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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Federer’

Stage Struck

September 12, 2012 | by

Most of what I read about professional tennis, particularly the profiles of the game’s biggest names, appears around the Grand Slams, three of which are played over the summer here in the northern hemisphere. This was the summer of Roger Federer, Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl, and Venus and Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic, the world’s top men’s player when the summer began, had had his moment in Vogue in May 2011, during a season when, at one point, he’d string together forty-three straight victories and lose only six matches.

Near the end of that season, about a month after Djokovic saved two match points against Federer’s serve to win their U.S. Open semifinal, the New York Times Magazine ran an essay by Adam Sternbergh called “The Thrill of Defeat.” The occasion for the piece was the “278 million to 1” odds against the Boston Red Sox’s “epic” collapse during the 2011 pennant race. To a Federer fan looking back to the Open, though, those odds seemed about right. What also seemed right were Sternbergh’s thoughts about the basic absurdity of sports and, my affinity for Bart Giamatti notwithstanding, the “terrible sportswriters” who “argue that sports are a grand metaphor, a stage on which we witness essential narratives about determination, bravery and heart.” Read More »


It Never Gets Old

June 6, 2011 | by

Photograph by Alex Livesey.

When an athlete grows old, when she slips and starts making errors, you say that her body betrays her. What you mean is that she betrays you. A superhuman should not age. So you punish her with your attention, with your nostalgia and condescension, and also with your neglect. You turn your gaze to the young.

For the first two weeks of this year’s French Open, that’s what happened. Sure, younger players had earned the spotlight. Novak Djokovic was in the middle of one of the longest win streaks in the history of tennis. If he made the French Open final, he would become number one. For his part, Rafa Nadal was looking to equal Björn Borg’s record of six French Open titles. No one expected much of Roger Federer. Even Anna Wintour, who sat in Federer’s box in Paris, had more or less conceded Djokovic’s dominance, featuring the Serb in tiny swimming briefs in the pages of Vogue, where once Roger had been king. Federer is twenty-nine years old.

On the women’s side, the favorite was a beautiful blonde Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, twenty years old. She had never won a major, but never mind. The defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, who has hollow cheeks and a habit of kissing the dirt, wasn’t given a chance. Some thought her win last year—she had been seeded seventeenth—was a fluke, and besides she is ancient, nearly thirty-one. But Wozniacki lost in the third round, and when the finals arrived Schiavone was there again, and this time playing the twenty-nine-year-old Li Na, best known for being Asian and having a tattoo.

“With a combined age of sixty years seventy-nine days, Li and Schiavone make up the oldest French Open final pairing since 1986,” said The New York Times. Li and Schiavone were pressed to explain their advanced ages. “Is like the wine,” Schiavone said. “Stay in the bottle more is much, much better.”

“I’m not old,” Li Na insisted. “Why do you think I’m old?”

Read More »


An Honor to Watch

September 14, 2010 | by

Last night, Rafael Nadal became the seventh man to win a career grand slam. He's 24. Photography by Michelle V. Agins.

Sunday mornings can be such a bummer, time for reflection and for regret. So it was the morning after Roger Federer’s loss to Novak Djokovic in the men’s semifinal. New York was chilly and soaking—weather for brooding, not for tennis. Who was in the mood for tennis, anyway? There would be no Federer-Nadal final. The match so much desired, so long expected, would not happen.

Djokovic had outplayed Federer. And it was thrilling. I couldn’t help it, at times I was thrilled. Facing two match points in the fifth set, Djokovic saved the first with a gutsy swinging volley. He saved the second with a forehand walloped into the corner—an astonishing shot. Reader, I gasped with joy. I didn’t mean to cheer for Djokovic, a man who smashes his racket against his head to pump himself up. I didn’t want to cheer against Federer. Federer is the player I enjoy watching more than any other, the most beautiful player of the most beautiful game. After the match, I felt empty and a little guilty. On Sunday, I felt even worse. (That the women’s final was so lame didn’t help—hadn’t I, on some level, asked for Vera Zvonareva’s mental collapse? Forgive! And congrats to Kim Clijsters!)

On Monday, though, things looked up. The sun was out and Nadal still playing. Rafa, always reason for cheer! Against Djokovic, Nadal easily won the first set. But during the second, Djokovic came to life, zooming around the court, skinny limbs flying. He went for the lines and hit the corners. Djokovic is not a man who immediately inspires. His haircut is bad, his temper idiotic, his style slightly spasmodic. But he’s daring and quick, gentle at net and fierce in the backcourt, and his defensive play is unreal. When he broke Nadal’s serve twice in the second set, I felt, again, spontaneous pleasure. It would have been impossible to suppress it. Not just impossible: I think it would have been wrong to try.

But he couldn't keep it up, and Nadal ... Nadal is something else. Even when he stumbles, as he did a few times last night. He sprinted to every ungettable shot and moved the ball in unbelievable ways, knifing his volleys and spinning those forehands. Until the last set, when Djokovic simply faded, the Serb gave Nadal a good match. But I wanted Nadal to beat him. I wanted to see him yank Djokovic like a yoyo with his magnificent groundstrokes; I wanted to see him rip up the ball. I wanted him to win so badly that I felt slightly sick. And Nadal did. When he won the 2010 U.S. Open, he became the seventh man to win the career grand slam. He’s 24 years old. He is as great as can be imagined. Greater, maybe.

It's tempting to call tennis an art, and a lot of people do. It’s graceful and intuitive, and one responds to it as one responds to something beautiful, with the desire to describe it and remember it, and to applaud those who made it. But its value is not symbolic, though it lends itself to metaphor. It works in other ways. A single shot is so fast, the physics so complex, that it’s hard to picture, even when you’re watching it live. It can't be aestheticized or really captured. Instead it captures you, the watcher, in wonder. At least, it captures me.

There's something incredible about all those straight lines and arcs and angles, the speed and the spins, the strength, and the drama of two people, alone, facing each other. I don't know what it all adds up to, exactly, or why I care so much. It should be silly, a game with a bouncy, fuzzy yellow ball. But it isn't. It's awesome, and sometimes it's an honor to watch. It was an honor to watch Nadal last night.


The Mere Weather

September 9, 2010 | by

I’m on my way to the Open! It will be, I’m embarrassed to say, my first time inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. During previous years, I’ve been out of town or out of money. Decent seats during the second week were beyond my reach, and if David Foster Wallace is right that “TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love,” then I figured that the promenade—the more-affordable upper deck—meant the disappointment of an unrequited crush.

Excuses, excuses. This year, I’ve sprung for Loge level tickets. Stanislas Wawrinka, the 25th seed best known as the Swiss player who’s not Roger Federer, is facing the 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny. An improbable quarterfinal matchup, but I’m looking forward to it. Wawrinka and Youzhny have two of the best one-handed backhands in the game. Neither man, though, will probably move the ball as well as the wind will.

I’ve avoided talking about the weather, since you’ll have heard about the weather. Every story about the Open has discussed it; every TV commentator has obsessed over “the conditions.” First, it was very, very hot. Then there was talk of hurricanes. Finally, came the devastating winds.

But the weather cannot be avoided. Nor should it. “We are physical beings in a physical world,” the poet Wallace Stevens once wrote to a critic. He also said, “The state of the weather soon becomes a state of mind.” The wind has turned the tennis ugly. Letting blown tosses fall, servers can’t find a rhythm. Topspin shots that should arc inside the lines fly long. Routine groundstrokes become hard to handle. Any ball that floats begins to flutter. Last night, Robin Soderling netted an overhead hit from a squat. Against the third-seeded Novak Djokovic, the Frenchman Gael Monfils became so rattled by the swirling air that he tried trick shots when regular strokes would do, swinging through his legs instead of hitting a normal forehand. “I was completely lost,” he said afterward. “Can’t serve. Can’t really use my forehand. You run for what?”

You run for what? And yet, the winners run. They adjust their angles, shorten their toss, and smile when the wind redirects a crosscourt shot down the line. Yesterday, the 7th-seeded Vera Zvonavera and the top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki hit fewer than half as many unforced errors as their opponents. While Wozniacki’s opponent, Dominika Cibulkova, smashed and slashed her racket, as if she could cut the wind, Wozniaki calmly braided her errant hair.

But no one has been immune to the wind like Roger Federer. Last night, he struck his shots so cleanly, his serves so sharply, that I wondered if he inhabited a different atmosphere. “The conditions” did not apply to him. Federer had 16 more aces and 20 more winners than Soderling. Even more arresting, though, than his play was his look of calm. “By now, I see playing in the wind as a challenge—an opportunity to play differently,” Federer said after the match. “It's not easy, you know…. I used to dislike it so much that I've been able to turn it around, and now I actually enjoy it."

Reading Federer’s words, I thought of Stevens’s masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction:

The weather and the giant of the weather,

Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air:

An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought.