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Baryshnikov in Sneakers

Baryshnikov in Sneakers

Tennis champion Roger Federer proves that an athlete’s performance can be a source of beauty just as easily as a work of art.

Daniel Ross Goodman

This past September, after teaming up in doubles with his longtime rival and friend Rafael Nadal one last time at the Laver Cup in London, Roger Federer retired from tennis at the age of forty-one. Despite his two knee surgeries in the past three years, Federer still managed to awe spectators with his preternaturally fluid serve, his always dangerous forehand, his ever graceful (if shank-prone) backhand, his trademark racquet-twirl before returning serve, and his lightning-quick reflexes at the net.

The match encapsulated the latter half of Federer’s career: he failed to close it out despite holding a match point on his own serve, conjuring memories of three high-stakes losses in similar circumstances to Novak Djokovic at the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens and, most epically, at Wimbledon in 2019. The Federer whom we saw at the Laver Cup was the player we had grown to admire and occasionally pity as well—the vulnerable winner; the tearful loser; and, most of all, the player with the beautiful game.

One of the most common refrains about Federer throughout his career, and especially in the weeks following his retirement, has been that he is the most beautiful player to have ever played the sport of tennis. John McEnroe said as much, describing Federer as a “Baryshnikov in sneakers” on account of his balletic footwork and uncanny manner of gliding along the baseline as if he were dancing with an invisible partner. Federer gained legions of fans across the globe for this trait above all others—for the sheer and inimitable beauty of his game.

No one has ever covered the court in the way that Federer did, seeming to float more than sprint, and no one has ever made what can be an agonizingly physical sport appear so easy, at times even effortless. If Federer was a Baryshnikov in sneakers, he was also a Rembrandt with a tennis racquet, with impossibly smooth strokes that are simultaneously capable of creating such powerful effects—much like the brushstrokes in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch or Aristotle with a Bust of Homer. When watching him play we are left in awe that such effects were made by a mortal man. Federer typically had the same level of command over the court that Rembrandt had over the canvas, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that in tennis, unlike painting, someone else is trying to prevent you from doing what you want. And yet Federer—with rare exceptions (most prominently when he was facing Nadal on clay)—was able to make his opponent part of the work of art itself that he was creating on the court in a similar way to which Rembrandt was able to blend opposing colors and contrasting hues into some of the most breathtaking paintings the world has ever seen.

The beauty of Federer’s game is also the strongest argument his fans have for his status as the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the debates that have been raging for years between Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic devotees. Both Nadal and Djokovic have now surpassed Federer’s short-lived record of twenty major titles—Nadal won his twenty-second Grand Slam this past year at Roland Garros and Djokovic picked up his twenty-first during this past summer’s Wimbledon. Djokovic now holds the record for most weeks at world number one, Federer’s record eight Wimbledons is dwarfed by Nadal’s fourteen French Opens, and, perhaps most damningly, Federer has losing head-to-head records against both men. How, then, can he possibly still compete in the GOAT sweepstakes? This is where the intangible quality of beauty enters the picture.

Michael Jordan is almost universally regarded as the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball. This is so despite his having won fewer championships than Bill Russell, having scored fewer points than Kobe Bryant, and having won fewer most valuable player awards than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yet, if you were to ask any serious basketball fan—or even any casual sports fan—who the greatest player of all time is, the answer you’d invariably receive is Michael Jordan.

Jordan’s fierce competitiveness, his iconic slam dunks and changing-direction-in-midair layups, and his unblemished 6-0 record in NBA finals are often cited as arguments in favor of his basketball GOAT status. Although the beauty of Jordan’s game hasn’t been as widely discussed as the beauty of Federer’s, it is at least this longtime sports fan’s (and art critic’s) contention that we have come to elevate Michael Jordan above Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and even Bill Russell because none of them played with the style, flourish, and awe-inspiring athletic grace of Jordan. It is the beauty of Jordan’s game, not the corpus of his stats, that accounts for our recognition of him as the greatest ever to ever lace up a pair of high-top Nikes.

The fact that Federer, like Jordan, is still in the greatest player of all time discussions despite his rivals’ superior numbers points to the importance of beauty in sports, and in life. We crave the expansion of mind and the amplitude of spirit that beauty can provide, even if we do not realize consciously that we have such desires. This is why we can be moved to tears by a perfectly performed piano concerto or stay glued to our seats in the theater long after the credits of a sublime film have rolled.

Our need for beauty—“God’s handwriting,” as Emerson called it—signifies that we know, whether we are conscious of it or not, that there are things in life greater than what mere sums can quantify. To observe an athlete playing his sport in such an exquisite fashion that we can lose ourselves in the reverie of his forehands and backhands, in the same way that we can give ourselves over completely to a literary artist’s construction of a stirring scene, indicates that we really do value the non-utilitarian dimension of life. Utility, as important and as necessary as it may be, is only the means; we need utility not as an end in and of itself but in order to facilitate the end of beauty, existence’s true intrinsic reward. As the late great English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote,

Beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations.

A multitude of great minds, from Plato to Kant, have written about the nature and importance of beauty. And artists have expounded upon it through painting, sculpture, music, and literature. But in order to appreciate the importance of beauty’s place in the world and its role in our lives, we need not crack our heads over thick, forbidding tomes of continental philosophy. All we need are a few moments of watching Roger Federer play tennis (which, mercifully, is still possible thanks to the internet). What Keats wrote about the eternal nature of beauty applies impeccably to the timeless nature of Federer’s beautiful game: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”

Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema (2020) and the novel A Single Life (2020). His next book, Soloveitchik’s Children: Irving Greenberg, David Hartman, Jonathan Sacks, and the Future of Jewish Theology in America, will be published in 2023 by the University of Alabama Press.

Image: Roger Federer during a tennis match. (Flickr: Gilad Rom)