What The 21st Century's Most Successful Athlete Looks Like With His Shirt Off
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Roger FedererThis is what Swiss tennis player Roger Federer looked like while changing tennis shirts on the way to winning the French Open in 2009, the thirtheenth of his record-setting 17 tennis major championships from 2003 through his victory at Wimbledon this year. 

Tennis is an all-around test of strength, agility, strategy, and endurance, so, at least in theory, it's not surprising that the man widely believed to be the best ever looks like a traditional assumption of what a good athlete would look like, not like the highly specialized specimens we see in various Olympic events, which tend to make narrower demands.

The article notes that it's rare to see photos of Federer without his shirt on. Or it could be that Federer is averse to posing with his shirt off. As far as I can tell, after beating a rival, he generally doesn't rip his shirt off and flex for the crowd, as Novak Djokovic, pronounced...oh, never mind. did after beating Federer in 2008.

Federer typically wears what tennis fans of a generation ago would have considered a well-fitting shirt, neither skin-tight nor a shapeless cover-up like the late-career Barry Bonds had the prudence to do. 

I don't know if that's because there doesn't seem to be much demand for pictures of an athlete who merely looks extremely fit by the standards of 1975, but who doesn't look like the living anatomy charts we've come to know so well since. Pictures of a shirtless Federer on the web often come with comments suggesting that people these days find it kind of creepy that he doesn't shave his chest hair.

Or maybe nobody wants to look at pictures of Federer because they raise questions about other athletic heroes, and why they look the way they do.

In general, I suspect many tennis fans are a little embarrassed by the fact that Federer doesn't look like a GI Joe Action Figure the way other athletes have looked in recent times.. The New York Times Magazine often runs a big article about tennis stars when the U.S. Open in New York rolls around, with heroic cover photos, such as this year's one of the Williams Sisters, with a cover photo lit and framed to emphasize Serena's implausible musculature. 

Here's the late David Foster Wallace's appreciation of Federer from 2006 in the NYT Mag. It doesn't come with any beefcake shots, just pictures of a fully clothed Federer playing tennis.

Anyway, this is not to say that Federer must be innocent of all doping. Endurance drugs like epo, for example, don't change body shape, so looking at pictures wouldn't help.

My point, though, is that Federer's body raises doubt about the usual explanation you hear when you point out that some sports hero looks like a bodybuilder: "That's because he/she works so hard. If the other players were as dedicated to winning as he/she is, they'd look like him/her too."

But, Roger Federer seems to be awfully dedicated to winning grand slam titles. He's won three more than any other tennis player in history. He's won three more than his friend Tiger Woods. He's playing in what would seem like the toughest era in tennis history, with all the talent from countries that used to be stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

Federer has earned $73 million in winnings, and, at age 31, is back to World #1, and is the favorite entering the U.S. Open. In other words, he is extremely good at prioritizing among the trade-offs involved in winning at tennis. For example, would shaving his chest help him win? He's not a swimmer, so why bother?

Would lifting huge amounts of weights to add mass and definition help him win? All else being equal, perhaps. But what would he have to give up to to do that. It's not just the time it takes to lift a lot of weights, it's the recovery times. For example, Barry Bonds won three MVP awards in baseball in 1990-1993 and continue to be one of the very best players in baseball through the McGwire-Sosa season of 1998. But, he wasn't juicing yet, so he couldn't lift weights more than 15 minutes per day during the season without it degrading his game performance. And, despite hitting 46 homers in 1993, he wasn't ripped-looking.

Starting slowly on the juice in 1999, and accelerating in 2000 through 2001 when he broke McGwire's record with 73 homers, Bonds found that drugs helped him recover faster so he could lift more. He set records that are just silly, but clearly re-established that he had been the best player in baseball all through the mid-1990s.

Anyway, the point is that great athletes like Federer and the 1990s Bonds, playing all-around, complicated games like tennis and baseball and playing frequently over long seasons, don't find it in their interests to do the work it takes to look all massive and ripped. (Okay, there may well be other sports where the demands are less broad and less time consuming, such as sprinting, so that it makes sense to peak for the Olympics with a ferocious weight room regimen).

But, lots of other athletes in sports like tennis and baseball do seem to find it in their interest to spend a huge amount of time in the weight room. Is it because they want to win more than Roger Federer does? Or is it because, for some reason, their muscles recover faster so they can lift more?

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