On a breezy August evening, one perfectly fit for briefly forgetting both the sweltering summer and its miserly, frozen, hibernating kin, I sojourned to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens to take in the selected offerings from the first round of this year’s US Open. Specifically, three players – Rafael Nadal, Aryna Sabalenka and Nick Kyrgios – offered their assorted splendors to varying degrees, making for predictably excellent tennis. There are worse ways to turn the night into the morning.
The English poet Francis Quarles, noted paraphrase royalty, once wrote, “The way to bliss lies not on beds of down, And he that has no cross deserves no crown.” As was more or less his M.O., and the standard run of play in seventeenth century literature, he was drawing largely from The Bible, though you could be forgiven if in a vacuum you thought he may have been discussing the rise of Stan Wawrinka, 2016 U.S. Open men’s champion.
Four sets: that’s all Stan Wawrinka needed to upend Novak Djokovic in the men’s final of the U.S. Open, which he captured in a magnificent 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win that elicited some of the best shot-making either player has ever flashed. Once an underperforming prodigy, Wawrinka is now, against most well-meaning odds, a three-time major champion as well as, for the moment, the king of New York.
Putting a torch to a flame: that’s one way of dealing with the vexation of presumed certainty turning to capricious doubt. Nothing is certain, and doubt can be a useful progenitor for inspiration. Even Jesus looked around in anger.
Down a break in the fourth set to Ilya Marchenko, Stan Wawrinka looked inward, his steely resolve having forsaken him, and, as has happened on many occasions before, dispelled the rage within him via the destruction of a racquet, an inanimate Judas for lack of anything else.
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. 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.
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, 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 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, 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.
Today is July 1, which means Bobby Bonilla gets a check cut for $1,193,248.20. Or just a direct deposit. Or maybe the New York Mets will just passive-aggressively Venmo him at 11:57 pm tonight with some subtle apology, as if they almost forgot. “Ah guys, you know what, I almost forgot that Bonilla thing was due today.” Either way, that’s a lot of guacamole for someone who’s been out of the league for fifteen years.
On paper, this is what the 2016 New York Mets look like. They’re just numbers, sure, but in the era of sabermetrics, these are some damn good numbers. These numbers represent the skills and know-how that, we hope, will bring us glory this fall. These are the players who carry the promise of greatness, the clubhouse that could win it all. All of our hopes and dreams, summed up in two innocuous spreadsheets – fourteen players, nine positions, 140 statistics.
Do you feel the tables mocking you? Those perfectly ordered, neatly typed grids? Those consistently high batting averages and promising ERAs?
Do you have nightmares about Daniel Murphy in a Nats jersey? Is Chase Utley’s arrogant smirk burned into your retinas? Do you shudder when you think about having to watch Royals players receive their rings – while our team stands just yards away?
No? Okay, maybe it’s just me.
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.
Short class this week, gang. The All-Star Break interrupts an intense Western Conference playoff race, and one of its most entertaining teams just made a key hire, perhaps in a case of too little, too late. Elsewhere, Carmelo Anthony seems destined for a shutdown after the break, and the NBA is celebrating the rich history of basketball in New York City. Which borough would you take?