During the Australian Open, a fan poll asked viewers to vote for the quickest player on tour between Andy Murray, Rafa Nadal, Gil Monfils and Novak Djokovic. I cannot explain the absence of Roger Federer, but Nadal captured over 50% of the votes.
Since the inception of the Nadal/Federer rivalry, tennis analysts and the general public have framed the discussion in terms of Federer’s skill versus Nadal’s power and athleticism. Whenever Nadal plays, the analysts use terms like “physical” to describe his talent, while Federer’s play is characterized by the genius of his shot-making ability. These characterizations short-change the talents of both players.
Nadal apparently is injured again, as he struggled through a three-set loss in the Quarterfinals. While many ignore these factors in their discussions of athleticism, Nadal’s frequent injuries, and Federer’s lack of injury, are signs of Federer’s superior athleticism. When I commented on twitter, I received a familiar response: “Nadal’s athletic ability makes him play out of control, Federer can’t get hurt; he is barely exerting himself.”
This thinking illustrates our collective misperceptions of athleticism, athletic and athletic skills. I would never characterize an athletic performer as “playing out of control,” as body control and dynamic balance are two foundational qualities of athleticism. Federer’s gracefulness and ability to appear not to exert himself is a testament to his skill, which I do not want to diminish, but also a signal of his amazing athleticism.
Knee injuries plague basketball players. Injuries do not manifest themselves without a cause. For chronic injuries like knee tendonitis, there is often an underlying cause beyond the repetitive stress and the hardwood courts. Basketball players possess great power, which translates to high vertical jumps, but they often lack other elements of athleticism, including deceleration skills.
A friend told me the story of his local gym. Around 8th grade, the young guys realize that they can dunk, so they spend hours in impromptu dunk contests. However, because these gains in vertical power occur rapidly, rather than progressively, and the players seemingly add 10 inches to their vertical jump almost over night, they do not develop the requisite strength and skill to absorb force correctly or efficiently. They crash down from the rim putting huge loads on their developing knees. Within a year or two, nearly all of them have some form of knee pain.
In our culture, an 8th grader who can dunk is the embodiment of athleticism. However, that power has a consequence, and the consequence is often 16-year-olds with knee tendonitis. A 17-year-old with the knees of a 40-year-old man is not the embodiment of athleticism.
Nadal is a powerful tennis player. He does play a physical brand of tennis with jarring stops and starts and violent moments at his shoulder and elbow. However, power does not equal athleticism. When analysts describe Nadal’s athleticism, at least in relation to someone like Federer, they should specify power, not athleticism. Right now, nobody is a better athlete in tennis than Federer. He may not be the fastest running straight-ahead (Murray) or the most powerful, but his combination of athletic qualities is second to none.
Federer appears to strike the ball perfectly every time – he is able to appear perfect because he is always on balance. This balance results from superior deceleration, quickness, agility, reaction time and anticipation (a sports-specific skill). He appears not to exert himself because he moves effortlessly, and this effortlessness derives from his athleticism.
Power is a major component of athleticism, especially in a sport like basketball. However, until we move past the idea that power = athleticism, we will never maximize our players’ athleticism, and those who are predisposed to injuries because of poor technique or poor general athletic development will never receive the instruction or foundational work necessary to remedy the issue, maximize performance and reduce injuries.