In Praise of Roger Federer

Hero worship. What seems to be the problem?

‘Ooh, be careful,’ they say, ‘don’t put mere humans on pedestals. Only God is worthy of worship.’ Well, obviously.

But I must say, I love a bit of hero worship. In fact, I think we’re built for it.

Which brings us to the great Roger Federer. He of the sublime tennis shot, able to conjure shots which mere mortals can only gawp at and applaud. Go on. Take a look at this video later.

It’s no doubt because tennis is ‘my sport’ that I love to watch King Fed (as we call him in our family). When you’ve played tennis for years, you know better than most that the shots Federer plays aren’t really possible. Or at least they shouldn’t be. Because those ten shots in the video are ‘just ridiculous!’ ‘Come on!’ shouts the commentator, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’

And so it is with Messi and Kobe and any number of sporting geniuses.

Do you have your heroes? I hope so. I think it’s healthy. Here’s why.

Hero worship is a pale reflection of true worship and as such, it reminds us of what is involved in true worship. How so?

Take Roger Federer. He plays tennis. Really? I’m not sure he’s playing the same sport as me. What he can do doesn’t really seem possible . . .  and yet there it is, the ridiculous through the legs shot at a crucial point in the match, which leaves us all in awe. And yes, he did mean it.

So, first, he’s both the same as me – playing tennis – but he’s utterly different to me. He can do things I will never, ever be able to do. That’s the source of my admiration. That explains the dropping jaws.

This should remind us of holiness. God is like us – we are image-bearers – and yet he is utterly separate and different. The Jews used to call him ‘other,’ essentially a being quite different to humanity. And so he is.

And he is capable of accomplishing things we cannot do and never will be able to do. He creates ex nihilo. In Christ, he saves the world. We are but pale reflections of our creator, just as my forehand is a poor imitation of Federer’s . . . although I’m working on it, I’m working on it!

Second, I admire Federer because I want to be like him. No, I don’t want to be married to Mirka and have two sets of twins. My three are quite enough. And I don’t want his personality either, though the guy is very smooth.

I want to play tennis as he does. The skills he displays, I want those too.

True worship should draw us in that direction also. In worshipping God, we draw close to a loving father, who desires our growth. He desires for us to become like his Son. Worship should change us, motivate us to live lives worthy of our maker. It’s not indulgence and mushy feelings but transformative at its best.

Finally, there’s the issue of beauty. Nadal is raw power, Djokovic is metronomic, the supreme athlete, but most commentators are agreed: no one has ever played tennis with such grace, balance and beauty as Roger Federer. The combination of power and control, the way he floats around the court, it’s balletic and beautiful.

So to admire his tennis is to appreciate beauty. And where would we be without beauty? Beauty is one of the great gifts of this earth, based as it is on ultimate beauty. The beauty of God finds pale reflections in our experience here on earth. Yes, we are flawed, damaged and in need of restoration, but we are still able to perceive beauty and of course, we long for it. Beauty calls to us, speaks of divinity.

Are you moved by beauty? I hope so. The Puritans, who disdained it, have a lot to answer for, don’t they? Yet, how much more might we be moved by the creator of the universe? A being who is not simply the source of all beauty, but to use Plato’s language, its pure form? For God is Beauty. Capital B.

So, thank you, Roger. As your career nears its end (please stay a little longer) I’m grateful for the effortless grace and beauty of your tennis, which separates you from mere mortals. You will be sorely missed. Watching you has drawn me towards the worship of ultimate grace and beauty.

Of course, sports fans are especially prone to idol worship. But that’s not me. I’m never likely to mistake the reflection for the real thing. You may be an idol of mine, Roger, but let’s be clear . . . you’re no idol.

I’m after the real thing.



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