When I heard that Roger Federer liked modern art, I was immediately curious about what, and though I never found that out, the search itself was interesting. Most of the listings you get if you put his name together with art are paintings of him and articles about his playing as art. The best is the 2006 David Foster Wallace piece in the New York Times describing him.
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.(1)
A decade later he is still winning grand slams. Mihaly Czentmihali wrote that the creation of one’s own self can be as exciting as writing a symphony. What moves me about Roger Federer and Serena Williams is that they have done just that, created a work of art that sculpts both body, skill and character out of the whole of themselves. Roger and Serena are examples of embodied art in the realm of immediate intelligence.
When someone is centered and expressive of the core of their being, that’s art. It takes skill to reach a relationship with a mode of expression that enables it to be a natural extension of the body, responses finely tuned to go where intuition leads. The body/mind knows what it knows and can act before thought. This metaknowledge is part of the initial feeling. Not just comprised of emotion, our feelings are as complex as we are, responses from the whole picture of our background in combination with our current state. Because Roger Federer has developed so many ways to hit a tennis ball together with all he’s seen about how the opponents play he’s developed a body/mind response that’s highly sophisticated yet unencumbered by analysis. Like any artist he extends the range of what tennis can be.
In a short piece in Art News, Andrew Russeth quoted a Sports Illustrated interview with Roger Federer saying he liked modern art because it helped him keep an open mind, that as he gets older it gives him inspiration. Watching tennis at its best inspires me to stretch my own capabilities. Excellence is always inspiring.
Modern art opens the mind by pushing the edges of perception. This enlarges the scope of choices. Looking at art increases sensitivity to intuitive response and awareness of how we’re led by underlying overall adjustments, the inclinations that move us before we’ve figured them out. Art attunes our feelings to meaningful form and so builds the scope of understanding. The brain is structured to mirror the spatial world and understand the meaning of things by how everything looks within it. The more in harmony we are with ourselves and what’s happening around us the better we can flow with it. Focused attention comes after immediate attention reacts.
Tennis is a demanding and artful sport. Players styles are unique and bigger doesn’t mean better. Women’s tennis is treated with the same respect as men’s and provides just as many opportunities to be amazed. The players we like best are as personal as the art we like, each with an individual style of meeting the challenges posed by another. This year’s US Open will include record setting players, still at the top of their form. It’s an opportunity to be both impressed and inspired.