Federer, Artistry, Genius: A Study in Sports Aesthetics
It should be obvious to the casual tennis fan and probably even the common sportsman who tracks records that Roger Federer is likely the greatest tennis player ever to play the game. To the serious tennis player, however, Federer is, in an important sense, much more than this. He is a shotmaking genius, a player who controls the court completely and seemingly effortlessly, forcing opponents to respond to his play regardless of the strengths of their own games. The sort of control of the court that I describe really is best labeled “artistry” in a pure sense of the term, and it will be part of the business of this essay to explain this contention. We will do well to advance a conception of art that includes the ability to play a certain sort of winning tennis. There was a period of time in the not so distant past when it appeared that improvements in the equipment and the influx of a set of bigger, stronger, better conditioned athletes threatened to reduce at least the men’s game on faster surfaces (grass, hardcourt) to an artless battle of big serves. Federer’s record at Wimbledon and his all-court style of dominance show that worries that the game was artistically ruined were premature. Having discussed artistry, we will turn to the notion of genius, and suggest that this term applies again in a pure form to Federer. The sort of mind that it takes to develop points as he does, to exploit every opponent’s weaknesses, and of course to improvise angles and speeds in milliseconds of decision-making time, is one worthy of the term “genius” just as the term can be properly employed to describe both the sculptor and the mathematician.
Keywords: Aesthetics, Sport, Tennis, Conceptual Analysis
Prof. Neil Delaney
Visiting Ryan Family Chair of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Georgetown University