Roger Cohen wonders if Roger Federer is part of a Matrix-like artificial reality. I found myself asking the same question watching Federer over the weekend, and I am not that easily impressed. I played several times against a three-time Wimbledon champ, though he did clean my clock every time. Did I mention that I was 21 and he was in his 70s and he played with a lit cigar in his mouth? The man hardly moved, but he totally dominated me.
George Lott--Mr. Lott to me--was the most intimidating pot-bellied, spindly-legged septuagenarian I've ever encountered. He grumbled more than he spoke words and he always wore one of his heavy gold medals around his neck--even when he was on the court. It was a thrill to play with someone of his caliber--a man who had shared the court with many of the early legends of tennis. Even at his advanced age, there was something preternatural about his reactions, his shots and his feel for court and the game.
I didn't start playing tennis until my teens. We were a baseball and hockey family. A close family member played professional baseball--outfield--beside one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. So, my childhood coach was the kind of coach most kids could only dream about.
His lifelong best friend was another pro who had been a high school and military teammate. The two continued to get together to play into their 60s when one was half-blind and the other suffering from a serious neurological disorder. Even at that age, there was something otherworldly about their feel for the game--a certain grace that coexisted alongside their disabilities--the soft hands, the unexpected velocity of their throws and some occasionally startling footwork.
How could it be that my relative, his best friend and the aging George Lott retained something of this Matrix-like quality to their play--a quality that was immediately apparent even when they played with much younger, healthy amateurs?
At the highest level of any sport, there is an overlearning of certain aspects of the game that most amateurs never learn in the first place. For example, I always had a strong arm--hurling up into the 80s. The ball often sounded like a whip cracking when caught, except when my relative caught it. My throws landed silently in his glove, like a cotton ball. It was as if he could erase the power and speed from another player's game, even after the depredations of age and ill-health had sapped him of his own once astonishing power and speed. Mr. Lott did the same thing on the tennis court. He knew how to disable amateur opponents, turning powerful serves into floaters and moving an opposing player, at will, into the wrong position on the court.
Of course, there isn't really anything otherwordly about it all. Roger Federer isn't a player out of the Matrix, nor was George Lott, nor are other professional athletes. They just know their own games, mentally and physically, in ways that few of us can even imagine knowing a game.