Roger Federer’s Dartmouth Commencement Address: “Effortless Is a Myth” & Other Life Lessons from Tennis

In 2006, David Fos­ter Wal­lace pub­lished a piece in the New York Times Mag­a­zine head­lined “Roger Fed­er­er as Reli­gious Expe­ri­ence.” Even then, he could declare Fed­er­er, “at 25, the best ten­nis play­er cur­rent­ly alive. Maybe the best ever.” Much had already been writ­ten about “his old-school sto­icism and men­tal tough­ness and good sports­man­ship and evi­dent over­all decen­cy and thought­ful­ness and char­i­ta­ble largess.” Less eas­i­ly com­ment­ed upon — because much less eas­i­ly described — was the aes­thet­ic tran­scen­dence of his per­for­mance on the court, which Wal­lace thought best wit­nessed in per­son.

“If you’ve watched ten­nis only on tele­vi­sion, you sim­ply have no idea how hard these pros are hit­ting the ball, how fast the ball is mov­ing, how lit­tle time the play­ers have to get to it, and how quick­ly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recov­er,” Wal­lace writes. “And none are faster, or more decep­tive­ly effort­less about it, than Roger Fed­er­er.” Was that one of the obser­va­tions the cham­pi­on had in mind this past week­end, eigh­teen years lat­er — and two years after his own retire­ment from the game — when he took the tree-stump lectern before Dart­mouth’s class of 2024 and declared that “Effort­less is a myth”?

That was one of three “ten­nis lessons” — that is, lessons for life derived from his long and huge­ly suc­cess­ful expe­ri­ence in ten­nis — that Fed­er­er lays out in the com­mence­ment address above. The sec­ond, “It’s only a point,” is a notion of which it’s all too easy to lose sight of amid the bal­let­ic inten­si­ty of a match. The third, “Life is big­ger than the court,” is one Fed­er­er him­self now must learn in the dai­ly life after his own “grad­u­a­tion” that stretch­es out before him. For a man still con­sid­ered one of the great­est play­ers ever to pick up a rack­et, is there life after pro­fes­sion­al ten­nis?

Fed­er­er acknowl­edges the irony of his not hav­ing gone to col­lege, but choos­ing instead to leave school at six­teen in order to devote him­self to his sport. “In many ways, pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes are our cul­ture’s holy men,” Wal­lace writes in anoth­er essay. “They give them­selves over to a pur­suit, endure great pri­va­tion and pain to actu­al­ize them­selves at it, and enjoy a rela­tion­ship to per­fec­tion that we admire and reward.” But when their ath­let­ic careers inevitably end, they find them­selves in a great­ly height­ened ver­sion of the sit­u­a­tion we all do when we come to the end of our insti­tu­tion­al­ized edu­ca­tion, won­der­ing what could or should come next.

Clear­ly, Fed­er­er does­n’t suf­fer from the kind of inar­tic­u­la­cy and unre­flec­tive­ness that Wal­lace diag­nosed over and over in oth­er pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes about whom he wrote. In pro­fil­ing play­er Michael Joyce, for instance, Wal­lace saw that Joyce and his col­leagues lived in “a world that, like a child’s world, is very seri­ous and very small” — but which Fed­er­er has long dis­played an uncom­mon abil­i­ty to see beyond. Still, as he must know, that guar­an­tees him a sat­is­fy­ing sec­ond act no more than even world-beat­ing suc­cess in any giv­en field guar­an­tees any of us gen­er­al well-being in life. Wal­lace, too, knew that full well — and of course, he was no mean com­mence­ment speak­er him­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Famous Com­mence­ment Speech, “This is Water,” Gets Ani­mat­ed on a White­board

Ani­ma­tions Revive Lost Inter­views with David Fos­ter Wal­lace, Jim Mor­ri­son & Dave Brubeck

Mar­cel Proust Plays Air Gui­tar on a Ten­nis Rack­et (1891)

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

Bob Dylan and George Har­ri­son Play Ten­nis, 1969

Medieval Ten­nis: A Short His­to­ry and Demon­stra­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.