Stage Struck


On Sports

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.” Whatever narratives we see playing out on the field or on the court are ones we put together while we watch; after all, where one fan might see bravery and heart in an endless string of Barry Bonds home runs, another may see deceit, cowardice, and greed. Same goes for that cheater Lance Armstrong.

Sports broadcasters are guiltier these days than sportswriters of the “grand metaphor” approach where tennis is concerned. Following the major tournaments this summer on television, I’ve heard again and again of the history about to be made: Rafael Nadal’s seventh French championship (history made), Djokovic’s career Slam (history not made), Murray’s becoming the first Brit to win Wimbledon since 1936 (nope). Even Federer’s thirty-first birthday was seen as historic, according to a certain fan site: “God is too an imaginative word, rather I would call him a ‘Prophet’ / Someday the prophet will make Tennis the most loved sport, I bet.” The language of “bravery and heart” was applied particularly to Murray, whose loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final was vindicated first with Olympic gold, and then with a victory over Djokovic in the U.S. Open final. With Andy Roddick’s retirement during the Open, we were also treated to any number slow-motion montages of the American’s days in the sun. (Even Roddick remarked during one interview how moving those montages can be.)

Magazine writing doesn’t do montage well. Instead, we’ve lately gotten storylines, and sometimes whole stories, that explore the quasimetaphysical existence of what has been variously called, among other things, “the kinesthetic sense” (David Foster Wallace on Federer) and “physical genius” (John Jeremiah Sullivan on the Williams sisters)—the very thing slow-motion replay is meant to reveal on television.

Explaining such physical genius in writing, however, has come to require an exploration of the mental state that supports such prowess. To that end, we have accounts of the “emotionless gaze” (Geoffrey Gray on Federer), a version of which all the great tennis players these days seem to have. In Freedom, Jonathan Franzen calls this the “alert drowsiness or focused dumbness” of being in the zone. Both Gray and novelist Peter de Jonge, in a profile of Murray and Lendl, also argue that any emotionlessness in the face of a tennis player is actually a mask. Lendl’s was about intimidation. Federer wears a mask, Gray says, “to dam the torrents of rage that destroyed his ability to win matches early in his career.”

Make no mistake. I read these articles and return to them because they can be very enjoyable. Of those I’ve mentioned from this summer, Sullivan’s piece about the Williamses is, by far, the best, perhaps because he only alludes to the sisters’ physical genius in the profile and refers to it directly in a behind-the-scenes interview with the Times Magazine’s blog.

Gray’s profile is the worst of the summer, which is only partly his fault: as Wallace found, reporting on Federer from Wimbledon in 2006, getting access is “rather like the old story of someone climbing an enormous mountain to talk to the man seated lotus on top, except in this case the mountain is composed entirely of sports-bureaucrats.” Gray found the man sitting lotus, too: Federer “sat in a small plastic chair, one leg crossed over the other just so, his arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t squirm around in the chair to get more comfortable, or gesture with his hands.” Still, no sports bureaucrat is responsible for the phrase “dam the torrents of rage.”

Perhaps because he’s unable to say much that’s new, though, Gray wants us to see that there’s something simply unknowable about Roger Federer—even to Federer himself. It’s there in the very first line: “One night, at a hotel in Tokyo, Roger Federer woke up and had no idea where he was.” It happens that this unknowability, like the mask of emotionlessness, is not so uncommon among all-time great tennis players. Take, for instance, the beginning of Andre Agassi’s memoir: “I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am.” (It also happens that J. R. Moehringer, Agassi’s wonderful and irrepressible ghost, shared a similar experience in his own memoir: “I closed my eyes and laughed and for a few moments I forgot who and where I was.”)

About a month after Sternberg’s story about the Red Sox, John McPhee described in The New Yorker the formula he developed in the late sixties for the double profile, where, in the end, “1+1 = 2.6.” (“In any case, one plus one should add up to more than two.”) The subjects for his first double profile came to him in 1968 while he watched a men’s semifinal of the first U.S. Open, between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. McPhee came to believe that “in the resonance between the two sides, added dimension might develop,” and by his own assessment—in the case of Ashe, who was black and whose “swinging freely is something that scares players of all nations,” versus Graebner, white, whose strokes made other players sometimes believe he was “trying to kill them”—the first try at the double profile “worked out.”

That magazine profile in The New Yorker became the book Levels of the Game, which has as its setting the late-sixties “megagame” of tennis: big serves and short, explosive points. At one level, the book is a play-by-play, beginning with the “high and forward” toss of Ashe’s first serve, to Graebner’s backhand. Then a little back and forth before: “Fifteen-love.” There’s some discussion of strategy—“Just hit the ball in the court, Clark”—and the sizing up of an opponent. But for McPhee the “added dimension” that results from Ashe plus Graebner has nothing to do with history, mythology, or metaphor. There’s simply a great deal to see in a game when we really look at who played and how it went.

The piece worked because McPhee uses the sport, and this single match, as a way to get at characters—men on a stage, to be sure, but also just simply that: men. Indeed, the very moment we see Graebner imagining himself as a “Greek tragic hero getting pushed around by the gods,” we learn from his Davis Cup coach that this habit is “his greatest weakness.” For Ashe, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a liberal whom Graebner describes as “an average Negro from Richmond, Virginia,” tennis is a means to an end: “What else is there to life,” Ashe says, “besides a family and financial security?”

While McPhee’s profile describes players who have reached a certain level of excellence, what’s remarkable and refreshing from our perspective is that there’s no talk of being in the zone, no “alert drowsiness” that makes these players like each other but unlike us. Instead, Ashe is a daydreamer who spends his matches thinking about what’s for dinner. In Levels of the Game, there are no ruminations on the religious experience that is the Graeber serve. Instead, it’s just “crunch.” (Agassi says something similar about a barrage of shots from Federer: “Now the shit is rolling downhill and doesn’t stop.”) There’s nothing metaphysical in Ashe’s game; his iciness and elegance are matters of character, keeping his cool, like his habit of wearing sunglasses indoors. As Graebner says about Ashe, “He plays the way he thinks,” which means that playing is more than just moving; it’s about thinking and appearances: “He doesn’t want to be seen as a grubber.” And with Ashe, the happiness that comes with winning a tournament is not earth shattering or indescribable. After only five minutes, “it’s all gone.”

McPhee writes about tennis with the belief that there’s nothing essentially unknowable about an athlete and that a game can actually tell you something about the character of real living, breathing people. His 1965 account of basketball great Bill Bradley promises as much in the title: A Sense of Where You Are. And the revelation of a person him or herself, not the breathlessness of a writer chasing down the Buddha, is the point of a profile. Believing this provides for the little bit extra we get when doing the never simple math of 1+1.

Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One and the forthcoming Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College.