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Tennis

Getty Images/Quinn Rooney

If, at the beginning of 2014, I would have asked you to guess what Swiss male tennis player was going to win two majors over the following two years, you almost certainly would have guessed Roger Federer[1]. Steady Fed did not win a major the previous year, but a nagging back injury limited him, and in periods of health you could still see his heady mastery of the game on full display. A recovery was inevitable, and anyway, it wasn’t looking like the next generation of tennis talent was prepared to challenge the Big Four. It mostly still isn’t.

Almost three complete seasons later, however, another native of the neutral country has emerged as a worthy adversary to the quartet that has dominated the men’s game for the last decade. The son of farmers, Stan Wawrinka is a two-time Grand Slam champion and, at 31, may be playing the best tennis of his life.

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Nearly three-quarters of the way to its conclusion, #manypeople seem comfortable writing off 2016 as a failed experiment, the kind of revolution around the sun we’d sooner edit-undo than save as draft so that we know not to make the same mistakes twice. Not that it isn’t tempting, given the tornado of seemingly every sociopolitical attitude storming past social courtesies on its way to enraged prominence, the tortoises of Twitter emerging only to present a counterpoint to happiness and the deaths of nearly every celebrity you never expected to let you down, even against the undefeated specter of mortality.

Largely overshadowed when set against that intense bleakness is the fact that 2016 has been a banner year for redemption. In the last eight months, we have borne witness to: Nick Saban’s Alabama going Omar for the ring[1], Villanova stealing the highest-stakes game of H-O-R-S-E in college basketball history, an outstanding Broncos defense carrying Peyton Manning’s rotten skeleton to a walk-off like no other[2] only two years after an historic Super Bowl humiliation, LeBron James delivering the city of Cleveland a more thrilling high than anything you could read about in VICE[3], Michael Phelps death-staring down Chad Le Clos and, just a week ago, Neymar exacting some revenge against a team which had bestowed such a beating so comprehensive that one hand was not enough to denote it with accuracy.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the next reclamation in line, at the top of her game and coming off a disappointing Olympics, belongs to one Serena Williams.

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Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

A common rhetorical question among, I imagine, people not in my tax bracket, particularly around holidays and on big occasions such as weddings, asks what you get the man[1] who has everything. If you live a lavish lifestyle, you presumably have all the needs of life covered, as well as any material possessions. It’s awfully difficult for your famous birthday party guests to get you peace of mind, or to cleanse your conscience of the many great sins you committed on your way to the top.

Roger Federer seems like somebody who fits this bill[2], having accomplished more than any other male tennis player in the Open era and likely being content, if not exactly pleased, with his dazzling semifinal run and subsequent exit from Wimbledon. As of his victory in this year’s French Open, Novak Djokovic is the same, as is Rafael Nadal, whose fall from grace has been as swift as his run at Roland Garros was dominant. All of which leaves the other member of tennis’ Big Four thoroughly othered, despite looking over the edge once more. Repeat after me: Andy Murray finds himself in a major tournament Final, against Milos Raonic at Wimbledon on Sunday, though it may again end up feeling like he has crashed the wrong party.

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Serena Williams

Yu Tsai for Sports Illustrated via AP

On Monday, Sports Illustrated announced that Serena Williams was the recipient of its annual Sportsperson of the Year Award, a marvelous gesture for a certainly deserving and wholly underappreciated athlete. That gig comes with a stirring S.L. Price cover profile and recognition for a year well done. Unfortunately, what should be an innocuous distinction seems also to be accompanied by the anger of fans whose preferred choice in the matter, a non-human, finished second.

In the wake of Serena’s selection as Sportsperson of the Year, horse Twitter revealed itself.

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Without looking (actually, without being able to find it exactly), I know that David Foster Wallace once said or wrote something to the effect of, “Some people seem to think that being a tennis prodigy is easy. It’s not.” I’ll get lambasted for the deployment of an indirect quote like that, and somebody is bound to find it, but I welcome the opportunity to be corrected on something as banal as a David Foster Wallace quote on tennis. I really do.

Anyway, perhaps the only role more difficult to fill than that of tennis prodigy is that of aging tennis legend and, by extension, its subset, “aging greatest men’s tennis player ever.” The shadow of retirement looms large in professional sports, where most athletes are finished by their mid-30s at the latest. More often than not, the kids come up from behind even more furiously than that, pushing pillars of sport to the edge with increasing efficiency. No athlete’s autumnal period, however, has been longer, nor sunset faded more slowly, than that of Roger Federer.

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Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates beating Switzerland's Roger Federer by eating a blade

AFP

In the parlance of modern tennis, Roger Federer has become the default, that against which any and all challengers fill in a blank as some kind of placeholder until the younger, better next generation arrives. For many players over the last decade, most notably Spanish clay court foil Rafael Nadal, it is a frustrating truth which is, nevertheless, true, because playing in the shadow of a man who has won seventeen Grand Slam titles since 2003 leaves you in a begrudging negative space, an elephant graveyard where hyenas battle for Federer’s scraps.

Unlike Nadal, Andy Murray and other would-be mutineers, however, Novak Djokovic has always looked like he feels comfortable in that negative space. His rocketing serves, his maddening return game, his consumption of grass: this is the one they colloquially call “the Joker,” and he is the best tennis player alive.

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Oath_Tennis_Court.jpg - "The Oath of the Tennis Court." Pen and ink drawing by Jacques-Louis David, 1791. This monumental work, designed to be a preliminary to a larger painting (never completed), was first displayed to the public in the Salon of 1791, where it met with great enthusiasm. In its meeting of June 17th, the Third Estate had declared itself to be the National Assembly, the representatives of the sovereign nation, and invited the Clergy and the Nobility to join it. Although some lower clergy accepted the invitation and crossed over, the other orders refused at first. On June 20, the king ordered their meeting rooms locked so the Third Estate and their clerical allies met instead in a tennis court in the nearby Jeu de Paume, and their members took a solemn oath refusing to leave until a new constitution for the kingdom was established. On June 27, the king orders the rest of the Clergy and Nobility to join the National Assembly.

The Oath of the Tennis Court, Jacques-Louis David

On June 20, 1789, a group of peasants, serfs and wage-laborers, representatives of France’s lower-class Third Estate, found themselves locked out of a meeting in Versailles which King Louis XVI ostensibly called to formulate strategies which could pull the nation out of a state-induced financial crisis. Outraged, the oft-ignored Third Estate reps decided to call a meeting of their own, which they held on a tennis court, and at which they signed an oath against the heads of state which eventually led to the French Revolution. Historians now cite the Tennis Court Oath, originally an act of desperation from an outraged people, as one of the most important events in European history, and we continue to feel its reverberations today.

On Wednesday, a different revolution from a different outraged person occurred roughly fourteen kilometers from Versailles on another tennis court. Its effects, while far less deleterious to the French government, could have a similarly wide-reaching impact on the status quo, particularly the oft-ignored, #1-ranked player and the reigning king against whom he staged his coup.

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