SPORT

Celebrating beauty

On Court, Roger Federer creates beauty as naturally as Michelangelo created art, writes Nirmal Shekar

The very best of sport in this era easily capsulised in two words, a given name and a surname, Roger Federer not only transcends the mundane and offers us a seat on a flight to stratospheric heights of creativity and genius but also its memory remains with us forever.

Cognitive scientists call it flashbulb memory, a product of intense experiences that arm you with the ability to recall them vividly at any time in your life, long years after their occurrence. These can be both soul-shattering negative experiences or soul-lifting peak experiences.

In the last quarter of a century, few sportspersons have lifted me to as many peak experiences as has Federer, the man who creates beauty as naturally as Michelangelo created art.

Intoxicating beauty

The Swiss maestro has long since crossed the boundaries of sport and his game has an intoxicating beauty redolent of nature's marvels. Not surprisingly, this writer often thinks of things like the Great Barrier Reef, the Himalayas, the Grand Canyon and the Amazon rainforest when trying to come up with equally awe-inspiring visual experiences.

"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be at peace with himself,'' wrote Dr.Abraham Maslow, who coined the term "self-actualisation" as the pinnacle in his Hierarchy of Human Needs.

Federer goes beyond self-actualisation; he is a tennis player who makes beautiful music, art and poetry while dominating a sport that has rarely if ever been as united in the thrall of one man's athletic perfection as it is now.

"His body knew. His limbs had intelligence," wrote Jean Cocteau of the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Creativity

Federer's limbs not only seem to possess intelligence but they also appear to be in love with timeless beauty. For, few athletes in the entire history of organised sport may have matched the Swiss master's beauty-making creativity.

It would be wrong and a serious error of judgement to call Federer a magician. For magic comes cheap; it merely creates an illusion. But the breathtaking beauty of the world champion's game is no illusion; it is as real as the jaw-dropping astonishment you feel when you first set eyes on Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

As Keats realised early in his life, beauty and truth are inseparable. What is beautiful must be true. And Federer is no run-of-the-mill illusionist. The beautiful moments of sport-watching pleasure that he gifted us on Sunday when he dismissed the talented American James Blake in straight sets in the season-ending Masters final at Shanghai were very real.

Ahead of competition

For all that, you often marvel at the ubiquity of such beauty when Federer is on court. How can he do it time after time after time? In a sport that often demands the sacrifice of art at the altar of power, in an era when even the Brazilian footballers seem to have turned their backs on the beautiful game, how is it that Federer is able to stay so far ahead of the competition while wielding a racquet with the same intentions with which Picasso might have picked up a paint-brush?

We'll never know the answer. For, believe it or not, Federer himself cannot answer that question. No man or woman gifted by nature in any area of human activity can truthfully say how he or she is able to employ those gifts to stunning effects. It is a natural process that requires no mundane explanation.

Beauty and the best of sport are often inseparable too. There have been few more bewitchingly beautiful moments than when Diego Maradona, at his peak, tiptoed through the tulips, so to say, with the ball at his feet. But, then, unlike Federer, the Argentine genius did not have the discipline to stick to the canvas long enough to create a succession of masterpieces.

Much like Sampras

The Swiss maestro, on the other hand, has kept on the straight and narrow, much like the great man Pete Sampras who sits on the Grand Slam summit with 14 major titles. It is a peak that Federer seems eminently capable of conquering before ascending to a pinnacle that champions of future generations would look up to in awe.

But sport is a bewilderingly capricious business. It is a world where there is no such thing as a sure thing. Don Bradman needed a single boundary hit to end his Test career with a three-figure average. He fell for a duck in his last Test innings at the Oval.

Then again, it is almost a sacrilege to talk numbers while celebrating Federer's genius. Years from now, when we look back, will Federer's game seem less beautiful if he failed to get past Sampras's record? After all, can beauty be quantified? Can a beautiful thing be said to be 70 per cent beautiful as opposed to something else that is 100 per cent beautiful?

Let's simply leave it to Keats: it is a joy forever. Roger Federer's game is.

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