Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Freakish skills

Speaking of Federer...

It's tautological that the best tennis players can consistently hit the square foot they're aiming for; that's what makes them the best tennis players. So by extension, it stands to reason that the best of the best are even more accurate.

An acquaintance of mine played against former American pro David Wheaton in Minnesota high school tennis. My friend was a senior when Wheaton was a freshman, so they only faced each other during one season, but my buddy quickly learned not to leave stray tennis balls on his side of the court. Wheaton had both the ability and the inclination to hit a stationary ball with a live ball in play, which would end the point in his favor. (The rule is, you leave tennis balls on the court at your own risk.)

It should come as little surprise that Wheaton won the Minnesota state singles title as a ninth grader. He would also become the #1 junior player in the United States, an NCAA champion at Stanford, and eventually the 12th-ranked player in the world.

Another guy blessed with otherworldly skills, Andre Agassi, could also hit a target as small as a tennis ball, even when it was moving. A New Yorker Talk of the Town story described the circus sideshow he staged one year on the U.S. Open practice courts, delighting fans by lining up tennis balls along the service line, walking to the other end of the court, then hitting one after the other with served balls, like Annie Oakley at a carnival shooting gallery. His finale was to hit one tennis ball high into the air, then fire another ball at it. The two balls would collide in midair.

Roger Federer has that kind of prodigious talent, as he demonstrated during a taping of a Gillette television commercial:

Sticking with sports for a minute, let's forget about the last year or so and think fondly back to when Tiger Woods was just a really good golf player. This good:

Of course, not all crazy skills are in athletics. Yesterday's New York Times crossword puzzle was the debut appearance by crossword constructor and FOBB&B Michael Sharp, also known by his nom de blog Rex Parker. It was a nifty puzzle, and quite tough for a Tuesday.

Because the Rex blog is prominent in crossword circles, Michael's maiden voyage in the NYT got a lot of attention. For example, another friend of this blog, insanely talented speed-solver and 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion Dan Feyer, posted an online video of his own solving the puzzle in a lean, mean 2:17. (It took me almost six minutes.)

Here's Dan's video complete with his amusing running commentary; needless to say, you should not watch (or even look at) this if you still intend to solve the puzzle:


Aaron Fuegi said...

Thanks. Was impressed by all the videos but especially Federer as he must have total confidence in this shot that he is willing to try it at all in this situation.

Dan said...

Um, one of these things is not like the other! Tyler and others have similar skills. And you could have waited until I get a video of me solving a Monday puzzle in 75 seconds. :)

Joon said...

awesome. i love federer. and, i guess, dan too.

Elaine said...

Federer really is amazing. Not sure I would have been willing to put a bottle on my head and stand there. Nerves of steel!

My question would be: does Dan Feyer ever feel like he has missed some of the fun when he is blitzing the puzzles?

Jeff said...

I think like Elaine, Ben.

I've solved the NYT nearly every day since soph year of college ('78-'79) and just love the escape from the world for a few minutes. I imagine I could go faster, but why? If I finished more quickly my time in puzzle world would be that much shorter and I'd be back to grading papers or unloading the dishwasher or cleaning the cat box.

Since I solve in syndication with a pen in the Chicago Sun Times, I'll look forward to M Sharp's TU puzzle at the end of September . . .about the time I've lost interest in yet another school year!

Nice job with last Sunday's write up BTW. I'd like to try noting my thoughts as I solve for all to see, but I'm not that brave, I guess. Lurk and learn remains my motto.

Carry on all.

Ben said...


As I said here after attending the first Chicago tournament, "even though I enjoy the novelty of the tournament experience and was humbled to do well, competing in a frantic race through the grid strikes me as kind of a silly way to do crosswords. I didn't even get to read some of the clues until after the tournament was over."

I've come to enjoy tracking my own improvements in solving speed, and I've had a lot of fun at the tournaments I've attended (for primarily social and not puzzle reasons), but a big part of me still sees this issue as you and Elaine do, and presumably always will.

As I also wrote, "I'd rather kick back on the couch or my commuter train with a difficult Saturday puzzle, take my time, dodge the traps in the tricky clues, make a breakthrough or two and eventually feel the satisfaction of cracking the thing wide open. The ideal solving experience is being pushed to the limit but emerging triumphant."

SethG said...

I'd also note that Dan, on Tuesday, also solved crosswords appearing in the LA Times, the CrosSynergy syndicate, Newsday, InkWell, The Onion. So he didn't spend as much time solving any one of those as any of us would have, but I'd have trouble arguing that he didn't get as much out of his daily crossword experience as I did.

But yeah, Federer's a god.

Dan said...

Elaine and folks: I don't deny that I'm missing out on a certain amount of solving pleasure by going as fast as I can (which I don't always do -- just when I'm solving on the computer or training for the tournament). On the other hand, as Seth said, I get to do more crosswords than everyone else! And there's a certain pleasure in seeing how fast I can get through a puzzle.

Elaine said...

Hi, All,
It was interesting how many people chimed in on this question (of whether speed-solving can deprive one of some of the fun.) One reason I asked: in the early week puzzles (sometimes including Thursday) I often miss quite a few clues because I don't need to check a cross for help. Over time, I sometimes notice: (a) I finished with an error because I did NOT read the crossing clues--though I'm having trouble coming up with an example...oh, sometimes the tense is vague, and I have guessed the other...
and (b) someone later comments on the great clue/pun/wordplay, but I totally missed it because I never read all of the clues.

Thanks for sharing your insights!

Joon said...

i bet federer doesn't read all the clues either.