The Stuff of Legends: Federer and Nadal

There is something gladiatorial about Tennis. There are not many sports that pity man against man (or woman against woman) in a direct test of strength, endurance, skill and wit; that require fortitude of heart and mind as well as the bicep, in an arena with 15,000 people watching on. If the "gentleman's game" is modern day gladiatorial combat, more so than boxing, fencing or UFC, then Sunday's Wimbledon final saw the two greatest warriors fighting tooth and nail to the bitter end in a battle that is to become the stuff of Legend.

It was a classic match-up. For the third time in as many years the young pretender and King of Clay, was up against the established 5 time King of Centre court for the de facto coveted right to be called the best player in the world. It was a match of epic proportions, hailed by many as perhaps the greatest match of all time, let alone Wimbledon final, and was the longest Wimbledon men's singles final, rain delays not withstanding, at a whopping 4 hours and 48 minutes, with the last ball being struck in near darkness after 9pm.

For my part I was rather rooting for Rafael Nadal on Sunday. To my mind Roger Federer has started to believe his own legend and it has contributed in some degree to his current dethroning from the lofty number one spot. He walks out onto centre court without a coach, in his special designer jacket and golden Nike tick. It smacks of pride and for that reason alone he deserved to be beaten. It has all come too easily to him up until now, and in many ways he has rather taken his eye off the ball.

Many people have touted Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player who has ever lived. Andre Agassi, a legend in his own right, said that Federer was "the best he'd ever played against", after he was beaten in the 2005 US Open final, and even in victory the ever humble Nadal, the first man since Bjorn Borg to win back to back French Open and Wimbledon titles, eluded to Federer's greatness. Federer does have what it takes to be called the greatest, his record speaks for itself, 5 US Opens and 5 Wimbledons in a row is no trifling matter, but for all his supposed greatness it is only now that we will truly see whether Federer can really claim the crown of the greatest ever tennis player; it is only now that we will truly see what he is made of.

Frankly, Federer rarely looked like he believed he could win on Sunday. There were moments for sure and he fought desperately the whole way, but somehow, to me, it seemed like he believed deep down he didn't have what it took to beat Nadal anymore. Nadal has improved his game immensely and Federer knew that Nadal had steadily been getting closer to him on grass, last years final and Nadal victory at Queens this year shows Nadal how much he has improved on grass, and further away from him on the clay. At times, probably due to the thumping he received in Paris a month before, Federer simply looked scared.

Every hero needs a nemesis; Beowulf and Grendel, Achilles and Hector, Batman and the Joker, Ali and Frazier, Borg and McEnroe. It is nemeses that push heroes to greatness, that in some sense defines who they are. Where would Beowulf be without defeating Grendel? Would Troy still stand if it wasn't for Hector's rousing of Achilles? Where would Ali have been without those fights in Zaire or Manila? Where would Federer be without Nadal?

For sure without Nadal, Federer would have walked off with the "greatest-ever" crown a long time ago and completed the "Grand Slam" several years in a row, something no-one in the modern era has done (Sampras great as he was, could never handle the clay in Paris; Agassi is the only one to have completed the Grand Slam over a career, although not in a single year). Federer and Nadal have propelled each other to lofty new heights in tennis, that arguably the likes of which has never been seen before, as was witnessed in the brilliance of Sunday's final. Their games couldn't be more different, Federer has the raw ability, talent and brilliance, where as Nadal has immense power, speed and an iron will to win. Watching Federer every shot almost seems effortless as opposed to Nadal who is a workhorse, bristling with energy sending back all but the most brilliantly hit shots.

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;"
 - R.Kipling

It is now that Federer can achieve true greatness. It is now that he must truly test his mettle. He must find a way to overcome his nemesis, find a way to win, as Ali did against the seemingly invincible Foreman, and discover a belief that he can beat Nadal on any surface. If he walks out on tennis at this juncture, he will be doing the same as Bjorn Borg did after consecutive defeats to a lefty, not achieve his dreams or his full potential and the crown of greatest ever will quickly fall onto the shoulders of someone else. Possibly a young man from Majorca.

July 2008

Watch the Highlights

To acquire greatness in a given field, especially where a certain amount of physicality is required, one must have great technique. This goes for sports men, Michaels Jordan & Johnson, Roger Federer, Joe Calzaghe, as well as musicians and artists. In order to box, hit a tennis ball, play a musical instrument or paint a picture, at any level, some technique is required and it is these technical skills that provide the foundation for the given pursuit. Without any technical ability one simply would not be able to do what one set out to do. So as far as fundamentals go the study of technique is crucial to progression, but despite what advantages talent might give you it does require work and desire, if it was easy then everyone would be good at everything.

But is it simply great or superior technique that establishes one in the realms of greatness? It certainly helps, but the fundamental answer has to be no. It is not the only thing and this is more obvious when you talk with regard to musicians and artists, because it is clearer to see that it is the application of technique, not technique of itself, which results in artistry. In this case, technique is a means to an end and not the end in its self.

When we talk about the technical aspects of being a musician, we often talk about great chops. The study of technique provides the necessary dexterity and strength to play the given instrument, but the study of technique also covers the area of co-ordination, especially when we talk about drummers. What we are aiming for, especially as jazz musicians, is to have the ability to go anywhere, play anything and to be released from the physical and sometimes mental constraints of playing the instrument.

There is, though, a danger in over emphasizing technique, in taking technique over substance. We study technique to such a large degree that it becomes all consuming, I wonder if it is not something that plays to the ego, and we forget about the bigger picture of making music, something I am sure we have all been guilty of to a greater or lesser degree. When technique has become too much of a focus for any artist, musical or otherwise, the art loses its soul, it has no heart. Unfortunately there have been more than one or two, some of whom might be called legendary drummers (I know more about drumming than other instruments, but I am sure the same thing happens in other musical disciplines), who whilst being technically brilliant have, perhaps lazily, fallen into this trap, relying on technique and at times rather lacking in musical taste!

If we actually think about painting a picture, the pure technique of painting with a brush is not going to get you very far and that brush technique is never going to be an end in and of its self. The painting is the end result and this is the product of the correct application of different brush strokes to fulfil an artistic vision. It still has to be said that a technically brilliant picture does not guarantee that it is artistically brilliant, this does have more to do with artistic vision than technique. So the vision, the soul, the heart of the painting rises above the constraints or otherwise of technique. The technique should, when looking at a picture, be invisible. The same should be true in music.

Bruce Lee, in reference to martial arts, talked about the formless form. The concept of, in a sense, forgetting all the technique that one had learnt and just expressing and adapting yourself to a given situation. The same is true of the arts for in its purest form it is self expression. It is definitely true for drummers and musicians, especially in a jazz context. We are pursuing the formless form, forgetting all that technique we have learnt, making it invisible, expressing and adapting to the other musicians around us and in a Zen like way aiming for a oneness, a completeness, with the music. Substance over technique.

December 2008

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