An atmospheric shot of Court Two on the hallowed grounds of tennis’ grandest event, taken with an infrared camera by photographer Tom Jenkins for the English newspaper, The Guardian, in 2017. All eyes this week are on the veteran champions Roger Federer and Serena Williams (back from maternity break) as they seek to further cement their places as the greatest players of all time.
WITH WIMBLEDON, that most venerated of competitions now in full swing at London’s All-England Club, those with a love for literature as well as tennis can feast on a compilation that combines some of the most magnificent writing on the subject from one of the greatest writers of his generation. String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis by David Foster Wallace is important enough that the Library of America recently published it as a special edition, which in physical form looks and feels like a classic textbook – appropriate, as there’s so much to learn within its pages.
David Foster Wallace (who left us far too early, at the age of 46 in 2008) was best known for his novel, Infinite Jest, which sparked an uproar when it failed to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996. It was a tour-de-force opus (1,100 pages long) that cemented his reputation as a fresh and consummately creative voice in the literary stratosphere.
Infinite Jest, not surprisingly, involved tennis amongst its several themes. Since his days as a junior player in the heart of the Midwest, Wallace’s relationship with the sport was deep and all-involving, and led to some of the most insightful essays ever produced on the topic, with the New York Times ultimately calling him “The greatest tennis writer ever.”
For Wallace, tennis was somewhat akin to a trigonometric puzzle that he spent his whole life trying to figure out. “I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding,” he writes. Both the physics and geometry of what takes place within the 78’x27’ confines of a tennis court long consumed his astonishingly analytical eye. Consider the following, from “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” describing his early years in the junior leagues:
“We were doing butterfly drills – my crosscourt forehand is transferred back down the line to [his] backhand, he crosscourts it to my backhand, I send it down the line to his forehand, four 45° angles, though the intersection of just his crosscourts make an X, which is four 90°s and also a crucifix rotated the same quarter-turn that a swastika (which involves eight 90° angles) is rotated on Hitlerian bunting. This was the sort of stuff that went through my head when I drilled.”
Whew. Definitely not the “sort of stuff” that would cross the mind of the average weekend player. In an excellent foreword, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that tennis “draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games…[and] the perfect game for Wallace.” That obsessive quality is very much on display here, and Wallace’s dissections of what would be considered minutiae by a casual observer are turned into stream-of-consciousness discourses of razor-sharp perception. Brilliant throwaway lines like “he rushes the net like it owes him money” are peppered throughout. (This extends, also, to the book’s voluminous footnotes, a technique that Wallace was known for ubiquitously employing in his fiction as well; I found it best to read those after finishing with the main text.)
Wallace’s exalted views about the essence of the sport – “There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man” – were sometimes challenged, and his disappointment is nowhere more keenly expressed than in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In the piece written about the tennis prodigy’s autobiography released in 1992, Austin, who won the U.S. Open at the tender age of 16, and whom Wallace had placed on a pedestal, came quickly back down to earth as he realized that, “Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.”
In wickedly incisive form, he writes that “This is for me, the real mystery – whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.” Elsewhere, he describes the brash and grungy Andres Agassi — “whom I loathe with a passion” – as “amazingly devoid of finesse, with movements that look more like a Heavy Metal musician’s than an athlete’s.” Ouch!
But there was a certain icon about whom Wallace harbored no qualms. In an essay that has since reached near mythic proportions and was originally published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times in 2006, Wallace’s sublime observations reached a zenith of perfection. Reprinted here as “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” it’s a must-read for even those with just a passing interest in tennis, a heady amalgamation of both intellectual pyrotechnics and plain fan-boy praise from a clearly besotted Wallace:
“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”
Even more to the point is Wallace’s uncanny analysis of what constituted the maestro’s greatness:
There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.
Could he have imagined that here we would be, a decade later, with Federer playing at his 17th Wimbledon, after already winning seven titles there? One is struck by a simple phrase that Wallace used to describe his idol, but which can be just as much said about his chronicler: “Genius is not replicable.”
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.
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”
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)
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.)