To be in the backseat of a car, the cyanotype night on some minor highway, and pass at a distance of one or two hundred yards a rectangle of total green under pooled white lights is to see North American heaven. A community baseball field, a high school football field. A tennis court, occasionally. Say you’re a tennis-playing child from an oil town in Siberia where there are no courts, and no oranges, and in photographs of home it’s always snowing or sleeting or for another reason it’s gray. Around the age of 6, having first picked up a secondhand racket on the clay courts in Sochi, off the Black Sea, you arrive in Bradenton, Florida, home of Tropicana Products and IMG’s Bollettieri tennis academy. Will you ever get over it, the way the green lies shining against the dark? Maria did not. Maria Sharapova was, for a brief lambent time between 2004 and 2006, when she was 17 and 18 and 19, the best female tennis player on grass.
She was trained by Nick Bollettieri at the IMG Academy on mostly hard courts, to hone her technique absent variables. She moved on clay, she said later, jokingly, like “a cow on ice.” But on grass she was a dancer, a ballerina. One other body moves like hers, and it is that of the actual ballerina Sara Mearns, who shares with Maria a fissive mix of rigor and bounce. Some of Maria’s best serves in the middle 2000s are unbelievable when seen in slow motion. The extension of the right, working leg, reaching à la hauteur. The high toss followed by a hyperbolic swing of the racket, almost dismissive of the ball. Richard Williams, a former chief sportswriter for The Guardian who happens to share his name with the father and former coach of Venus and Serena, wrote that a poem about Maria “might start with a description of the moment when she tosses the ball up to serve and, as it reaches its apogee, a line through her left arm and right leg forms a perfect perpendicular.” Which is to say, the girl knew her angles.
Green clay and grass showed Maria to advantage in early photographs. The verdancy made wonder of her coloring, brought out the complementary flush of her cheeks, the gray-green in her cat’s eyes, the analogous streaks of gold in her long straight hair. She looked like a sixth Lisbon girl in Grosse Pointe, as if she’d been away at summer camp while the other five virgins were suiciding. She wore tank tops and little A-line skirts in white or pink or powder blue, obviously from Nike, and a simple gold-plated cross in the Orthodox style. No makeup. Quick-bitten nails. Goody-brand snap clips in her basic ponytail. Before each serve, she paused to brush back the newly escaped baby hairs with her ball hand, and the down on her forearm snagged the light. In 2003 she won no matches on the hard courts at the Australian Open nor on the clay at the French Open, but when she got to Wimbledon, to the grass, she beat the 11th-seeded Jelena Dokic and reached the fourth round, where she was beaten by fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. The tour made her Newcomer of the Year. A talk-show host began to compare her to Anna Kournikova, and she was ready, saying, “That’s so old.” Read more…
Joe Posnanski on fatherhood, which memories stick with you, and taking his 14-year-old daughter to see “Hamilton.”
David Dobbs writes articles on science, sports, music, writing, reading, and other culture at Neuron Culture and for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Atavist, Nature, National Geographic, and other publications. He’s working on a book about the genetics of human strength and frailty. He also twitters and tries to play the violin.
Truly we live, as Steve Silberman said, in a time of longform renaissance. The reading year was notable not just for the rise of many long reads and Longreads, but for the debut of The Atavist and Byliner, two new venues for publishing pieces too long for magazines but too short for books. Both, like Longreads, brought me lots of good reading. And The Atavist, which was first off the blocks, let me publish a story, My Mother’s Lover, for which I had tried but failed to find the right length and form for almost a decade. Cheers to Longreads for helping spearhead this renaissance—and to you, Constant Reader, for doing the reading that in all but the most immediate sense makes the writing possible.
Here are my top 5 longreads of 2011, plus some extras. My filter: a combination of what I thought best and what continued to resonate with me. Writing is hard. I’m moved by the dedication to craft in these pieces.
“Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” by Amy Harmon, New York Times
Harmon pulls off something extraordinarily difficult here: she draws on little more than straight reportorial observation to show a young autistic man moving out into a world that struggles to accommodate him. Neither is quite ready for the other; yet they engage, as they must. Gorgeously structured and an immense reward. (Bonus: She later tells how she put it together.)
Janet Malcolm’s “Art of Nonfiction” interview in Paris Review
Malcolm has written several of the best books I’ve ever read; The Silent Woman haunts me more on every reading. Here she reveals how she did it: a rigorous method wielded by a powerful mind and rarefied sensibility. Equally moving and informative were the Paris Review interview with John McPhee and a Chris Jones conversation with Gay Talese. I am now in love with Talese, though he never calls.
“Study of a lifetime,” by Helen Pearson, Nature
Pearson, Nature’s features editor, shows how fine science writing is done, following a set of researchers researching a set of people and they’re all trying to figure out the same thing: How to make sense of their lives. Lovely stuff, true to complex, incredibly valuable science about complex, richly textured lives.
“Climbers: A team of young cyclists tries to outrun the past,” by Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker
Young Rwandan cyclists try to ride into the future. Some rough road, some fine riding (and writing).
“California and Bust,” by Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair
California as a formerly developed country. Includes deftly rendered bicycle ride with former governor Schwarzenegger. Lewis is writing some of the best stuff out there right now.
Okay that was 5 and then some. But these I couldn’t’ leave out:
“The Apostate,” Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker
The Church of Scientology versus Wright and the New Yorker fact-checking department. Former is overmatched.
“The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist,” by Rich Shapiro, Wired
Riveting and bizarre.
“The Promise,” by Joe Posnanski, at Joe Blogs
Promises made, broken, and kept, variously, by Bruce Springsteen, the United States of America, and Posnanski’s dad. 4 stars easy, 5 if you love Bruce. And who doesn’t?
too many Daves, by David Quigg
Blatant cheating, as this is a blog, and Quigg almost always writes very short posts But he’s reading long stuff, all good, and responding to it beautifully as writer and reader; almost no one gets so much done in so little space. If you harbor even a spark of literary love, he’ll fan it.
Disclosures: The Atavist and Nature published stories of mine this year, and Wired.com (actually a separate outfit from Wired the magazine) hosts my blog.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.