The world, as seen by Roger Federer

Brilliant improvisers -- whether on the court or in the workplace -- are trained to see the world differently than the rest of us.

The typical layperson -- if he or she is anything like me -- instinctively thinks of the Mozarts and Michael Jordans of the world as ordinariness amplified, as people whose success amounts to doing what everyone else does, only faster, stronger or more efficiently.

Writing in the Times a few years back, David Foster Wallace captured this outlook on excellence: the audience at Wimbledon, astounded at Roger Federer’s “(empirically real) quickness and skill,” as they sit “watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur,” take the difference between Federer’s game and their own to be merely “phenomenal reflexes and speed.”

But that hardly scratches the surface of the difference between Federer and you and me.

This is how Federer describes his own play: when his opponent, Jonas Bjorkman, “asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, Federer confirms that it was ‘like a bowling ball or basketball.’” To Federer it seems “that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that [he] always have plenty of time to hit it.”

The virtuoso talent sees the field quite differently than do his slower opponents -- the discrete steps that tax slower opponents’ attention flow from them effortlessly, each step linking to the next in an improvised ballet.

But, of course, for Federer, these subtle and delicate responses have to occur in the “.041 seconds” it takes an opponent’s serve to reach him, an interval “less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.”

At these speeds, deliberation isn’t so much mental process as muscle memory, a kinesthetic reflex ingrained in the player’s body by thousands of hours of cruelly detailed training.

The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells suggested that Christian leadership is also a kind of improvisation that comes from “being so steeped in a tradition that you learn to take the right things for granted.”

Cultivating Christian virtue, as Dr. C. Kavin Rowe reminds us, is about developing such an array of ingrained responses that we come to see the world differently, so that the way of the cross comes to appear obvious and necessary to us, and the right choices become habitual, rather than agonizing dilemmas.

By the disciplined, daily training of liturgy and lived Christian community, we can come to see that, as John Howard Yoder put it, “those who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”