Federer Expressed

FedererLet’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.

Serena’s Zen


Is she the greatest female tennis player of all time? Or of her time? Analysts can debate, but what I saw in Serena Williams as she won her fourth U.S. Open singles title (and 15th Grand Slam championship) over the weekend were qualities that transcend any time. One may tire of the phrase “heart of a champion,” but, boy, was it appropriate here.

The match was remarkable on many levels: the longest women’s final at Flushing Meadow since 1981; the first women’s three-setter final since 1995; Williams the first female since Martina Navratilova to win as a 30-year-old, which the latter did in 1987.

Seeded fourth in the tournament, Williams was coming off a spectacular summer that saw her winning a fifth Wimbledon and grabbing the gold at the London Olympics. Facing the number-one player in the world, Victoria Azarenka (who, like fellow Eastern European Maria Sharapova, produces cringe-inducing squeals that make you jump for the mute on the remote), Williams came out of the gate like a Mack truck, with 120 mph serves and whammos off both forehand and backhand sides that made her opponent, 23, look like a junior and not the top women’s player on the planet.

And then, collapse. After winning the first set easily, the tables turned; spraying shots left and right, her colossal serve failing her, and the young Belarusian demonstrating exactly why she is ranked first in the game, it was Williams who looked like the amateur. I stopped taking notes, reminded of her dismal loss in the first round of the French Open earlier this year. Continue reading “Serena’s Zen”

Quite a Match

A representative from Madame Tussauds puts the final touches on a stunningly lifelike wax figure of Spanish tennis ace Rafael Nadal, unveiled at London’s Regents Park on 5/23/12. The real “Rafa” is currently defending his title at the French Open in Paris, where he hopes to break Bjorn Borg’s record of six singles championships.

(Photo: Andrew Cowie / AFP/Getty Images)

The Djokovic Dance

What a difference a year makes. Watching a replay on the Tennis Channel of Monday’s incredible championship final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the U.S Open, an epic battle with a misleading ultimate score of 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1, was like witnessing two gladiators engaged in a relentless duel of prodigious proportions. Had to experience it again just to make sure that my initial impression of the match as one of the greatest I’d ever seen in men’s tennis was justified. It was.

Tables turned from 2010, defending champion Nadal nevertheless played at his absolute best (and got nowhere). It crystallized Djokovic for me as something of a sui generis tennis creation, perhaps unlike anything seen previously in the sport: a double whammy of power and shotmaking finesse, along with a seemingly endless wingspan between one leg and the other that conjures Batman spreading his cape, allowing him to get to balls outside conventional human reach. He displays awe-struck bafflement after executing particularly spectacular shots, seemingly as surprised at his legerdemain as the spectators themselves. The 24-year-old’s remarkable results in 2011 are now being called the most impressive calendar-year record in the annals of tennis. (“The greatest year in the history of our sport,” according to John McEnroe.)

Supernova or short-term shooting star remains to be seen, but for the moment, the sensational Serbian is something to watch. (And an unexpectedly good dancer, too.)

Game, Set…and History

As that most hallowed of tennis events, Wimbledon, unfolds in its 125th staging at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Stephen Tignor’s High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and The Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, serves as a lively look back at what’s widely regarded as the sport’s “Golden Age” and the personalities who defined an era.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as High Strung encompasses much more than the Borg-McEnroe rivalry (it’s bookended by two now almost-mythical matches between the champions: the 1980 Wimbledon and 1981 U.S. Open finals). It chronicles the time when tennis bridged its genteel and stodgy pre-Open past to the wild, freewheeling, and fan-riveting years of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with names like Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, and Vitas Gerulaitis, in addition to Borg and McEnroe, as headliners.

Tignor, a former executive editor at Tennis magazine, displays a deep knowledge of the nuances of the game, as well as a knack for colorful description — Borg: the “Angelic Assassin,” with “a headband for a halo”; McEnroe: “The Dark Prince of Queens,” with “the insouciance of the born improviser” — that makes High Strung a tennis lover’s delight. His overview of the key elements that shook the foundations of the sport forever, as well as the athletes who contributed to the seismic changes, provides a detailed picture of an institution in a radical state of flux.

Technical aspects so critical to the evolution of the sport are also examined, as the author notes how the arrival of the Czech “techno-man” Ivan Lendl was a precursor to the power game that would bring McEnroe’s days as the feathery maestro with a wooden racquet to an end. (Tignor notes that by the time McEnroe transitioned to the next-generation midsize racquet, it was too late for him to master the demolishing forehand later employed by players such as Andre Agassi. McEnroe was the last to win the U.S. Open using wood, in 1981.)

But no doubt it’s the “fire and ice” contrast of Borg and McEnroe that’s the fascinating crux of the book. (A documentary on the two, also called “Fire & Ice,” currently airs on HBO.) The methodical and enigmatic Swede, whose “mind never seemed to get in the way of his muscle memory,” is a storybook foil for the brash “superbrat” McEnroe, who always wore his heart (and mouth) on his sleeve, and whose tantrums (and unequaled poeticism of strokes) became the stuff of legend.
Continue reading “Game, Set…and History”

Paris Match

Rafael Nadal wins his sixth French Open on the red clay in Paris, France 6/5/11
(Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters)

The Way the Ball Pounces

The Sony Ericsson Open (a tennis event many consider the sport’s fifth “major” after the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. tournaments), wrapped up in Miami over the weekend with the No.1 and 2 seeds meeting in the men’s singles final after a long interval.

But the disappointment for most was the dismal semifinal that pitted Roger Federer and top-ranked Rafael Nadal. Anticipation was high, as Nadal and Federer (below, after the match) had not competed against each other on American territory in six years. The excitement went poof pretty quickly as “El Torito” (the “little bull,” as I like to call Nadal) literally gored the Swiss “gazelle” in a 6-3, 6-2 trampling. Sadder still were the questions posed to Federer (now #3 in the world) afterwards, as he almost had to plead not to be written off by members of the sports press. (“I’m still only 29,” he exasperatedly countered at one point.)

It’s all such a déjà vu. Looking back on so many champions who went through the same cycle at some point in their careers, it makes you wonder what the compulsion is to run people out of town before their moment has come (of course, this applies not only to tennis). Personally, I would appreciate witnessing Federer’s greatness as long as possible, and as long as he’s competitive.

One speculates about Nadal and his newfound rivalry of the moment with Novak Djokovic (who topped him in the third-set tiebreaker on Sunday). How much time will be allotted the Spaniard, now 24, if similar losses were to continue?