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July 16, 2015

Susan Callahan, Contributing Columnist

Tennis is perhaps the cruelest of sports. In terms of shelf-life, tennis
players rank down there with bananas. Fresh and green at age 20,
brown, bruised and rotten at age 28, if they're extremely lucky, 29.  

In this short timespan, this vanishing canvas, this dissolving canvas, a
tennis player must construct their life's work. Paint a portrait but make
it quick.  Few are up to the task.  Fewer still can paint a masterpiece.  
And even fewer than that can do what Roger Federer has done. He has
painted the peerless masterpiece of a career, the Mona Lisa.

First, confessions are in order. I am a diehard Rafael Nadal fan. When
he appeared on the scene and began to dominate Federer, I cheered.
Perhaps it is because I, like millions of other Nadal fans, identify more
with the relentless chaser, the hunter, the one whose sheer will and
grit and never-say-die spirit help them over the finish line. We all love a

Federer was outside of all that. He makes tennis seem, well, effortless.
Sometimes, when you watch him gliding as if his feet move just above
the surface of the court, it seems as if he whole body moves with the
effortlessness of ...breathing.

What Makes Federer Different?

Some years ago, I began to watch this man play closely. That was
when I noticed something unusual. Federer's head is unnaturally still.
The human head weighs about as much as a bowling ball. When you
move it even a millimeter in one direction, it changes the balance of
your entire body.  If you watch slow motion--- even super slow motion
--- of Federer, you see something I have not seen in any other athlete
with the exception of Michael Jordan.  Federer's head remains in
perfect balance throughout the entire range of motion of his shots.  
That shouldn't happen according to the laws of physics. But it does.

Federer Sees Better Than Normal Humans

There are two other things that make Federer different, his vision and
his hands. Federer has the keenest vision on the tour. Asked what
quaility of Federer's he most wishes were his own, Rafael Nadal replied,
"his vision".   Federer moves in anticipation of his opponents shots, as
you would expect. In his prime, from 2003 to 2008, when he occupied
the Number 1 position in men's tennis for 302 weeks, Federer was the
quickest man on the tour. But his quickness was not just foot speed.
His quickness was an illusion created by his extraordinary ability to see
quicker than anyone else, where his opponent was going to strike.  
That requires unusual eyes, both direct vision, and peripheral vision.

His vision is the reason Federer always seem to have loads of time to
prepare and finish his strokes.  It is also the reason Federer looks so
cool and composed. If you "knew" where your opponent was going to
swing, you'd look supernaturally cool too.

Athletes in general see better than normal humans. In a 1975 study of
132 male and female students from Florida State University, a study
found that both male and female athletes have superior horizontal
vision than non-athletes.

In addition to horizontal visual acuity, athletes at the elite level needs
superior eye tracking skills. Eye tracking allows athletes in sports with
fast moving balls to track the ball without much head movement,
according to the American Optometry Association. That eery stillness of
Federer's head that shows up in slow motion video is doubtless
evidence that he has superior eye tracking abilities. As the ball moves
closer to him, Federer's head does not need to make any last second
adjustments because of his superior eye tracking skills.

Perhaps better eye tracking abilities than the world has ever known.

Emotional Zen That Approaches a Trance

Which brings us the third and most important of Roger Federer's
superpowers --his emotional state. Roger Federer does not play zen
tennis. Roger Federer is zen. Tennis is just one expression of that zen.
Some years back, I saw a clip of Federer in South Africa, his mother's
homeland, where he was playing football (soccer to us Americans) with
children at a charity event. These 8 and 9 year old boys were scurrying
around, faster than lightning. There is nothing quicker on the world
than an 8 or 9 year old boy --just try running after one of them. But in
that clip, I saw something, again, extraordinary. Roger Federer is
quicker than those 9 year olds. His feet casually flicked away and
re-caught the ball with these kids.  And as he played, there was that
serene, contented calm.  His zen was there.  And, in his personal life, in
his calm devotion to his family, his zen is there.

Again, take a look at a slow motion of Federer focusing on the ball.
Notice his eyes appear as if he is in some other dimension,
expressionless, as though he is in a trance.  Compare that to the
expressions of the faces of other tennis players as they hit the ball ---
excited, adrenaline pumped, sometimes, fraught.

His zen sometimes can seem arrogant, above it all. But that too is
deceiving and wrongly analyzed. Roger Federer's emotional state is an
expression of his relationship to the game. If you notice, Federer never
exchanges glances with his opponent. There is no glaring across the
net, as you might see with Nadal. Roger's only relationship on the
tennis court is with the tennis ball. He tracks the ball with his
superhuman vision, tracing in into his strike zone, where he and that
ball are together in a trance. The other player across the net? He
doesn't exist. His sole purpose in life is to deliver that beloved ball back
into Roger's world.

We may see others who will win the odd Grand Slam, even those who
may beat his record Grand Slam total. But we are unlikely to ever again
see an animal the likes of Roger Federer.

In his prime, he was a great cat, a lion, who moved silently on soft feet,
seeing miles across the savannah, running at full speed without raising
his heart beat, and striking with reflexes quicker than his prey could
think.  Others may slay as many prey but with Roger, it was a beautiful
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Federer seems to be in a trance as he hits.