Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tennis as Text

Back when Roger Federer was at the peak of his abilities as a tennis player and was speedily breaking through every tennis record known to humankind, David Foster Wallace wrote a piece on Federer for the New York Times. This was in 2006, when Wallace was.... well, he was alive for a start. He was 44 years old and it had been ten years since the publication of his greatest novel Infinite Jest. An incredibly ambitious work that operates on several meta-levels between fiction and non-fiction, this book, footnoted to death, was considered by some in the list of top 100 works of "fiction" written in the English language in the previous 75 years or so. Wikipedia describes it thus:

[a] lengthy and complex work [that] takes place in a semi-parodic future version of North America and touches on tennis, substance addiction and recovery programs, depression, child abuse, family relationships, advertising and popular entertainment, film theory, and Quebec separatism... The novel includes 388 numbered endnotes (some of which have footnotes of their own) that explain or expound on points in the story. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized their use as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.

Wallace went on to much fame. He even received the MacArthur Foundation grant, the so-called genius award, but he never finished another novel. He did, however, write quite a bit of short non-fiction, including about Federer and tennis, more broadly. In 2006, I wasn't paying that much attention to tennis. I think I may have heard of Federer at the time but I'm not sure I had any sense of his capabilities or where he fit into the pantheon. I used to be a tennis freak, as in, I obsessively watched tennis on TV as a young kid (couldn't play worth a damn) but sometime during the reign of Pete Sampras, I basically lost all interest. Something about his game (or perhaps his personality) dampened my enthusiasm for the game, and if there was a sport I followed at all in the early 2000s, it was basketball, inspired to some degree by a stint living in Philadelphia and watching the 76ers. Remember Allen Iverson?

Sports writing as a genre is largely a dull breed of writing. But something about Wallace's writing was intriguing. His peculiar choice of diction, his language, his circuitous description of Federer mimicked Federer's play itself. It's supremely elegant and effective but you don't know how he did it. The essay, recently republished in an anthology was described by its editors as one that "still stands as one of the most stirring, illuminating essays ever written about the beauty of sports at its highest level." In time, Wallace's essay itself has assumed a strange iconic significance, with other people writing essays about his essay, especially after Wallace committed suicide in September 2008.

For some reason, I'm really not sure why, sometime around early 2008, I began to watch a lot of tennis. I saw the Australian Open which I think was in January and noticed this guy Roger Federer. He didn't win it, nor did he with the subsequent French Open a few months later. But soon after, there was the epic battle between Federer and his then arch rival Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. It was July 2008, and I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. It was a spectacular final that Sunday, some claiming the greatest tennis match ever played. Somebody's even written a book--an entire book!--about that match. Watching Federer that year, a year when he was ostensibly in decline, I found myself drawn to tennis again.

All sports have knowledge systems that undergird them. For the laypublic, especially men, sports operates at the level of minutae: scores, averages, statistics, and so on. There's a lot of that in tennis too, of course, but there's also an ineffably individualistic quality about tennis that sets it apart from other popular sports of today. When you are on the court, there is no one but you. There is no coach, no helmet, no protective padding, no fellow players, no special costume: it is just you and a tennis racket. There's something both humanistic and animalistic in that ritual. What I think Federer did for the game was to infuse the loneliness of the tennis player with an inextricable naturalness. People talk about his grace, and yes, he is graceful, but he also seems to operate at a level where the science of angles and velocities disappear into mystery. His playing is both mysterious but utterly within reach. He makes it look easy enough that you, yes you, could do it if you just swung the racket in the right direction.

Wallace's writing about Federer captured that quality more precisely than anything I've ever read, indeed anything I've read about any sports. There's a lovely part where Wallace notes:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body. 

Of course, in men's sports no one talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their "love" of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalistic fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war's codes are safer for most of us than love's. You too may find them so, in which case Spain's mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man's man for you---he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations.

Oddly enough, since 2008, when I found myself interested in Federer, he has been in a slow decline. After winning five Wimbledon championships in a row, he lost to Nadal in the finals in July 2008. Coincidentally, few months later, David Foster Wallace killed himself. In the last years of his life, Wallace had struggled to finish his second novel. In a lengthy post-mortem on Wallace published in the New Yorker a year after his death, the author, D. T. Max, recalled the outpouring of sadness from the literary world at Wallace's death:

He was only forty-six when he killed himself, which helped explain the sense of loss readers and critics felt. There was also Wallace's outsized passion for the printed word at at time when it looked like it needed champions. His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness. He conjured the world in two-hundred word sentences that mixed formal diction and street slang, technicalese and plain speech; his prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed through itself.

Was there some weird inexplicable parallel between the talents of Wallace and Federer? Probably not. But the fact that one provided a window into the beauty of the other, brought into relief for me the very primal link between words and bodies. When we watch the theater of sports, we are at once celebrating the physicality of the human body and at the same time reading the body.

Since 2008, Roger Federer has had a reasonably successful career as a tennis player. While he has never managed to (re)attain the halcyon heights of his peak level between 2004 to 2007, he remains very much in the mix as one of the best tennis players. If he has been eclipsed at the top by Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he still retains his odd capacity to create movement--kinetic beauty--on the tennis court bar none. As a 'real' person, he remains oddly sterile, someone who is probably rather well-intentioned and polite, but not terribly interesting, but more than a bit self-involved. He reminds me a little bit of people like Kanye West: incredibly talented, unduly self-absorbed, and and possessed of some questionable aesthetic choices.

In the past few months suddenly, Federer has been on the rise again. He has won six of the eight tournaments he has entered, the last won being a major tournament played at Indian Wells in California. The above picture is from the final match played last Sunday when he beat John Isner, an American player, in straight sets. Something about that picture, for a brief moment, reminded me of David Foster Wallace. If you could disassemble that picture and abstract those pieces into words, you might get something akin to Wallace's essay. Mysterious, confounding, elegant, humanistic, animalistic, contradictory, beautiful.

Read it here.

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