Dominic Lawson: It takes more than a stroke of genius to become a true champion

Perhaps the idea of the effortless genius is born to reassure ourselves in our relative laziness

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When does talent become genius? We all have a view; but when asked to be precise, it's hard not to sink into the hopelessly circular argument that we know what genius is when we see it. Yet anyone who watched Roger Federer's forensic dismantling of Andy Murray in the men's final at Wimbledon would have no problem in identifying the Swiss as a genius, and that simple fact as Murray's nemesis.

Thus a familiar-sounding headline on one report of the match was: "Only one winner when talent meets genius." Familiar sounding, because it repeats what was written the last time the two met in a grand slam final, the 2010 Australian Open: "Federer's genius alone beats Andrew Murray". Murray cried after that one, too. Well, it must be frustrating when you push yourself to the limits and beyond, and the opponent wins with apparently effortless ease.

Except it isn't like that at all. Although we tend to think of genius as something akin to magic, a kind of short-cut to mastery of the elements, it is nothing of the sort. A proper investigation of the careers of the supreme achievers, whether in sport or other fields, reveals that they are based above all on monomaniacal diligence and concentration. Constant struggle, in other words. Seen in this light, we might define genius as talent multiplied by effort. In cricket, this would be true of Sachin Tendulkar; in chess, Bobby Fischer.

I was at a dinner with that supreme raconteur among philosophers, Isaiah Berlin, when he was asked how he would sum up genius. He immediately recalled the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was questioned about how he managed to leap in the way he did. The Russian replied that most people, when they leapt in the air, would come down at once, but: "Why should you come down immediately? Stay in the air a little before you return, why not?" That effortless ease defined genius, said Berlin. To watch Federer at his greatest is to see something similar to Nijinsky's description: the movement of his body appears to defy the laws of gravity, as if hovering above the surface of the planet, free of all weight or friction. Yet in logic we know that this cannot be. He is constructed of the same matter as the rest of humanity, with nothing remotely abnormal or other-worldly in his skeleton or musculature.

In a wonderful 2006 essay entitled "Federer as Religious Experience", David Foster Wallace wrote that "Roger Federer appears to be exempt from certain physical laws... a type that one could call genius or mutant or avatar, a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light." Yet this is nothing more than an illusion – one which the performer will be keen to encourage, both to thrill the public and to intimidate his opponents. Nijinsky, for example, must have known very well that his astounding entrechats and grands jetes were the product of thousands upon thousands of hours of excruciating practice, without which his talent could never have evolved beyond dilettantism.

By the same token, the greatest talents of our age appreciate that in a brutally competitive world, to skip a day of such rigorous training is to risk decline and even mediocrity. If you saw the film [Itzhak] Perlman in Russia – about the supreme violinist's 1990 tour of that country – you will probably have been struck by his great discomfiture when asked to perform a piece spontaneously on a visit to the Moscow Conservatory. "But I haven't practiced today," Perlman says; and yet when you watch the Israeli play in concert, he can make even the most appallingly difficult pieces seem like a bit of fun, or as easy as drawing breath. It is, as the saying goes, the art that disguises art.

Perhaps the idea of the effortless genius is partly born of the need to reassure ourselves in our relative laziness: if genius is simply something innate, God-given and unimprovable, then perhaps we can also do as well as we are able without making extraordinary efforts. Unfortunately, this is not so: and we must recognise that what the greatest musicians and sportsmen have which the rest of us lack is not just an aptitude, but a fierceness of desire and a commitment to self-improvement which we can scarcely begin to comprehend. Nowadays, Federer seems a serene spirit, but as a young, up-and-coming player, he was a noted racquet hurler, with no less of an inner rage to succeed than, for example, John McEnroe.

In the purely cerebral sport of chess, the one living player most often described as a genius is the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen – who at 19 became the world's highest-ranked grandmaster. Yet his father Henrik told me that what had first alerted him to Magnus's possibilities was the fact that as a toddler he would spend hours doing 50-piece jigsaw puzzles; the very young Magnus had an astonishing capacity for hard work and concentration– which is, after all, the very essence of learning.

Francis Galton, the slightly creepy founder of eugenics, sought to define genius by reference to an inherited form of intelligence, which he thought could be measured via the analysing of a person's reaction time and sensory acuity: this Galton referred to as "neurophysiological efficiency". You might think that, within sport, the activity most requiring preternaturally quick reactions would be Grand Prix motor-racing. Yet viewers of the BBC1 series Top Gear might recall Jeremy Clarkson engaging in a competitive test of reaction times with Michael Schumacher,: the lumbering Clarkson demonstrated that his reactions in a hand slapping contest were the equal of the then Formula One champion's.

This is actually what one should expect: we all have the same basic reaction times, which are determined by the nervous system rather than the brain – as evidenced by the fact that we all pull our hand away from a flame with identical suddenness. The difference between us and the champions is that they have trained their minds to process information with astonishing speed in situations requiring complex assessment. Watch how Federer reacts in the less than half a second it takes for a first serve from Murray to reach the opposing baseline and you see just what a special talent honed by obsessive determination and hundreds of thousands of hours of practice can achieve.

Conducting the on-court interview after his victory, Sue Barker began: "Genius tennis?" "Yes," Federer replied, deadpan. If only it were so simple; and the fact that it looks so simple is the strangest thing of all.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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