Lessons from Kristen Ulmer and Roger Federer.
In any adventure, there is one requirement: Live for the moment — pushing aside unworthy or inappropriate thoughts. A good example comes from ski jumping. Before jumping off the side of a cliff, you must “ache for the impact”: thinking only of the sheer joy to come, when you soar high above the trees and succeed in making a perfect landing at, oh, about 80 miles per hour. So says Kristen Ulmer, an extreme skier who is also a well-known motivational speaker. Why is the right attitude so important? Because, she says, “He who hesitates is toast.”
On a recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, north and west of Denver, I didn’t jump off any cliffs. But my mind wandered: It wasn’t always where it was supposed to be — exploring and admiring nature. Sometimes I was thinking about tennis — a sport I have played from the age of 12. I am now 71.
Along with all of my old tennis buddies, I am thrilled at the success Roger Federer is enjoying in his supposed dotage, having turned 36, or half my age. He has already won this year’s Australian and Wimbledon championships. Will he be able to add the U.S. Open to the list? Oops, sorry I asked. Better for you to quash the thought (as I tried and failed to do). If it belongs in this story, it is only because of its inappropriateness.
To get back on track, my wife and I love mountains and rivers. Besides hiking and skiing, we have long enjoyed rafting, canoeing, and camping along rivers and streams. On this trip, there was no time for any of that, apart from some hiking. If only by car, however, we wanted to explore the headwaters of the Colorado River. That would to be our little adventure.
To get to the headwaters, we drive across the scenic Trail Ridge Road — heading west. The road is open only in summer months, due to howling winds and blizzard conditions the rest of the year. It connects Estes Park on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park with Grand Lake on the west, a distance of 48 miles. At the summit of this this turning-and-twisting road, we climb above the tree line — to an altitude of more than 12,000 feet — where mountainous terrain turns into flattish, permanently frozen arctic tundra.
There — along with other visitors from dozens of states and many foreign countries — we stop at several lookout points for panoramic views of dozens of jagged mountain peaks, some with snowy cirques and alluvial fans — the scattered remains of the large masses of moving ice that covered all but the tallest peaks millions of years ago. Thousands of years ago, Paleo-Indians hunted in these same mountains. In 1914, members of the Arapaho tribe were asked to offer Native American names for some of the mountain ranges and peaks. One of these ranges — consisting of 17 peaks — they called ni-chebe-chii, which roughly translates to the Never Summer Mountains. And so it is called today.
The Continental Divide makes a loop through the Never Summer Mountains, forming a line of demarcation between the headwaters of the Colorado and the upper basin of the North Platte River, with the Colorado flowing toward the Pacific and the Platte flowing toward — if not into — the Atlantic (joining the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in their journey to the Gulf of Mexico).
After another hour and a half of driving — descending two or three thousand feet — we enter a wholly different world. We catch our first sight of the Colorado river, as it moves through green and luxuriant meadowlands, where wild flowers flourish and willows and aspen grow. Here it is a gentle, meandering stream. People get out of their cars to gawk at herds of moose and elk. It would be easy to scramble down the bank from road to river, a drop of about 30 or 40 feet, but a laconic park ranger cautions people not to do so — unless they relish the idea of being attacked by moose. When we ask, he tells us where the Colorado really begins. It’s a few miles upriver to the north. You can actually jump across it.
That’s not what we came for. Personally, I am feeling more like Edward Abbey when he wrote: “I would give up ten years of my life to see, only once, Tyrannosaurus Rex come rearing up from the elms of Central Park, a Morgan police horse screaming in its jaws. We can never see enough of nature.”
In other words, we want to see the Colorado where it first becomes a primo river — roaring out of the high mountains. After stopping for the night at the town of Grand Lake, we come upon that sight early the next day. On our map, we spotted a river-hugging road with no name, identified only by a thin gray line. We are hoping it is the perfect road — and it is. Signs tell us this is Colorado’s HW. 1.
Most of this 97-year-old “highway” is dirt road, paved only for safety sake in a few of the most vertiginous sections of roadway. As for the traffic, it is mostly old school buses and SUVs pulling trailers stacked high with river rafts and kayaks. Far below us, the great river — no longer a mere stream — boils in seeming rage. It reminds me of a scene in the Iliad. After pursuing a band of Trojan warriors to the edge of an unpassable river, Achilles, the Greek hero, single-handedly hacks them all to pieces. Upset over all the blood spilt into its sacred waters, the river rises up and hurls itself in a torrent of fury against Achilles. That was the river Xanthus. It doesn’t win in its battle against Achilles. Here it is the Colorado River that tests the mettle and strength of rafters and kayakers, and they seem to be doing all right as well.
It is a sight to behold. But even as we are admiring the view, I suggest that we hunt for a sports bar as soon as we get to Vail or Beaver Creek. Fortunately for me, my wife readily agrees, without even rolling her eyes, when I tell her the reason. There is a tennis match I want to see.
The match pits the 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (already identified as a future Number One by Federer) against an 18-year-old wunderkind by the name of Denis Shapovalov. A year ago, Shapovalov won the junior Wimbledon title. Shapovalov seems to me to possess even more of the Wow factor than Zverev. Among other thing, he has what Brad Gilbert calls “the most wicked lefty serve since John McEnroe.” At the Canadian Open in early August, he beat Del Potro and Nadal on successive days. Now he will play Zverev in the semifinals.
To my mind, this match could mark the formation of new Continental Divide, with men’s tennis veering off in a new direction from the one carved out during (what seems like) the eons-long Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray era, with all of them now in their 30s. Up to this moment, out of the last decade of up-and-coming juniors, no one has presented any real threat to the dominance of the top four players. There has been nothing remotely like the breakthrough that Nadal achieved at the age 17 when he beat Federer — the reigning No. 1 — in their very first encounter. That was in 2004. Tennis desperately needs some new blood.
The match between Zverev and Shapovalov does not disappoint. Despite flashes of brilliance from Shapovalov, Zverev prevails in two hours of mesmerizing tennis.
Still, I am not betting on either of the younger players — or anyone else including Nadal — beating Federer in this year’s U.S. Open. How is anyone going to beat a greatly improved version of the best tennis player of all time?
Other greats from Rod Laver to Mats Wilander agree that Federer is now playing the best tennis of his life. He is hitting his one-handed topspin backhand (always a thing of beauty) much earlier and with new-found authority. That has fixed the one glaring weakness that Nadal used to exploit — in hitting heavily topped cross-court forehands that bounced high to his vulnerable backhand side, where it was physically impossible for him to strike back with sufficient force. Federer has also honed another of his great strengths — volleying better than any of the other top players. Now he comes to net more often and more aggressively. He is even throwing in more delicately struck drop shots from the back of the court.
Much has been written about the six months that Federer took off to rehab a bad knee after losing in the 2016 Wimbledon semi-final… and his decision to skip the entire clay court earlier this year to conserve energy and concentrate on winning yet another Wimbledon title (his eighth). Clearly, time off the tournament circuit was time well spent in working on parts of his game — with the most dramatic improvement coming on the backhand side.
If there is one lesson we could all learn from Federer’s remarkable resurgence, the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay wryly noted in a recent column, it is the need for “more rest” and “more time off the job.”
I would draw a different conclusion. Regardless of age, I believe we can all find ways to raise the level of our games. Earlier this year, I discovered I had colon cancer. That led to surgery followed by more than three months of chemotherapy.
As something I thought might help in coping with the chemo and speeding a recovery, I set a goal for myself of playing better tennis by the end of the year than I was at the beginning. So I have done a lot of exercise and played a lot tennis. And just like Federer, I have worked particularly hard in trying to incorporate the one-handed topspin backhand into my game — hoping to turn a long-standing weakness into a strength. I am pleased with the result. My tennis buddies would tell you that it has added a new dimension to my game.
Of course, technique isn’t everything. There’s also the matter of concentration — and learning to live in the moment. That’s something else that you or I can learn from Roger Federer — and the still more intrepid Kristen Ulmer, who ski-jumps over the tops of tall trees (and who, for many years, was recognized as the best extreme skier in the world). To live within the moment, you must have the right attitude. Beth Ann, my wife, is hoping that is a lesson I will take to heart.
Andrew B. Wilson, senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, is a longtime contributor to The American Spectator.
Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park (Hogs555/Creative Commons)