Why Roger Federer is the most graceful athlete of our time

David Foster Wallace redefined the tennis star as a means of spiritual conveyance in a superb 2006 essay titled “ Roger Federer as Religious Experience .”

When Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov flew into the air, he took thousands of opera-house hearts with him, because the effortless stretch and expression of his body released some unnameable, pleasurable sensation in the audience, deep within its nervous systems.

That’s the kind of mind-blowing awe I feel when Federer sweeps across the clay and, oh, I don’t know, twirls halfway round and whips his racket between his legs or over his shoulder without looking and sends the ball streaming to the opposite baseline like lightning from the fingertips of Zeus.

His consecutive-games streak stood for 56 years as an emblem of humility and responsibility, and his “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech is a shining example of focusing on others, by bucking up his fans and expressing gratitude rather than dwelling on the difficult hand fate had dealt him.

Consider Jerry Rice, the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver whose secret wasn’t brute strength but agility, an aerial leap and astonishing speed and coordination, born of ceaseless drills, which made him the uncatchable king of the game-winning touchdown.

He finessed it largely with his knees — in their crisp, right-angled bend, you see an instantaneous rise of tendons under the skin, part of a network of muscle and connective tissue rallying to win against gravity and the backward thrust.

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