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Roger Federer and the difference between theory and lived experience

Matt Zemek



Steve Mitchell -- USA TODAY Sports

In theory, a lot of ideas and concepts make sense, to Roger Federer and the roughly 7 billion other inhabitants of this planet.

In theory, various explanations appear obvious.

In theory, a given rationale for a specific decision is straightforward and completely understandable.

In theory, life can often seem easy and uncomplicated.

In theory.

Theory, however, is very different from lived experience. A belief or intention on paper is very different from actually and physically manifesting that belief in the realm of applied practice.

This was the reminder Roger Federer received — and gave to the tennis community — on Thursday in Madrid.

Federer made no secret of the reality that he didn’t have much to lose by playing on clay this year. If he lost, so what? He would have less wear and tear on his body and would be able to prepare fully for Wimbledon. If he lost, so what? He had been off red clay for three years. No one (who is smart) would have expected him to post big results.

Federer said that he didn’t feel much pressure about playing on clay. This was and is a “try it out and see where it goes” decision. On paper, it made total sense to think that Federer would not feel much of any pressure in his clay foray.

Yet, that’s simply not what happened against Gael Monfils in the Madrid round of 16:

Theory sounds great until the reality of life hits you in the face. Being immersed in a tight match and that organic element known as “scoreboard pressure” made Federer nervous. It’s almost as though Federer is just as normal and limited a human being as the rest of us — better at playing tennis than the rest of us, but not immune to natural, instinctive reactions and sensations. The mind — in the midst of a highly emotional, highly competitive activity — can’t simply wall out nerves and become an impermeable barrier. The brain — the human organism — doesn’t work that way.

Maybe Federer’s taste of nerves against Monfils will become a moment which impresses upon Federer the notion that “not feeling pressure” has to be redefined or rethought. This doesn’t mean Federer is “wrong” in any meaningful sense, only that his stated intention to play freely did not entirely emerge against Monfils.

Federer can process this experience and learn from it. He will also be able to process and learn from a meeting with Dominic Thiem on clay.

Federer is learning more and more about himself, even now, even in these final months before he turns 38 years old. He will get a chance to measure himself against an elite clay opponent. He has picked up 180 ATP points.

Even though the difference between theory and lived experience is considerable, Roger Federer has had a very successful week in Spain, regardless of what happens against Thiem.*

  • = unless he gets injured

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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