The peace of mind behind focus

With Roger Federer departs a softer, more musical form of tennis

“Once you find that peace, that place of peace and quiet, harmony, and confidence, that’s when you start playing your best.”

-- Roger Federer

Concentrate. That one word drilled in from the early days of life’s journey till almost the end. Easy to formulate; dashedly difficult to assimilate -- assailed as the human mind is with major and minor diversions.

Those that can dance around the disruptions are specially gifted. For it is they that make the difference upscaling others. Some are rarely heard of. They choose not to be -- content instead in the glow of their achievements or goals they set for themselves celebrated in their own way. Fame, money isn’t for them.

The wizened old man spending his days on a rickety cycle on bumpy roads in rural Bangladesh loaning out books to an indiscernible fan following -- providing a conduit to the well of knowledge, seeking nothing in return.

The reluctant to-be-named person in old Dhaka that has a family of stray animals feeding them, looking after them, and seeking nothing in return.

That braveheart who stripped to the waist and made a red flag to stop a train from running off the tracks has not been heard of after the initial pats on the back, and now sucked into the milieu of 160 million people.

Countless more have done their bit, made a difference, and then walked away.

Then again, there are those that have done as much in their own way, many to their chagrin of having to say what it is that makes them tick. Their driving force comes out in tumbled words that defy grammar and other niceties. Theirs’ are opinions sought after to try and unentangle the more obvious question around ability to disentangle distortions from concentration. More so when an individual can refocus the mind to create art, symmetry, and plain beauty in whatever is done.

It could be about backgrounds and settings, except that it is much more. The glare of the media can be merciless; not that it has to be.

For sportspersons, it can be overbearing to a breaking point. Naomi Osaka -- one time top woman tennis star -- broke down mentally, took two years of retirement. She was willing to be financially penalized for not attending the nowadays mandatory post-match press session.

No one understood her predicament. The hidden-to-sight mental demons taunted, ravaged her inner peace. The recent statement gave an inkling into her thought process when she said “when I think about having fun, it’s like I don’t feel restrained.” That’s just another way of expression akin to what Roger Federer said, assigned to the beginning of this piece.

How often have we heard umpires exhorting spectators to be quiet during tennis games? Those precious seconds are crucial. The mind focuses on the task, plays around with the options before a decision is made. Thereafter the focus trickles through the veins and sinews, preparing the body for the final effort. The slightest sound, the riffle of breeze, a paper cup being crushed or a bird flying over, and an errant strain of muscle can interrupt, disrupt the process.

All of these players such as Björn Borg and Roger Federer have year-in-year-out glided across surfaces of green and clay to produce not tennis, but music. They continued being what they were. Quintessential brilliance tinkered only by injury, that inevitable leveller. The best stringed instruments will tear at some stage. The smoothest of cricket bowling actions will be impaired by injury, the best of a batter’s stroke-play will be infringed by tendons and muscles unwilling to carry on.

The ageing process revises enough warnings about when it’s time. Till that happens, those that turn sport into art delight the connoisseurs, leaving behind sheer joy -- the kind the daffodils left with William Wordsworth.

Federer didn’t change his form. Power tennis wasn’t his forte. The beauty of the serve and volley game was true to him throughout, deflecting for many years the power play thrown at him. The topspin, backspin, pin-point down-the-line accuracy, and the smooth, supple, and deft moves across the court were all harmony in essence.

Force was met with guile and finesse. The ability to use soft touches in neutralizing power play wasn’t just defence. It recreated almost musical tones that could actually be seen in slow motion replays. Replays his mind could conjure up best when he was at peace with the quiet.

The softer beauty of serve-and-volley tennis is going out of vogue. With it departs natural effervescence.

Roger Federer’s departure leaves us and our senses all that poorer.

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.