David Foster Wallace's lengthy, well-regarded essay titled Federer as Religious Experience depicts Roger Federer as an incomparably gifted tennis player who literally should be worshiped. Wallace's experience as a successful junior tennis player no doubt heightened his appreciation for Federer's talents but Wallace became such a devoted member of the Church of Federer that he failed to fully grasp Rafael Nadal's equally compelling greatness. As Michael Mewshaw put it in his August 15, 2011 Newsweek article titled Rafa!, "Though Wallace dismissed Nadal as 'mesomorphic and totally martial,' it seems that almost everything he wrote about Federer applies to Rafa and that it was the Spaniard's apostasy in beating Federer over and over that clouded Wallace's judgment." Federer's "apostasy" has indeed inspired many commentators to twist and torture logic to its breaking point (and beyond) in elaborate attempts to avoid stating the obvious: Federer has had few answers for Nadal in their battles against each other and Nadal's career accomplishments are at least as impressive as Federer's. It is puzzling that so many tennis aficionados blithely dismiss Nadal's head to head dominance versus Federer as if it were a small dirt smudge carelessly smeared against a masterpiece painting, an irrelevant splotch easily removed by a good restorer; the reality is that no portrait of Federer or Nadal is complete unless it depicts just how convincingly Nadal has owned Federer: Nadal enjoys an 18-10 head to head advantage over Federer, including an 8-2 lead in their Grand Slam encounters after Nadal's 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory against Federer in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. Mewshaw adds, "A fantastic chimera, part bull, part bullfighter, Nadal has his own supernal gifts and wins not by making the game look easy, but by making it look every bit as demanding and difficult as it actually is. While Federer is planning points four shots in advance, Nadal often kills the ball before Federer has a chance to realize his arabesques of excellence."
Wallace's essay begins with an intricate--yet inaccurate (the New York Times later had to append a correction to the piece)--description of one point in Federer's 2005 U.S. Open match versus Andre Agassi; Wallace attempts to demonstrate why tennis observers--particularly those who also play the game--are so awestruck by Federer's skills. It is disappointing that Wallace focused more on breathlessly praising Federer than on accurately depicting the sequence from the Federer-Agassi match--lyrical flourishes are not more important than basic facts in a nonfiction article--but the larger issue is that, even though painting a vivid verbal portrait of a great athlete at work is a rare skill, such a portrait does not prove that Federer is greater than any one of several other players about whom Wallace could have also waxed poetic. When Wallace's essay was published in August 2006, Federer had played in 29 Grand Slam singles events, winning eight titles and losing six times in the first round. Bjorn Borg--the Sandy Koufax of tennis--won 11 Grand Slam singles titles in 27 appearances, never losing in the first round and only once losing in the second round. Pete Sampras won seven Grand Slam singles titles in his first 29 Grand Slam appearances, losing in the first round five times (he finished his career with a then-record 14 Grand Slam titles in 52 appearances, with seven first round losses). Rod Laver--who had five prime Grand Slam years stolen from him because of tennis' archaic rules preventing professionals from competing in the sport's most prestigious events--won six Grand Slam singles titles in 25 appearances as an amateur while suffering four first round losses (all in his first year on the tour) and then won five more Grand Slam titles as a professional for a career total of 11 wins in 40 appearances. Nadal won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in his first 29 appearances and did not suffer a single first round loss. Federer is an artist and Federer is a great player but Federer's artistry does not prove that he is greater or more dominant than some of his prestigious predecessors.
Federer acolytes are quick to point out that many great players--including Nadal himself--have anointed Federer as the greatest player ever but Mewshaw wryly notes that Nadal has good reason to say this: "Of course, humility is as much a part of the wallpaper of sport as Muhammad Ali's boasting. It's often good strategy to praise an adversary, all the better to aggrandize yourself. If Federer is the best ever and you beat him...well, you don't need to say the rest." Wallace's essay is an entertaining read but despite the large amount of technical and historical information Wallace included the lasting impression is not that Wallace objectively analyzed Federer's game but rather that he wrote a passionate fan letter about it.