The greatest trick shot of them all
The definitive shot is fielding a lob and then hitting the ball between your legs
Federer wowed himself, the fans and even retired greats like John McEnroe
Federer identified the passing shot against Novak Djokovic as his best shot
When I was young, I used to practice tennis trick shots. It was my way of handling the monotony of tennis practice. Well, I was never good with monotony. I would stand in the supermarket parking lot, and hit shot after shot after shot after shot into that brick wall, and I would imagine being on Centre Court facing John McEnroe. Then I would imagine being at the U.S. Open facing Jimmy Connors. Then I would imagine hitting the ball so hard that it would knock back the bricks, a millimeter at a time -- WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! -- until finally I hit the final ball so hard that it would break through the wall and come out the other side, right into the produce section where it would hit the guy spraying lettuce with a water bottle. These reveries would usually sustain me for as long as 15 minutes. Then I would practice trick shots.
The definitive tennis trick shot is going back on a lob and then hitting the ball between your legs. I'm pretty sure that the first person I ever saw do this was Yannick Noah at the French Open one year ... and it animated my imagination. I used to be able to do all sorts of little tennis tricks. I can pick up a dormant tennis ball several different ways. At the net, I could hit a low volley between my legs, I could hit a behind the back shot. I practiced hitting a drop shot with so much backspin that the ball would bounce back over to my side of the net.*
*When I say I could do these things, I mean I could do them roughly one out of every 500 attempts.
But the go-back-and-hit-the-ball-through-the-legs shot was (and is) the gold standard of trick shots. So I must have practiced hitting it 50 times a day. The way to practice the shot is like so: You get close to a wall, and then hit the ball at an upward angle against the wall so that the ball pops up and over your head. Then you run up to the ball and measure the bounce so that as it is coming down you are basically standing OVER the ball -- you actually want to overrun the ball slightly -- and then come through with a full downward swing so that the racket hits the ball cleanly and goes through your legs on the follow through. If you hit it just right, the ball will have some power behind it and come out at a low-line drive, like a single up the middle.
When you practice this shot a lot -- especially when you lack talent -- you will hit yourself in the shins fairly often. This hurts a great deal. You will also miss three or four dozen times in a row and look foolish to anyone who happens to be walking by. But it's worth a little pain and embarrassment for that moment when you strike the ball just right. At least that's what I assume. I never did strike the ball just right, at least not in an actual tennis match. Ever so often, I would get it right in the parking, though. That had to be enough.
All of this rushed back on Sunday, when I watched Roger Federer face Novak Djokovic in a Sunday semifinal. It was a beautiful match to watch -- especially the second and third sets -- because Djokovic is an entertaining player himself, and he played well enough to bring out some magic from Federer. This is how good Federer has become -- most of the time when you watch him play, you barely see his brilliance because his opponent simply isn't good enough to coax it out of him.* Djokovic, on this day, wasn't good enough to win even a set. But he was good enough to make Federer play brilliantly.
*It reminds me of when I saw Larry Hughes play basketball in college. Hughes was playing for St. Louis University then, and he was playing against the University of Missouri-Kansas City -- UMKC as we call them in the American City of Fountains -- and it was clear that Hughes was a remarkable basketball player. But no one on the floor was good enough to bring out his talents. At first, I actually was irritated at Hughes for not showing the full array of his preposterous gifts. He played well enough -- I recall him scoring some points, making a couple of moves that left you to wonder what he could really do. But mostly he seemed like a musical prodigy who refused to play music.
Only then did I realize that it wasn't Hughes at all -- he was just too good for the game. Ali needed Frazier to bring out his boxing courage. McEnroe needed Bjorn Borg to unleash his tennis genius. Michael Jordan needed the NBA to feed his competitive hunger. Joe Montana needed the NFL and the final two minutes to generate his gift for the dramatic. Diego Maradona needed the World Cup to set loose his artistry.
And Hughes simply could not show us what was inside him during a nothing game against UMKC. There wasn't enough energy in the building, not enough competition on the floor, not enough magic in the night. He has gone on to become a good-to-excellent NBA player, and on many nights he has shown what he could not show on that day in Kansas City.
Throughout the match, Federer hit some shots that left people gasping. Here's the most remarkable thing to me about Federer: Seems to me that the more you know about tennis, the more amazed you are by the guy. If you know nothing at all about tennis, he's amazing. If you know a little something about tennis -- maybe you have played a few times in your life -- he's more amazing. If you know a little more about tennis -- maybe you played in high school and once had illusions of becoming a pro -- he's even MORE amazing. And if you were a great player -- if you are a McEnroe or a Connors or a Jim Courier -- then Federer is preposterously amazing.