great novelists, Wallace suggested that great athletes possess the ability to “empathize without sympathy” with their opponent, something that is useful in fiction writing when putting yourself in the shoes of a character.
Update:This YouTube video shows the Federer/Agassi volley that Wallace describes in the epically long sentence in the second paragraph…look for it starting at 8:10. (thx, marco)