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…
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…
Michael Joyce climbs into his father’s station wagon on a Sunday afternoon, the light of southern California glowing soft and gold. Joyce is tiny and cherubic, his face freckled and full, his hair a shock of strawberry blonde. He is 12 years old and has already spent six of those years playing competitive tennis, and he’s become very good at it.
In another six years, Joyce will become the junior national champion. After that victory, he will hoist a heavy trophy overhead and cameras will pop and flash and reporters will shout questions in his direction, and his ascension, as a professional tennis player, will begin. In an especially vibrant era for American tennis, Joyce’s cohort will include Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier. He will play each of them, with varying levels of success, and at his peak he will be ranked as the 64th best male singles player in the world.
During his playing days, David Foster Wallace will write about him in his seminal tennis essay, “The String Theory,” later republished in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, and through that work, Joyce’s career will persist, a blip of his existence anthologized in pop culture. In the years that follow, at every tournament Joyce attends, someone will ask him about that story, about Wallace, and about that period in his life.
A wrist injury will end his career early but not his successes. He will coach Maria Sharapova for six years and two Grand Slam titles and become a known commodity as a coach and mostly forgotten as a player, a fact that will annoy him greatly, but also be inarguable.
On this day, though, none of that yet matters. Defeat had been meted out by another prodigious talent, another boy born with a natural inclination towards the sport. Joyce, at 12 years old, was not yet thinking about his professional future, he was not yet aware that his youth and working adulthood would blend together without interruption; he just knew that when he won, everyone around him seemed happier and he liked that. He liked the way his view of the world, from the back seat of the station wagon, seemed to grow larger and brighter on those days, the family joyful and contented, his father sometimes pulling off the road for a post-match ice cream.
This would not be one of those days, though. Joyce had lost. His opponent, a lefty, put heavy topspin on the ball. It was a style that Joyce had yet to encounter, and when his opponent walloped it back, deep into the corners, a distance, both literal and metaphoric, grew between the boys.
The resulting defeat was felt so strongly and shared between Joyce and his father, also named Michael, that they diverted from their regular route home, drove out to the edge of town, and pulled to a stop at a factory that manufactured ball machines. Joyce didn’t know this factory existed, he didn’t know how his father knew it existed, but soon enough a new ball machine was rattling in the trunk, and they were on their way home.
Years earlier, in the family backyard, Joyce’s father had torn down the tree house, filled in the swimming pool, and put up a tennis court. Joyce received instruction from famed tennis technician and legendary hard ass Robert Lansdorp and his father, who taught tennis in the army, would replicate the lessons at home.
Now, in the backyard, the machine stood in his father’s place, rapid firing balls that sliced and hooked and spun through the air, mirroring the shots that Joyce had missed earlier in the day. Joyce’s task was to remain there, outside, until he understood how to play every shot. For three hours, Joyce batted at the air, fought through fatigue, and ignored his body that was wilting with exhaustion.
Later, when his mother and sister returned home from a day of running errands, his mother stormed into the backyard. “What are you doing?” she shouted at his father. “The poor kid is exhausted.” It was then that Joyce took his first break, his hands now raw and red and blistered over, his frustration giving way to tears.
This is an unseemly side of athletics: the labor that is overlooked in the delirium of mass mediation, the absurdity that we ignore because it is ugly and alarming and unhealthy, but also necessary. It is very hard to go pro in any sport, and few sports are as isolating as tennis. On the court, there is nowhere to hide, no teammates to mask individual deficiencies. As a result, the life of an athlete, even a young one, has to be dwindled down to a singular focus, and then refined over and over again. Joyce did not yet fully understand why this level of sacrifice was required—but it wouldn’t be much longer until he did.
“When I was younger I almost felt like the happiness in the family depended on how I was doing in tennis and it probably did a little bit and that was the sad reality of it,” Joyce says. “If I won we went out for lunch and everyone’s happy. If I lose, my dad’s kinda pissed and my mom’s pissed at my dad. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid. It’s not a normal childhood.”
That day, in the backyard, with his mother’s help, Joyce learned that he had to stand up for himself. He had to be able to say no, his mother told him. He couldn’t please everyone, not all the time, and his self-worth couldn’t be dictated by wins and losses. This was a hard lesson to learn, of course, and Joyce describes that day, and his father’s course of action, as “a bit nutty,” but it worked. A few months later, Joyce played that same boy and won in straight sets.
Through the cursory nature of their careers, athletes learn of life’s brevity earlier than most and at another angle and a different depth. Joyce is now a father and husband, and the things that used to matter to him, matter less now. The priorities of his life have shifted, but tennis remains near the top and so does what he loves most about the sport: the game’s simple binaries, that there is one winner and one loser. On a tennis court, you are exposed and vulnerable, and you have to face whatever comes your way and face it alone. Joyce has come to enjoy that. He has viewed his life through the lens of tennis, his ambitions and desires distilled through its filter. His experiences have shaped who he is, sometimes in small, indiscernible ways, and other times in larger, sweeping turns. He grew up in the sport, and in public, and now, at 43 years old, Michael Joyce begins his second act. Read more…
Our latest Exclusive is a new story by Stephen Tignor, co-funded by Longreads Members and published in Racquet magazine’s premiere issue. Racquet is “a new quarterly tennis magazine that celebrates the art, ideas, style and culture that surround tennis” and we are excited to be able to feature them.
The fifth edition of the ESPY Awards, held in 1997 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was a celebration of the African-American athlete. Michael Johnson won Best Male Athlete, Tiger Woods and Desmond Howard received honors, black celebrities were on hand to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, and Ray Charles performed.
But the loudest ovation was reserved for Muhammad Ali. The former heavyweight champion was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, which for more than two decades has been given to a recipient who “reflect[s] the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril, and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
It was the evening’s melancholy high point. The spirits of Ashe and Ali were alive in the room. Yet the voices of these two heroes of the 1960s and ’70s could no longer be heard. The tennis player had died four years earlier, at age 49, of complications from AIDS. The boxer was only 55, but Parkinson’s disease had muted this most verbal of athletes. The man who introduced Ali at the ESPYs, Sidney Poitier, spoke for many of his generation when he said, “The first thing I remember is his voice.” But on this night, Ali could muster just two words for the audience: “Thank you.”
It would be hard to imagine two people, let alone two sportsmen of the same era, whose personalities diverged as much as theirs did. Ashe was cautious and cerebral, Ali brash and outrageous. Ashe excelled in a genteel sport, Ali in a brutal one. Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War; Ashe was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ali joined the separatist Nation of Islam and befriended Malcolm X; Ashe dedicated his life to the cause of Martin Luther King and integration. If we think of Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay, even their surnames—Clay and Ashe—represent opposing states of matter.
Yet it was fitting that they should be honored together on a night of African-American celebration. During the same tumultuous period, they had proved what a powerful impact engaged athletes can have on the world. Ashe had once said of Ali, “He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.” Ashe was one of those who had followed Ali’s lead. Read more…
What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies.
Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily (see Indian Wells, which both sisters have boycotted since 2001), they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.
—Poet Claudia Rankine, writing in Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine’s book—a form-shifting treatise on race, primarily composed of prose poems—includes a lengthy essay on Serena Williams’s place in the lily-white world of professional tennis. Citizen has been hugely lauded since its October 2014 publication, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2015 Pen Open Book Award, among others. Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title on Saturday and is currently the top-ranked female tennis player in the world.
During matches, Federer changes racquets each time the balls are changed, which happens after the first seven games and then every nine games thereafter. Nine racquets would be more than sufficient to see him through his opening match. The already strung rackets were arranged in a row against a dresser. Each had a small piece of white tape on its throat indicating the day it had been strung and the level of string tension. Federer had texted Yu the night before with his specifications: he had asked for three racquets to be strung at twenty-six kilos (“Roger wants it in kilos, not pounds,” Ferguson explained), five at 26.5, and one at twenty-seven. Spools of racquet string and rolls of grip tape were strewn across the dresser.
Yu, who was dressed in khaki shorts, a light-blue T-shirt, and sandals, was working at one of the four Babolat Star 4 stringing machines that he and Ferguson had brought to New York (they have two other stringers working with them during the Open). Although the Star 4 dates back to the nineteen-eighties and is no longer in production, they continue to use it because it is light and easy to travel with. “Once these break down, we’re retiring,” Yu joked, as he ran a strand of natural-gut string through the top of the racquet head (Federer was using natural gut for the sixteen main strings and polyester for the nineteen cross strings). After Yu finished, he clipped ten tiny plastic string savers into the string bed of each racquet. Federer likes the string savers because they supposedly reduce friction. Yu, who estimates that he has strung racquets more than five thousand times for Federer, is skeptical. “I don’t think it does much,” he said. “But these guys don’t like to change things,” Ferguson added. After punching in the string savers, Yu stencilled a red Wilson logo on each racquet, wrapped them individually in long plastic bags, sealed the bags with blue tape, then stuck a large decal bearing Federer’s logo (a stylized “RF”) on each bag.
— Michael Steinberger in a post for The New Yorker, on Priority 1, the stringing and racquet customization company that is used by tennis pros like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The players pay $40,000 a year for the service.
It’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way ‘up close and personal’ profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life – outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.
Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Journalism and a CLAS-Honors Preceptor in the Honors College at the University of Maine. Roiland is a cultural historian of the American news media, who researches and teaches classes on the cultural, political, and literary significance of American journalism. This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Literary Journalism Studies. Our thanks to Roiland for allowing us to reprint it here, and for adding this introduction:
David Foster Wallace saw clear lines between journalists and novelists who write nonfiction, and he wrestled throughout his career with whether a different set of rules applied to the latter category. In the years after his death, he has faced charges of embellishment and exaggeration by his close friend Jonathan Franzen and repeated by his biographer D.T. Max. Their criticisms, however, do not adequately address the intricate philosophy Wallace formulated about genre classification and the fact/fiction divide. This article explores those nuances and argues that Wallace’s thinking about genre was complex, multifaceted, and that it evolved during his writing life.
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Before he sat down with the best tennis player on the planet for a noonday interview in the middle of the 2006 Wimbledon fortnight, David Foster Wallace prepared a script. Atop a notebook page he wrote, “R.Federer Interview Qs.” and below he jotted in very fine print 13 questions. After three innocuous ice breakers, Wallace turned his attention to perhaps the most prominent theme in all his writing: consciousness. Acknowledging the abnormal interview approach, Wallace prefaced these next nine inquires with a printed subhead: “Non-Journalist Questions.” Each interrogation is a paragraph long, filled with digressions, asides, and qualifications; several contain superscripted addendums. In short, they read like they’re written by David Foster Wallace. He asks Roger Federer if he’s aware of his own greatness, aware of the unceasing media microscope he operates under, aware of his uncommon elevation of athletics to the level of aesthetics, aware of how great his great shots really are. Wallace even wrote, “How aware are you of the ballboys?” before crossing the question out.
My story, The Match Maker, was online at ESPN.com only a few hours on Aug. 25 when I heard from a California man who shrugged at the possibility that tennis champ and American hustler Bobby Riggs had thrown the famous September 1973 Battle of the Sexes match. The man’s name is Russell Boyd, and he claimed Bobby Riggs had talked openly and repeatedly with him, back in June 1973, about his intention to lose his upcoming match against Billie Jean King at the Houston Astrodome. “I didn’t realize at the time that it was such a serious matter of him playing Billie Jean King,” Boyd, 56, told me, “and that he was actually expected to make an effort to win.” Read more…
Venus and Serena Williams, living as adults, free of their parents, and still America’s biggest tennis superstars:
I asked Oracene what she felt, watching her daughters reclaim the heights after what they’d been through. “Honestly?” she said. “I reflected on the fact that in the United States, you don’t have many players that are doing well. And then you have these two old, black girls, up in age now, and they’re still holding up America. That to me was remarkable.” I thought about it. She was right. There isn’t another American right now who’s capable of really penetrating at a major. Or maybe, in fairness to Andy Roddick and a couple of other people, it’s better to say that there isn’t another player whose penetration at a Slam would not make your eyebrows jump. It’s just these two girls, these two sisters. They’re what America has right now.