I keep thinking about the loneliness of tennis. You know what I mean? That sense that, like empires, tennis players have nothing to draw on but their own internal resources…Tennis players are their own little worlds. All I know is, and I’m sorry if this sounds gawkily romantic, when I look at the eyes of ex-great tennis players I tend to see something haunted, something one degree removed, that isn’t there when I look at old NBA stars or soccer greats…Think about Agassi’s loyal, wounded stare, or Sampras’s look of constantly tolerating everything. McEnroe’s restlessness, Borg’s airtight veneer. Of all the greats, only Billie Jean King strikes me as naturally plugged-in and happy. I suspect that the lovers of great tennis players are acquainted with the sounds of bad dreams.
There’s an obvious explanation for this: Tennis is uniquely individually demanding, requires endless, punishing, inward-focused practice, places the player’s skill in an unforgiving spotlight (no teammates, at least in singles; no coaching, at least by the rules). Tennis literally maroons you out there. The players who excel are the ones who figure out how to survive when they’re marooned. And for the ones who figure that out, it’s never the same when they go back to society.
There’s another explanation, though, which has been occurring to me more and more insistently since I’ve been going to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. And that is that tennis is a profound form of sanity. That its beautiful geometries, its exchanges that draw observers in, offer a way of experiencing the physical world at a lucid distance from the anarchy of culture or identity (or whatever). That most of us never escape that anarchy, or escape it just for brief moments with the aid of music or sports or art or drugs (or whatever), which is why we crowd the edges of tennis tournaments, pile onto the hill, watch giant video monitors. Why we buy Wimbledon-branded oven mitts, why we need the Apparatus.
But if you’ve actually played at that level? I mean, what would that look like? Again, I’m sorry if this is romantic, but I can’t help but thinking that, to the best players, it must feel as if they’ve approached some cold, beautiful, peaceful, abstract plane that melted away from them at the instant they touched it, leaving them marooned for a second time, so to speak. (Don’t castaways often miss the islands they’ve been saved from?) How can anyone else understand the experience of reaching out toward that plane? In this sense I imagine that being a great tennis player feels like being an astronaut who’s come back from outer space.
Federer touched that plane on Sunday. It was more than just winning the title.
I’m sorry if you’re sick of the tennis posts, but I continue to be so engrossed by the still somewhat unbelievable events at Wimbledon. Brian Phillips’ final dispatch from Centre Court is lovely and you should read it and okay, I promise I’ll shut up about tennis. For now.
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- recordofmytroubles said: that’s good writing, not just tennis writing
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- shorttalks said: there is no good reason to stop posting about tennis
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- jtotheizzoe said: Have you read David Foster Wallace’s tennis stuff? Epic. “String Theory” is a must read
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- doinky said: Really like this. Totally agree. But i bet the cold plane (or zone) feels good. x
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