Not since John McEnroe has a player looked as fluid and effortless on the tennis court as Roger Federer. In fact he takes McEnroe's fluidity and effortlessness to another level. Arthur Ashe once commented about McEnroe’s game after losing to him in a major final at Madison Square Garden with the words, “He nicks and cuts you, until you bleed to death”. In other words you don’t really see him doing anything until he wins the last point and then you realize that you have just lost the match. Federer flies under the radar screen of even that experience — he doesn’t wait until the last point. It looks like he is not doing anything at all in a point until you see a backhand passing shot flying by you at the speed of light.
Now if you want to improve on hitting a 90-mile-an-hour running fastball or late-breaking slider, then watch Roger Federer play a tennis match.
In all likelihood, Federer has never hit a baseball in his life. He may not ever have watched a game in his life. Then what can he teach a Major League baseball player facing a full count, with two outs in the eighth inning with men on base and the score tied?
Just about everything he needs to know.
Let us explain.
Everyone marvels about the amazing shots that Federer hits. They look at his footwork, his racquet preparation, his balance, his shot variety, his execution,and they are in awe at his wealth of talent. But they are all looking in the wrong place to understand his genius. They are not looking at why he hits the most spectacular shots in the history of the game. They are not looking at where these shots originate. And herein lies the great secret of Roger Federer.
The reason for his incredible success is not only that he hits the best shots on the tour today; but on a more fundamental level, he waits for the ball better than any other player in the history of the game. In other words no one has ever done “nothing” better than Roger Federer. It is the time when he does nothing on the court that separates him from the field.
Let’s see the power of the time when you are doing nothing on the tennis court.
If you look at a tennis match, you will see one player hit a ball and then you will see another player hit a ball. Common sense says you can define what you are looking at as a series of actions. But there is also something else going on. A player hits a ball and then he waits. He hits another ball and then he waits again. So, you can also describe what you are seeing as a series of inactions.
It is when you change your perspective and look at the inactions in a tennis match that Federer’s genius shines through. In the gap between actions in a tennis match the motion of the stroke is formed. Specifically when someone waits for the ball without distorting time, the correct motion is produced in its seed form and then unfolds a second later.
An example that every tennis player has had will illustrate this point. Player A is playing Player B. Player A is serving deep in the match. He hits a first serve that is two inches out. Player B then proceeds to hit the best return of the day — perfect footwork, perfect racquet preparation, perfect contact, perfect everything. But it is two inches out so the return doesn’t count.
Player A then hits a second serve that is two inches in and Player B hits the same mediocre return that he has been hitting all day. What happened in these two returns? The amount of time that elapsed when Player B acknowledged that the first serve was out and when he actually hit the return was a fraction of a second; especially if Player A is hitting his serves at 125 miles an hour. But in that fraction of a second, a phenomenon occurred that has escaped the eyes of every TV tennis commentator, including John McEnroe.
In that fraction of a second when Player B saw that the ball was out, he experienced time as moving normally. And when that happened it produced a picture perfect shot on every level. When the second serve came and it was in, time was experienced by Player B as being distorted and that produced a forced and less than graceful and fluid shot.
Roger Federer hits every tennis shot as if every ball has landed two inches out. In other words no one waits for the ball like Federer, therefore no one hits the ball like Federer.
He sees a tennis match as a series of gaps, not as a series of shots. In fact, he doesn’t even want to think about the shot at all. This is what he said when asked by Tennis magazine about how he gets into the Zone: “I try to stay very much in the present tense. To think only about the moment I am in a point (and here is the real kicker) and to not even think about that if I can.”
In other words, he doesn’t even want to remember that he is playing tennis, which means his attention is not on what he is doing, but on what he is not doing. He doesn’t want to remember that he is in a point. He wants to remember those moments on the court when he is doing nothing, not those moments when he is doing something.
Now how is a TV commentator going to handle that analysis by Federer? He is marveling on the incredible racquet preparation of Federer, his marvelous racquet head speed, his eclectic variety of shots and Federer is thinking to himself, “I don’t even want to remember that I am playing tennis.” Something is very wrong with this picture. Even a guy like McEnroe who played much like Federer doesn’t get it. What doesn’t he get? He doesn’t get that motion originates in the gap before the motion unfolds.
Have you ever heard a TV commentator say that no one waits for the ball like Federer? All you hear is that no one hits the ball like Federer. They are seeing tennis as a series of actions and we are writing to say that tennis should be seen as a series of inactions. Now what if it was possible to teach someone to hit the return of that second serve that was in, like they hit the return when the first serve was out. Would that be a valuable approach for someone to learn? What if it was possible to teach someone to wait for the ball like Federer? Would that be a valuable approach to learn? It would be worth its weight in gold, we imagine.
When you teach someone this, anyone in any sport, you are teaching them how to consistently and effortlessly produce the very best motion they can produce with the talent that they have been blessed with. And you are also teaching them to do something that Federer does every time he steps on the court. Because Federer’s muscles are so super fluid because he never experiences time being distorted, when he chooses a possibility (which eventually he has to do; how hard he is going to hit it, where he is going to hit it, how much spin he is going to hit it with), he has not eliminated at the very last second the ability to choose another possibility.
In other words, the field of all possibilities is always available to him. He never, ever commits too early to a shot. This is why it is so difficult to play against him. His opponents don’t know what he is going to do with the ball. In fact, Federer doesn’t even know what he is going to do with the ball until the very last second.
Going against the grain of every tennis book ever written on how you should set up a point and what strategy you should use, Federer in all his genius wants to forget that he is even playing tennis.
Switching to baseball, every great hitter has always been able to not commit too early to the pitch. Somehow they have been able to hold their motion until the very last second. Then they have been able to make last-minute adjustments, very subtle last-minute adjustments that allowed them to make solid contact with the ball. This is the common denominator of all great hitters regardless of the their hitting style.
And this is what Roger Federer can teach every professional baseball player. If you could set up the initial conditions at bat that allow the muscles to be super fluid, so that last-minute adjustments can be made in a fraction of a second, so that you pick up the ball earlier in the pitch, so that your swing becomes fluid and effortless, so that you do not commit too early to a pitch, would that be a valuable hitting lesson?
This is what we teach.