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.
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.
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.
We are not Lleyton Hewitt. Or, at the very least, I’m not, and I imagine the overwhelming majority of my readership is not as well. This is true for a lot of reasons; I am not Australian, nor am I the youngest men’s world No. 1 in history. I have yet to win a Grand Slam singles title, despite my wildest dreams, nor is my middle name Glynn. Most of all, however, I am not Lleyton Hewitt because I will never know what it’s like to play tennis on speedboats in the Sydney Harbor with Roger Federer.