Let’s serve up some tennis — with a dash of literature — for a moment. With the U.S. Open in full swing, and Roger Federer, at age 34, seeming to defy any logic of time progression as he seeks an 18th career major title, I took the opportunity to re-read a magnificent essay by the brilliant novelist David Foster Wallace that appeared in the New York Times back in 2006. Wallace (author of Infinite Jest, and who tragically took his own life just a couple of years later) had a serious passion for tennis, and the essay, which ran with the headline “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” is one of the most analytically perfect you can ask for from a layman whose enthusiasm for the game, together with his staggering writing gifts, come together in a piece that can be pondered over endlessly by tennis fans, much in the same way that scholars pick over Wallace’s literary masterpieces.
The Federer article was not Wallace’s only venture into the field of tennis; another, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” is also a must-read for those interested in the subject. What makes these writings fascinating, of course, is assimilating Wallace’s unique sensibilities in a realm far removed from the world of books.
As I mentioned, the Federer essay was written in 2006, specifically at the time of the Wimbledon championships, where the Swiss-born Federer would meet the Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the finals. “It’s the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the clinical artistry of the north,” wrote Wallace. Is there a more on-the-mark summary of that legendary rivalry? He goes on to dissect the match with a gorgeously descriptive sense of Federer’s mastery:
“A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height.”
“He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to,” Wallace goes on. “The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.”
Exempt from physical laws indeed. As I write this, nearly ten years after Wallace’s indelible words, the maestro is walking onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for what turns out to be another routine win in the third round, moving him closer to the quarterfinals of the tournament. The wizard still has some tricks up his sleeve; a lot of buzz has been about the SABR (“Sneak Attack By Roger”), a new tactic employed by the sly virtuoso as he rushes the net unexpectedly after returning serve, much to the befuddlement of his opponents.
Wallace talked about Federer’s uncanny ability to “misdirect and disguise” – and, one can add, mesmerize. As with all genius, his talent has always harbored more than its share of the creative. And win or lose this week in New York, how lucky we have been to have witnessed the magic.