Federer, The New Zen Master
The less effort, the faster and
more powerful you will be.
- Bruce Lee in Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyms
By Kim Shanley
The TennisOne Community
Watching Andre Agassi play at the US Open
in the mid-90's, Barbara Streisand called him the Zen master.
Streisand's remark has been derided over the years as Hollywood
mumbo-jumbo or West Coast mysticism. But as I said in my very
first newsletter, I think Streisand called it right: Agassi continues
to exemplify many remarkable qualities as an athlete and human
being, and yeah, some of these are close to my understanding
of what Zen is all about.
So braving the cynics, I'll add a new chapter
to the Zen master tales. After watching Roger Federer win all
five of his matches in the November Masters Cup in Houston, where
he twice defeated the old master Agassi, and his mesmerizing
performance at this year's Australian Open, I'm ready to nominate
Federer the new Zen master.
Federer, as all the TV commentators noted,
is playing a different game than the rest of the field. In winning
the Aussie Open, Federer soundly thrashed two players, Lleyton
Hewitt and David Nalbandian, both of whom had dominated him in
the past. In the final, he faced Marat Safin, who, over the
course of the tournament, had transformed himself from mental
midget to mental giant, defeating Roddick and Agassi in clutch
five set matches.
Safin fought gallantly in the first set to
bludgeon his way through Federer's magic web of soft and hard,
underspin and topspin. But when Federer's web held firm in the
tie-breaker and into the second set, Safin started to bellow
like the giant Gulliver held fast by a thousand tiny but unbreakable
Lilliputian ropes. "I'm trying!" Safin roared belligerently
at the crowd trying to bolster his flagging spirits. But it was
obvious by the beginning of the third set that Federer would
win, and all Safin could do was grumble and make self-deprecating
jokes, like a Russian field-hand sent to feed the pigs after
a long day's work. Still, it was good to see Safin keep his
perspective and sense of humor, and it will serve him in good
stead as he continues his remarkable turn-around.
Federer's mastery, beyond being able to hit
all shots and angles, combines a number of intangible factors,
including fluid strokes with little mental interference, genius
in constructing points, seamless transitions between defense
to offense, an intuitive understanding of his opponent's options
and likely response, and a clear, calm mind that executes instantly.
In short, all the attributes of a Zen master playing tennis.
(As in previous newsletters, I have to say I'm not advocating
any one religion or ethical philosophy. I return to the theme
of Zen because I believe it provides a conceptual structure and
vocabulary to discuss the paradoxical striving and letting-go
required in superior athletic performance. Zen is based on the
philosophy of Tao ("Way"). But it's not the only way
of talking about this subject, just one way.)
Naturalness and Spontaneity
Wu-hsin, literally "no-mind," which is to say un-self-consciousness. It is the state of wholeness
in which the mind functions freely and easily.
- Zen in Ten, Simpkins & Simpkins.
In the press conference after his victory over Safin, Federer
comments on his style: "But just for me, my game feels natural.
I feel like I'm living the game when I'm out there." In
this respect, Federer follows in the Wu-hsin approach of Pete
Sampras, who was criticized throughout his career for not trying
hard enough, for not showing enough emotion. Sampras would wearily
explain that he was trying, but his game was not about trying
or showing that he was trying. Over and over again he
repeated his mantra about keeping the game simple, but few people
seem to understand what he meant. The legendary martial artist
Bruce Lee was more articulate than Sampras on the "effortless-effort"
mode of the Zen athlete: "The less effort, the faster and
more powerful you will be." Federer has the same modest,
natural, unaffected Sampras-like personality, and lets his game
flow from a passionate competitiveness that only shows itself
in quick flashes of brilliance.
Mushin, the mental quality of emptiness," sometimes
translated "no-mind." No-mind is the way to be open-minded
and react to each situation with a new response, or even the
same one if that is appropriate. There is no pre-patterning the
state of readiness or anticipation of what to be ready for: just
be ready. Mushin is focused awareness. - The Way of
Zen, Allan Watts
Having mushin doesn't mean that Federer doesn't have a game
plan or strategy. Having mushin means being focused and aware,
ready to anticipate and to create in every situation. As Federer
noted after the Safin match, "I feel when a guy is going
to hit the ball, I know exactly with the angles and the spins,
I just feel that I've got that figured out. And that is just
a huge advantage." Indeed, while Safin aced Agassi 33 times,
he had only 3 aces against Federer. Federer's phenomenal anticipation
was also evident in last year's Wimbledon semifinals and finals
matches, where Federer had more aces than either Roddick or Philippoussis,
two of the game's most dominant servers.
In the all-time best selling book on tennis, The Inner Game
of Tennis, Tim Gallwey describes the Zen state of mind that
leads to lightening quick reactions. "But time is a relative
thing, and it really is possible to slow it down. Consider: there
are 1000 milliseconds in every second. That's a lot of milliseconds.
Alertness is a measure of how many nows you are aware of in
a given period, and everyone's alertness can be heightened with
the practice of concentration." Agassi's reputation as
the Zen master is based partly on his amazing ability to pick
up 130 mile an hour serves and return them. Federer doesn't
punish service returns like Agassi, preferring a steadier slice
shot that neutralizes the server's advantage, but his anticipation
and ability to read the return appears equal to or superior to
Agassi's. For Roger Federer, the new Zen master, every second
seems to contain many "nows." Certainly too many for
his opponents in the last three months.
TennisOne at Siebel Open
TennisOne will be a major sponsor at the
first men's professional tournament in the U.S. this year, the
Siebel Open, February 9-15, in San Jose, California. The top
draws are Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Paradorn Srichaphan, Tommy
Haas, Mardy Fish, and James Blake. TennisOne will have a booth
at the event, and many of our staff members, myself included,
will be attending all week. We would love to have you come by
our booth and say hello. TennisOne members are offered up to
$10 off per ticket if you purchase your tickets to the event
via our website. Additionally, two of our associate editors,
Jeff Greenwald ("Fearless Tennis") and Steve Tourdo
("Unlimited Doubles") will be hosting a Peak Performance
Seminar on Friday, February 13th, and TennisOne members are also
offered $10 off this seminar fee. Seminar topics include:
- How to compete without fear at all
- Staying relaxed and focused under
- How to formulate a winning strategy
- Your tactical objectives in the heat
- How to play as an effective doubles
here for all the information related to TennisOne at the
Siebel Open, including purchasing tickets and the Peak Performance
seminar. We hope all those who live in Northern California or
who are traveling to San Francisco/San Jose area between February
9-15, will come out and see us.
As always, I would love to hear your views
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Chances are you have been in the Zone. You
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Exercise to Improve the Power Position for Hitting Groundstrokes,"
by Dr. Donald Chu
When looking for a way to strengthen your
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Gallery: Jelena Dokic Serve and Return
Dokic had what has to be considered a disappointing
year. She was the victim of a number of upsets and that sent
her into a season long funk. No one denies her talent though
and at only 20 there is still a lot of upside here. Dokic moves
well and is solid off the ground. If she can get her head on
straight, she should work her way back up the rankings. A good
model from a technical point of view.