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Mike Dang
Editor in chief, Longreads | Editorial, Automattic | WordPress.com | Co-founder, The Billfold

A Celebration of Rafael Nadal, the ‘King of Clay’

They don’t call him the “King of Clay” for nothing. Rafael Nadal claimed his 10th French Open title on Sunday at the age of 31. To celebrate, here are four profiles of Rafa looking back at his career.

“Barely 19, He’s Got Game, Looks and Remarkably Good Manners” (Christopher Clarey, New York Times, June 2005)

Carey on 19-year-old Nadal, freshly off his first French Open win.

“I hope all this won’t change me,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “I would like to stay the same as I’ve always been. I hope that I will pull it off, and I believe I will be able to pull it off. I want to continue being a 19-year-old youngster and play my tennis.”

“Ripped. (Or Torn Up?)” (Cynthia Gorney, New York Times Magazine, June 2009)

Nadal, at 23 and the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world.

Yandell chuckled. “Federer is hitting with an amazing amount of spin, too, right? Twenty-seven hundred revolutions per minute. Well, we measured one forehand Nadal hit at 4,900. His average was 3,200. Think about that for a second. It’s a little frightening to contemplate. It takes a ball about a second to travel between the players’ rackets, O.K.?” He grabbed a calculator and punched in numbers. “So a Nadal forehand would have turned over 80 times in the second it took to get to Federer’s racket. I don’t know about you, but that’s almost impossible for me to visualize.”

“‘You Don’t Have to Be Mad to Be Intense'” (L. Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated, January 2011)

Roger Federer has been Nadal’s greatest rival. They are practically equals on the court (though one clearly dominates on grass; the other on clay). But Wertheim tells us that Federer earns three times as much in endorsements, and Nadal’s playing style is frequently compared to Federer’s:

Roger Federer is such a graceful tennis stylist that Nadal has been cast in the role of the grinder, Hephaestus to Federer’s Apollo. The contrast is entirely too facile. There’s artistry in Nadal’s capacity to go from defense to offense in a single stroke, and in his ability to generate ungodly spin on shots whose angles defy the laws of geometry. “The nuances aren’t past him,” says Andy Roddick. John McEnroe calls Nadal the most skilled net player this side of Federer.

“Who’s the Greatest Clay-Courter of Them All — Chris Evert or Rafa Nadal?” (Steve Tignor, Tennis magazine, May 2017)

It’s difficult to compare the women’s game with the men’s game, but we like to do it anyway. While Rafa continues to dominate on clay on the men’s tour, Tignor reminds us that Chris Evert also dominated on dirt.

At 30, Nadal is still going strong. He could be on tour for another five years and end up winning a dozen French Opens. Even so, it won’t be easy for him to leave Evert behind. The American won seven French Open titles, the women’s record. But that still isn’t indicative of what she did on the surface.

He Doesn’t Know What It’s Like to Feel Pain. She Feels It All the Time

In the 2000 film Unbreakable, we’re introduced to two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum: an extremely frail man with a brittle bone disease played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a man with superhuman levels of strength and invulnerability played by Bruce Willis.

“However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I,” Jackson’s character tells Willis’. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.”

In a recent issue of Wired reporter Erika Hayasaki introduced us to another set of people on the opposite ends of a spectrum.

Steven Pete has a rare neurological condition that makes him unable to feel pain.

Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. “We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You’re supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head.” Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. “The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, ‘Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?’ ”

“I haven’t done either,” Pete replied.

The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. “You’ve got three fractured vertebrae.” Pete had broken his back.

Pam Costa has the opposite neurological condition — she feels pain constantly, as if her body is on fire.

Because the inflammation is exacerbated by physical contact, stress, and even the smallest elevation in surrounding temperature, Costa lives her life with great care. She wears loose-fitting clothes because fabric feels like a blowtorch against her skin. She sleeps with chilled pillows because the slightest heat makes her limbs feel like they are crackling. “Have you ever been out in the bitter, bitter cold, where your feet were ice?” she asks me. “Almost frostbite? Then you warm them up and it burns? That burning sensation: That is what it feels like all the time.”

Pete and Costa are also connected, sharing a genetic link that has helped scientists understand why we experience pain and how to treat it.

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Millennial to Millionaire: Stop Blaming Avocado Toast for Why We’re Not Buying Houses

Millennials rarely get a fair shake when it comes to, well, anything written about them, which is why it isn’t surprising to see a misguided post from TIME magazine today blaming the low rate of home ownership among millennials on their apparently voracious appetite for avocado toast.

“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” millionaire Tim Gurner says, also blaming millennials’ annual trips to Europe every year as the reason why they can’t afford to buy homes.

He continues, “The people that own homes today worked very, very hard for it, saved every dollar, did everything they could to get up the property investment ladder,” conveniently failing to mention the housing bubble and subsequent crash that occurred in the last decade due to poorly regulated banks that approved mortgages for millions of people who they knew could not afford to pay them back. For Gurner, it’s easier to blame rampant spending on avocados and lattes for today’s low home ownership rates than on post-recession regulation of predatory lending practices that have prevented banks from handing out mortgages like candy.

Guess what, Gurner: According to the New York Times, Federal Reserve data shows that the percentage of Americans under 35 who hold credit card debt has fallen to its lowest level since 1989, the year Taylor Swift was born into this world. If millennials are having trouble controlling their spending, the data does not show it. Read more…

The Surgeon Who Helped Revolutionize Hand Transplants

Dr. Kodi Azari has traveled the U.S. as a lead surgeon in five hand transplants. Hand transplant recipients have usually lost their hands before surgery, but Azari laid the groundwork for a new kind of procedure:

The doctor had some hypotheses he wanted to test, provided he could find a patient with the ideal requirements: excellent health, enormous self-discipline, a positive attitude, and—rarest of all—a limb that needed to be replaced but had not yet been amputated.

Azari knew he was hoping for a long shot. Most hand transplant candidates have been injured in accidents or in battle, when a catastrophic event forces an emergency amputation. These procedures are aimed at minimizing suffering and are usually carried out to facilitate future prosthetic use. Generally that means the arm is severed closer to the elbow than the wrist, and the nerves and tendons are trimmed back and tucked inward to lessen discomfort. That creates challenges, however, if a transplant is attempted later. All those tucked-in nerves and tendons tend to merge over time into a jumble of tissues that is difficult to connect to a new hand with precision.

Wouldn’t it be great, Azari thought, if a transplant recipient’s arm could be amputated in a way that prepped it specifically to receive a new limb? How much more quickly would a patient recover if each tendon, nerve, artery, and vein were left in place and marked—labeled, like so many colored speaker wires, to be hooked up to a matching apparatus? How much more functionality would the patient gain, and how rapidly would he or she gain it? Azari believed this fantasy patient would awaken post-op, look at the new hand, and be able to move the fingers right away.

Azari found the ideal patient in Jonathan Koch, a television executive who experienced full-blown septic shock and needed several limbs amputated. Amy Wallace tells his story in Los Angeles Magazine.

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Roger Federer is Brilliant, But Don’t Ever Forget About Serena Williams

Last week, I had the privilege of watching Roger Federer beat his longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Federer went on to win the tournament.

Tennis has long been a young person’s game, with the majority of the top players from both the men’s and women’s pro tour being in their 20s. At 35, an age when many tennis players have retired or considered retirement (Pete Sampras, for example, announced his retirement at 32), Roger Federer is finding success again with his latest wins in Indian Wells and at the Australian Open (his first grand slam win in five years). His resurgence has garnered him a GQ cover and a profile by Rosecrans Baldwin in the magazine’s latest issue. Baldwin asked Federer about what it felt like to win his latest grand slam title:

So how did it compare with the others? The 2009 French Open stands out, Federer said, when he clinched the Career Grand Slam and also tied Sampras’s record of 14 Slam titles. Then he beat Andy Roddick at Wimbledon a few weeks later—during the same summer that Mirka gave birth to their first children, their twin girls—and the record was his. A magical summer. But still, he said, “this one feels very different.” Less about legend, more about legacy. After a silence, Federer mused, “You have a better perspective when you’re older. You’re more at peace.” A second later, “Sometimes you want it more because you know time isn’t on your side.”

It’s a lovely profile of an athlete reaching the twilight of his career. Unfortunately, GQ undermined the story with a single tweet: Read more…

Stan Smith, the Tennis Shoe, Has Become Bigger Than the Man Himself

Stan Smith had a respectable tennis career: When he was 24, he won the U.S. Open, and was ranked the No. 1 men’s player in the world. But his Adidas sneakers have recently become a world-wide fashion phenomenon, giving him much more success (at least in the monetary sense) than he could have ever imagined. From a New York magazine story by Lauren Schwartzberg:

In the United Kingdom, soccer fans in Liverpool and Manchester fight over who got into Stan Smiths first. In Greece, Smith says, where it is traditional to give babies white shoes on the day of their christening, Stan Smiths became the white shoe of choice. There’s a professor of theoretical physics in Sweden who owns more than 200 pairs. Both Will Arnett and Hugh Grant have said they kissed their first girl while wearing Stan Smiths. Stan Smith the man once met a reporter from GQ Japan who told him he’s worn his eponymous shoes every day for the past 13 years. (Smith’s response: “I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ ”) More recently, they’ve been taken up by Céline’s Phoebe Philo, as well as Marc Jacobs, A$AP Rocky, and North West, coming to define both a retro and minimalist movement in fashion just a few years after they were sold on the bargain shelves.

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We Spend Six Months Over the Course of Our Lives Searching for Lost Things

In the New Yorker, Kathryn Schultz writes about two forms of loss: grief and the misplacement of everyday objects. Regarding the latter, it appears we have a tendency to lose items on a daily basis, and spend half a year over the course of our lifetimes searching for them:

Passwords, passports, umbrellas, scarves, earrings, earbuds, musical instruments, W-2s, that letter you meant to answer, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range of things we lose and the readiness with which we do so are staggering. Data from one insurance-company survey suggest that the average person misplaces up to nine objects a day, which means that, by the time we turn sixty, we will have lost up to two hundred thousand things. (These figures seem preposterous until you reflect on all those times you holler up the stairs to ask your partner if she’s seen your jacket, or on how often you search the couch cushions for the pen you were just using, or on that daily almost-out-the-door flurry when you can’t find your kid’s lunchbox or your car keys.) Granted, you’ll get many of those items back, but you’ll never get back the time you wasted looking for them. In the course of your life, you’ll spend roughly six solid months looking for missing objects; here in the United States, that translates to, collectively, some fifty-four million hours spent searching a day. And there’s the associated loss of money: in the U.S. in 2011, thirty billion dollars on misplaced cell phones alone.

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The Biologist Who Believes in the Possibility of ‘Spider-Man-like’ Transformations of People

In MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado has a profile of a biologist named Brian Hanley, who is testing out gene therapy by injecting copies of a gene he has designed into his own body. Hanley believes that “Spider-Man-like transformations of people” are possible in the near-future.

Most gene therapy involves high-tech, multimillion-dollar experiments carried out by large teams at top medical centers, with an eye to correcting rare illnesses like hemophilia. But Hanley showed that gene therapy can be also carried out on the cheap in the same setting as liposuction or a nose job, and might one day be easily accessed by anyone.

In an attempt to live longer, some enthusiasts of anti-aging medicine already inject growth hormone, swallow fullerenes, or gulp megavitamins, sometimes with disregard for mainstream medical thinking. Now unregulated gene therapy could be the next frontier. “I think it’s damn crazy,” says Bruce Smith, a professor at Auburn University who develops genetic treatments for dogs. “But that is human nature, and it’s colliding with technology.”

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Serena Williams and Roger Federer: The Greatest of All Time

This weekend, Serena Williams and Roger Federer each won their respective singles titles at the Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament of 2017. The achievement by two of the greatest tennis players of all-time was remarkable for several reasons: Serena Williams set an Open Era record with 23 Grand Slam singles titles under her belt. Roger Federer extended his record as the male tennis player with the most Grand Slam titles with his 18th win. And both players, at the ripe old tennis age of 35, demonstrated athletic excellence in a sport dominated by 20-somethings (I should also note that the Australian Open women’s final also featured Serena’s sister, Venus Williams, 36, who is also excelling at an age when most other players have chosen to retire). To celebrate these achievements, I’d like to share two of my favorite profiles of Serena and Roger. Read more…

Mary Tyler Moore on the Joys of Dancing

Actress Mary Tyler Moore has died at the age of 80. Although she was best known for her iconic role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore was also a trained dancer and dreamed of making it into a career. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes, Moore wrote about how dance gave her strength and stability:

Dance, especially the training for it, is a big part of me. It shapes the discipline I’ve brought to my work as an actress, initiated my belief in the adage “No pain, no gain,” and generally provided a home that’s never changed. No matter what fears assaulted me, as person, actress, or dancer, dance was constantly giving me the familiar steps I needed to grow.

Dance has been my constant best friend.

During the seven years of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I arranged to have three portable ballet barres brought to the soundstage along with a huge mirror on wheels for class. It was a daily lunchtime event, presided over by a woman who’d been my teacher for some twenty years, Sallie Whalen. Music was provided by a classical pianist hired to accompany us on an upright that rolled to our spot in front of the newsroom.

There were usually eight to ten of us—Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, Beverly Sanders, who played Rayette the waitress on the series, me, and several others who’d once worked as dancers and were now spending their days driving car pools or working as actresses. There were a few young dancers who’d join us from time to time, and when it was over they loved to sit at our dinosaur feet and listen.

It was a touchstone for all of us—sharing the class with its all-too-familiar panting and groaning or sitting on the floor afterward applying bandages to our new blisters.

It was a sisterhood of sorts, not about feminism, but about the nearly religious connection that is ballet class.

I’m often asked where my strength comes from to accept diabetes and its impingement on my life. I do believe ballet gave me that ability. But it’s sad to note that within the successful actress writing this book beats the heart of a failed dancer.

So as I gave up the dream of being a world-famous dancer and became, much to my surprise, a world-famous actress, I clung to dance for pleasure, for structure, and for adventure. Dance took me to places I would never have been privileged to enter without it, and to meet people I revered—and do to this day.

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