Federer, Phelps educate us on the meaning of talent

Federer, Phelps educate us on the meaning of talent

Buy a postcard. Type a tweet. Write an e-mail. Send it to Roger Federer and Michael Phelps. Don't have to be profound, don't have to go all gooey. Just say this: Thank you.

Thank you for reminding us that even as we watch sports, compare records, decipher tactics, we only think we understand talent. In truth, we don't. Not its range, not its ferocity, not its meaning.

Phelps - about to compete in the Pan Pacific Championships - doesn't race for 20 months, his muscles go limp, his technique dulls, and then he records among the fastest times of the year. It's like those guys in school, who partied, never slogged, and then turned up at the exams and aced them. It's freakish, it's incomprehensible, and it makes you reconsider the entire notion of sporting prediction.

Federer is cut from a similarly mysterious cloth. Last year, people cried retire, now he's US Open favourite; last year he had 45 wins all year; this year he leads the tour with 49; last year his record was one title, twice finalist, now it's three titles, five-times finalist.

Watching these men is akin to attending a class in appreciating genius at a sporting university. We learn that rapidly rating players in some mythical "greatest ever" list is foolhardy, for we haven't yet witnessed their body of work. When Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, Milos Raonic, whom he beat this week, was 12; when Phelps first won Pan Pacific gold in 2002, Chad le Clos, who is the 100m butterfly world champion, was 10. Yet they push on.

We learn that their talent exceeds our belief, their idea of challenge always eclipses ours. If we had 58 golds like Phelps (18 Olympics, 27 world championships, 13 Pan Pacific) we'd happily quit; but it's because Phelps has 58 golds that he believes in 59. Their lives are a mad pursuit of the impossible and a celebration of it.

We learn that this athletic twilight, where both men stand, tells us as much about talent as their prime did. Then, as they performed with an effortless genius, we thought, Dear God, what talent. But it's now, really, when skill flows as if from a spluttering tap and still they compete, that we understand how staggering their talent is, how they've managed to nurture it and reshape it.

"Earlier," said Federer, after he'd won Wimbledon in 2012, "it (winning) just comes". Later, he added, you have "more respect for the game". Because you have to reinvent it.

At breakfast last week in Singapore, Martina Navratilova, asked if she judges players solely on grand slam titles, firmly replied: "No." Everything matters, she said. Tour wins through the year, No.1 ranking, head-to-head, how they play the game, consistency, but one more thing: How they adapt.

Phelps, 29, can't replicate the workouts of his youth so he has to train smarter. But only the exceptional can reconfigure their rusty sporting machines, tuning them to find one more fast lap, discovering themselves how far they can stretch this rubber band of talent.

Federer's 33-year-old legs have run more than most, not just in tournaments played but in how deep he reaches into every tournament. You can't measure him, for instance, just with Andy Murray's age, 27, but in matches: Federer has played 1,196, Murray 601.

So he's slower and his press conferences are littered with words like "tired" and "rest". But he compensates with idea, with tactic, with net play, with a new racquet. This transition is a talent.

So he's patchy in matches, rhythm gone walkabout, break points frittered, yet he'll steal a set from nowhere, as if the only glue he has is his joy and will. And this is a talent, too.

Federer always had a juggler's feel for the ball and Phelps a mermaid's affinity for water. But talent, they're telling us, is more complex than hand-to-eye skill and arrangement of feet. Hard work is a talent. Recalibrating goals is a talent. Deafness to a cynical world is a talent. Stubborness is a talent.

But perhaps the most beautiful talent is hunger. That nothing is enough, no stroke, no shot, no cup. That when it is finally done, racquet and swimsuit packed away, there is no regret. Because talent, every last ounce of it, hasn't been wasted, only exhausted.

And so Phelps may not win gold at the Pan Pacs this week. And Federer, currently riding the fortune of an injured Nadal, a confused Djokovic, an inconsistent Murray, may not win the US Open across seven five-set matches.

Just don't tell them that.

Just don't tell them they're "almost back to their best" for it is meaningless. For there is no going back any more, only forward. Travelling to the extremities of their beaten-up and brilliant selves to find the very best they can be now. And occasionally even finding it. That is a talent.


This article was first published on August 19, 2014.
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