Tennis is back, and not a moment too soon. It has been a blessed distraction over the past week or so. This weekend, I woke up in the wee hours of Saturday and again on Sunday to watch some of the greats play the Australian Open men’s and women’s finals. Serena and Venus. Roger and Rafa. It was like a dream. And not just because I was groggy in the misty so-early-you-can’t-even-call-it-morning. I watched them play through a haze of drowsiness and awe.
If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know I loved Brian Phillips’ tennis writing. But he’s no longer writing about the sport, so I’ve had to find others that write about tennis in a way that feels kind of otherworldly. I like tennis stories to not so much focus on the points and the gameness of the game, but to get down to the layers under that, to what it all might mean and just what we’re all doing on this planet. (I know that’s a lot to ask of sports writers, but they’re actually the ones that are doing this the best out there.)
Louisa Thomas wrote a brilliant piece for the New Yorker called “Spectacular Relief from the World at the Australian Open.” She perfectly grasps how it felt to sink into the tennis happening on the other side of the globe where everything is upside down. It’s summer and the sun shines bright. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are facing each other in the final like maybe the last decade of their rivalry hadn’t happened, or hadn’t happened yet.
“And yet, there we were, in the fifth set of a Grand Slam final. As the East Coast began to awaken, the two champions flew around the court in matching pink Nikes. Every point was desperate; their famous contrast in styles was beautifully apparent. Federer’s groundstrokes skimmed the net, and Nadal’s dove toward the baseline. “Ok… Give the title to the both of them, for heaven’s sake…,” Chris Evert tweeted, as the tension rose. […]
There’s a strangeness to the tension of a match like that. It’s born of a desperate desire to win, and yet the triumph of one over the other seems beside the point. Federer and Nadal are connected by their history. They share many of their greatest moments, their wins and losses. They made each other better; their careers shape each other. In the end, Federer won, 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3. After the match, he said that he would have taken a draw.”
And then there’s Rowan Ricardo Phillips with a piece called “The Idea of Order” for the Paris Review and hoo boy, did he blow me away. He’s an actual poet, which makes him perfect for parsing the itty-bitty and the grandiose of tennis.
“Every possible outcome would’ve hit some sweet spot. The Australian Open was a chance to cheer the younger, all-conquering versions of Venus, Roger, Serena, and Rafa—an opportunity to remember how quickly these moments we have to define ourselves can pass us by, and how thin the margins can be. Watching tennis like this appeals to that part of you that flutters and pinwheels: the nostalgia of the cynic, the romance buried in the hard-hearted. It felt like Pluto was the ninth planet again, singing sweeter in the music of the spheres than ever before.”
I mean, Christ, have you ever read something like that? Or written something like that? I haven’t. If I don’t stop myself now, I’ll end up excerpting the whole damn thing, so just go read it and enjoy the beauty and grace and power and joy of tennis. For just a few moments.