On Federer, Anderson, and a Precious Pocket of Sport

They keep alive a humane quality in an increasingly mechanical field

Earlier this weekend, I published a season review for Manchester United. While planning that piece, I had decided to pack up all rhetoric and focus only on numbers. I am a Man United fan myself, and objective evaluation seemed the only appropriate option. A season should be judged on long-term metrics and not lazy narratives that myopic television experts like to dish out.

There is something liberating about numbers. They are the perfect prism to any situation. They don’t understand biases; they don’t misinform. In sport, where judgement often involves comparison, common metrics help with the dispersion.

I believe data - its formal, technical version - is the present and future of all sports. If Google and Apple can track every twitch of our index finger, it is only natural that big-money sport would want in on the programme. Most sports teams have entire departments dedicated to analytics. Ian Graham, who leads the recruitment team at Liverpool Football Club, has a PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge . It is amazing.

I work with data for a living, so I am naturally drawn towards the doors it can open. In sport, even more so. But there is also an odd dichotomy for me. The deeper we go into the binary cave, the more mechanical we make something that has a deep emotional pull. 

Sport can wreak havoc with your heart rate, take you to the clouds, or break you down into pieces. Sometimes, it can do all three within minutes. But for that, it needs unpredictability and suspense. It needs to, even if for a fleeting passage, exist in a vacuum where gold can be sacrificed for joy.

I felt the full range of this joy watching Roger Federer and Jimmy Anderson this weekend. Federer turns 40 in two months; Anderson turns 39 in one. Neither of them should be fit enough to play at the highest level. They have been dissected millions of times. And yet, year after year, they turn up and hold their own against younger, fitter athletes.

While watching Federer stutter and stumble to a win against Dominik Koepfer last night, I couldn’t help thinking about the terabytes of information that must have been fed to Koepfer about his opponent pre-game. He used that well for the most part, but eventually did not have enough to beat Federer. Likewise, the New Zealand team must have absorbed everything there is to know about James Anderson as they walked into Lord’s this week.

And here we are. Federer has moved to the second week of the French Open; twenty-seven of the first thirty-six deliveries Anderson bowled yesterday were dots.

In this essay on The New Yorker, Michael Chabon described nostalgia as “the feeling that overcomes you when a minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored.” Federer and Anderson occupy a pocket of space somewhere between nostalgia and wistfulness.

Their presence reminds me of a time life was simpler, I was younger, and sport meant joy. I gravitated towards my favourite things because they swept me off my feet. I could not get over the shape of Toblerone chocolates. Watching a Federer backhand or an Anderson outswinger teleports me to the simple reasons I even started watching sport. I watch for moments when I can scream “oooof” and suddenly find myself at the edge of the sofa.

Their longevity thumbs a nose at computer simulations that keep predicting their departure from centre-court. Roger Federer isn’t the one man philharmonic he once was; James Anderson has lost a bit of his pace. But they have the mind of champions that knows only one way of life - combating the next challenge. They refuse to give in. When age became a barrier, both of them chose economy of motion. Federer has stopped ballet-dancing across the court; Anderson tries fewer things with the ball.

For now, sport has thankfully held a place for unpredictability and mystery. Given a chance, I would watch mavericks like Nick Kyrgios every week. They stretch the boundaries of your imagination, sip Pepsi - for real - in the middle of a grand slam match, but end up with a small trophy cabinet. However, there are fewer and fewer of his ilk left at the highest level of sport anymore. The drive for gold is brutal and relentless. Kids are conditioned to win from the moment they step inside a coaching camp. Where is the space for humane fragility?

I suspect Kyrgios has stayed put because of his thick skin to the criticism that accompanies him everywhere. Federer and Anderson have staggering careers behind them, but as their hair has greyed, they have regularly challenged conventional and logical discourse. No way Roger could return from back and knee injuries and play well at Wimbledon; no way Jimmy can bowl long and well enough on the dry Indian pitches at 38. Pfft.

Mahesh Bhupathi once said of Federer, “His game is premised on taking away time.” James Anderson’s bowling is similar. He moves the ball late so that batsmen don’t have time to adjust their hands to the change in their eyesight’s horizontal axis. It is poetic, because both of them have slowed down time on their careers.

Feeling a sense of warmth while watching Federer and Anderson may be a sign that I need to move from leather jackets to linen shirts, but if it means more ooof moments, bring on the loose fabric.