The greatest trick shot of them all (cont.)
That's how you know you're watching real greatness. Most people are affected by what I might call The Magician's Standard. That is, a magician who can wow kids is on one level ... but maybe adults might see right through his silly little tricks. A magician who can wow adults is on another level ... but maybe amateur magicians can still see how the trick is done. A magician who can wow amateur magicians is on yet another level ... but maybe professional magicians shake their heads because they notice some sloppiness. And, one last level, a magician who can wow professional magicians is obviously technically remarkable ... but he might leave children cold and bored.
But a magician who can wow ALL OF THEM, yeah, to me, that's real greatness. And that's Federer. He plays such beautiful tennis that anyone -- even someone who doesn't like tennis -- can easily appreciate it. But he also hits shots that leave McEnroe speechless. At one point in Sunday's match, Djokovic hit an impossibly hard forehand down near the line, an almost unreturnable shot. Federer reached down easily -- almost causally -- and, with a flick of his wrist, took off much of the speed and spun the ball into the open court, where it skidded off the line for a winner. McEnroe -- who I think is the best announcer in the game, any sport, and a guy who made his bones hitting near-impossible tennis shots -- was left fumbling trying to explain the absurdity of that shot. "It was ... just ... so ... easy," McEnroe sputtered, and you could tell right then that he wished he could scream the words that would explain to America the almost comical genius of that shot. But there are no such words.
My own favorites in the Federer Collection are the inside-out forehands he hits from deep in the corner of the ad-court -- that is, all the way on the left side. From that side, the average player generally hits backhands but Federer's speed and footwork is so good that he can run around his backhand (which is merely great) and hit his forehand (which might be the best shot in the history of tennis -- there with Connors' and Nadal's backhands, Pete Sampras' and Bill Tilden's serve, Borg and Andre Agassi's return of serve). Federer can hit that forehand down the line, into the middle, he can hit it with ferocious topspin or he can hit it flat. But what's really amazing is that he can hit that forehand crosscourt at such absurd angles that at first it appeared to me he was mis-hitting these shots. It seemed to me the only way to hit a ball at that sharp an angle was to have the ball careen off the top of the tennis frame. But these were not mis-hits. Federer would hit those shots again and again, and on Sunday he must have hit five of them at different speeds that looked like optical illusions.
Yes, it was an entertaining match. Federer won the first two sets -- the first in a tiebreaker, the second on a break of server at 5-6 -- but other than the Federer's indomitable tennis competitiveness, there wasn't much to tell them apart. The point of the match actually belonged to Djokovic who stood at net and returned four straight shots when Federer had him at point blank range. The fourth return was a pop-up -- a set up for a Federer smash -- and Djokovic turned his back and stuck out his butt, as if to give Federer a target. The crowd loved it. Federer smiled too. And Djokovic hit several other brilliant shots -- plus he was uncanny at challenging bad calls. He was a great foil for Federer on this day -- fierce in competition but still aware enough of the moment to flash a sly smile when Federer hit one of his immortal shots. And down two sets, he continued to play with energy, and he held serve all the way until 5-6 again. And then Federer won the first two points on Djokovic to go up love-30.
That's when it happened. Djokovic hit a drop shot. Federer charged, managed to get the ball back over the net, and Djokovich lofted a lob over Federer's head. A great lob. There wasn't much of anything Federer could do except ... well, yes. Federer ran back ... and I could see (you could see, we all could see) he was measuring it. He was setting up for the great. He ran up to the ball, ran over it, and then suddenly swung down hard -- slashed the racket between his legs. A blur.
And ... he ... ripped ... a ... winner into the open court.
"Whoa!" I screamed, and I never scream at the television set. My wife raced down: "What happened?"
"You have to see this," I said, and they showed it again, and then again, and again, and my wife was impressed, of course, because how can you not be impressed when you see a tennis player hit a vicious winner through his legs? But she's only learning tennis now ... and she went back to her day.
I could not ... I had to sit there and let the shot sink in. It didn't surprise me a few minutes later -- Federer won the match on the next point -- when Federer called it the greatest shot he'd ever hit. Of course it was the greatest shot he hit. It was the greatest shot anyone had ever hit. It was absolutely perfect -- the perfect setup, the perfect moment, the perfect shot.
"A lot, actually," Federer said when asked if he practiced that shot. Well, sure he did. Even Federer can get bored practicing tennis. Even Federer needs a few moments of escape, a few moments when he can practice the greatest tennis trick shot in the world. The difference between Federer and every other dreamer who practiced hitting shots between their legs, of course, is that he's the greatest tennis player who ever lived. And for him the perfect moment happened in the semifinal of the U.S. Open, two points away from victory. That's when he hit the greatest tennis trick shot in the world. Only, in that moment, it was even more than that. It was art.