Rohit at Australian Open: Federer and Edberg - A day of masterclasses
At 10.36am on Rod Laver Arena, as a sea of clouds blocked out the sun and finally made hats redundant, a tutorial in tennis volleying briefly broke out. Roger Federer was present on court. Except he was only a participant in this lecture. The master was his coach Stefan Edberg, 47, who from close appears to have discovered an anti-ageing formula. Even his feet, from the way he moved, looked young. When he hit a clumsy shot, he apologised. But of course. The Swede has a sportsmanship award named after him. The Swiss has won it nine times.
Occasional rallies broke out during this early morning practice which had the elements of a performance. Edberg hit a back-spinning volley, Federer a winner through his legs. Both men padded around the court, their games noiseless, for they subscribe to the idea of tennis as a non-violent activity. Here only peaceful demonstrations of geometry and timing broke out. The only thing missing was Santana and Rob Thomas on the sidelines playing Smooth.
Federer's game appeared similarly oiled on court a few hours later as he stroked his way past the wonderfully named Teymuraz Gabashvili at the Australian Open. The sizeable Russian, who later explained he has journeyed from "crazy" to "calm", has the shoulders and walk of a boxer. His forehand delivered some intermittent violence, but if he hit 11 winners on that flank, Federer hit 12. One might say the Russian lost on points, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
Federer has lost a minimal 26 games in three rounds and in matters of fuel consumption he is doing splendidly. Form, though, is infinitely harder to measure. Often the only accurate gauge is the quality of the athlete across the net. How hard does he push you, how adequately can you respond? Gabashvili, with respect, was a light lunch. Jo Wilfried-Tsonga, who might show up in the next round, is not so easily digested.
Affection for Federer from the audience endures and is unrivalled perhaps in any sport, but intimidation is a more complex issue. Gabashvili, who speaks eloquently, played him once before, in 2007 at Wimbledon, when Federer owned that precinct, and after some hemming and hawing noted: "Maybe he was serving better then; maybe he was moving better."
Then he added: "Then I was shaking. Now, no." But that could be as much a changed, mature Gabashvili as Federer himself.
But in Federer's mind at least, comfort lives. He feels better, he confessed on court, not like an old man who wakes with an aching back. He functions like any creative artist on confidence and says he has regained it, "in my movement, in my body". Even his new larger racket was shrugged off. "It's still a tennis racket," he said.
There were shards of Federer's genius to be found on court - a teasing drop shot, a soft backhand cross-court lob, a forehand passing shot which travelled through a gap which to everyone, but him, looked too small for a ball to fit. Then, as if further advertising his precision, he lazily flicked a high ball, cross-court and across the net, to a ball boy on the other side. The boy did not move, the ball just fell into his hand.
Playful magician then turned into professor in the press room. Asked to break down his backhand which deserves to be hung in a room of moving images in the Louvre, he spoke thoughtfully:
"Clearly it all starts with the footwork, you know. Without footwork you aren't going to be able to hit a backhand or you're going to be stretched so much you're not going to be able to hit one.
"It's important to set yourself up so that you have multiple options and you're most dangerous for your opponent. I think it's important to not always hit it in the same spot - I mean, you can disguise it to some degree. What you want to be able to do is show your opponent that you can hit it all, so when it gets important he doesn't know where it's going to go.
"Then with me, I can manage with a slice and then the topspin and the flat backhand. I try to mix it up as much as I can. But at the same time, I also need to be able to just make enough in a row just for consistency and also for my confidence."
Then the Swiss returned to more mundane matters. Despite assertions in a newspaper, he claimed superstition is not his style. No, he does not use the same shower. Yes, he loves the number eight. No, he did not ask for eight towels. He is a modest fellow. Three are enough. Omens, of course, are a different matter. Talking about the arrival of his third child, he said: "The last time (Mirka) was pregnant, I played really well and won the French and Wimbledon."
That appears unlikely and anyway first there is this Open. And most certainly another lesson from his coach. After all, in Federer's mark sheet today, one statistic stood out for its ugliness. Of 20 net points, Federer won only 11. Edberg might laughingly point out that such Swiss errors are a stain on his immaculate Swedish reputation. The Swiss will not argue too much. As a ball boy, he once got an autograph from Edberg. Of course, he still has it.