three weeks ago, i read nearly all of David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not: Essays in the span of a day for @24hourbookclub. it was my first DFW experience…all i knew before then were vague murmurings about this author who liked footnotes and had written an absolutely monster novel ostensibly about tennis.
i was coming late to the party, so i skipped the title essay (and two more) and dove right into the fourth chapter, "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open". by the time the first paragraph had concluded, my mind was vividly in two places, or more accurately two times. the entire surrounds of Louis Armstrong Stadium 2010 came into crisp focus, along with its cast of characters — Schiavone, Monfils, Querrey, Söderling — while Armstrong 1995 got painted in big oil-brush strokes, Sampras and Philippoussis the protagonists. i could sense the great, gaping absence of Arthur Ashe Stadium over my shoulder, alternately two years from completion and thirteen years old, and i could feel the sun burning me, the worst of my life, so bad that it got inside my right ear and turned my SPF 50'd knees crispy for a week. DFW then led a tour of the grounds, a bit more behind-the-scenes than my novice day-pass-holder memories, but everything was perfectly congruous, right down to the attire of minor stadium staff. in fifteen years at the U.S. Open, not one damn thing had changed (Ashe notwithstanding). except the tennis.
two weeks ago, i sat down on Sunday afternoon to make good on my book club omissions, starting with "Federer Both Flesh and Not"…especially that essay, in anticipation of the kickoff of the 2013 grand slam season at 7 PM Eastern, 11 AM Monday in Melbourne. the essay plays out in two acts: 1) on what it's like to see tennis performed at the highest level, live, and 2) a history of what DFW calls the "power-baseline" game. these two acts are set against the backdrop of the 2006 Wimbledon Gentleman's Singles Final, a venue for Federer to assert his dominance over Rafa Nadal, who at that point had only won anything of consequence on clay. (In 2006, Nadal came out of nowhere and went 14–0 at Roland Garros to win two French Open titles in his first two tries. In 2013, his lifetime record there is a stonking 52–1 equaling seven titles and, unlike at the other majors, he hasn't missed a single year.)
by all accounts, DFW's beautiful prose included, the 2006 final was a very good tennis match, taken in four sets by Federer. on the other hand, except to provide historical context, it has fallen off the list of top matches of the past decade. like a runaway bidding war at an auction, where both parties have completely forgotten what they're even purchasing but dammit must not lose, the top level of professional tennis has outdone itself year in and year out. to wit:
- Wimbledon 2007: Federer over Nadal in 5
- Wimbledon 2008: Nadal over Federer, at last! 9–7 in the 5th.
- Wimbledon 2009: could you ask for more? yes. Federer's gut-punch win over Andy Roddick, converting just a single break point to win 16–14 in the 5th set.
the question justly posed is: how can spectators even comprehend what's going on down there? and by the time we've reached a grand slam final, it really is "down there." even the in-person spectators are piled up in a giant bowl of a stadium, and would have a better vantage looking through the filter of TV's baseline camera angle. as i watched hours and hours of the 2013 Australian Open on my iPad, propped up on the desk next to me or on my lap, i had the power to hold all of Rod Laver arena comfortably in two hands. (i could just as well have put it in one hand on my iPhone, but then the players are such tiny toys that i have to squint to look for the ball.) as DFW points out, tennis is a strange TV sport. i would argue that it's number two on the "most improved by HD" list (hockey is the clear winner). the increased clarity is perfect for tracking the ever-faster ball, but the wider aspect ratio is wasted, filled with empty swaths of blue, burnt orange, green, and blue (for each major, respectively). for a few fleeting moments this Aussie Open, ESPN2 showed full-speed replays of points from a fixed, isometric view. the frame was filled with action from corner to corner and, compared to the squat trapezoid tennis fans are used to, the court seemed a mile long and the ball took on a blazing life of its own. i would have paid money to get that camera feed for the entire match. i suppose that's why they sell tickets.
in the past year, i put a tennis racket in my own hand for the first time since high school and, stepping out onto the court, the delimiting white-on-blue rectangle feels big. unmanageably big. i can barely cover a third of this space big. yet, in miniature pixels i watched the top players seemingly teleport themselves from sideline to sideline in two and a half steps, or take a third to run around and convert a tricky backhand into a walloping inside-out forehand. they must have mutant blood. this is the power-baseline game, which i've observed as the primary mode of tennis since…circa 2006. so how was Wallace already writing its history at what i perceived to be its beginning? i think his term, "power-baseline", is spot on, and we are reaping its benefits in 2013 by seeing the most exciting tennis ever being played on both the men's and women's sides of the draw.
when i was a kid, being raised on NBC's woefully inadequate (but hey, it's all we had pre-internet) coverage of Wimbledon, tennis had it's boring moments. in 1993, the action game show American Gladiators was in its heyday, and featured an event called "Assault", wherein the "gladiator" shot tennis balls out of a cannon at the contestant at — they noted every episode — 104mph, unhumanly fast. then some of the top male tennis players started cracking serves faster than that, and nobody could return them. boom, 15. boom, 30. boom, 40. boom, game Sampras. it was borderline unwatchable. in the women's game, the points lasted longer…too much longer, as the only strategy seemed to be "pray for an unforced error." the men had power and the women had baseline, and it seemed never the twain should meet.
but then Andre Agassi figured out how to return fast serves. then all the men did. (DFW traces this back to Ivan Lendl, but if anything, Lendl was ahead of his time and not the root of a greater strategic arc. he's applying the strategy quite well now from the sidelines, coaching Andy Murray.) then Venus and Serena started crushing the ball, both on the serve and from the baseline. then all the women did. power got an infusion of baseline, and baseline got an infusion of power. in 2006, this was the brave new world of 21st century tennis, and because it felt so fresh and awe-inspiring, i don't fault DFW for throwing his hands up in the air and calling the future unpredictable. in 2013, though, we've settled into an interesting pattern. the men and women play the same style of game, the distribution of talent is roughly equal, yet the draws feel totally different. for the men, the Big 4 — Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray, now in that order — entertain 124 other contenders…do your best. for the women, the field is wide open; anyone with or without a number in front of their name has a shot at the semifinals, if not the title.
as an amateur observer, i'd like to entertain the hypothesis that these states of order and chaos both owe themselves to the power-baseline game. power creates order over time and chaos in the short term, so what is the crucial difference between men's and women's tennis, at least in the grand slams? best of five versus best of three. the men's game is more forgiving of small lapses, and rewards the players who are most consistent. the number one man in the world, Novak Djokovic, could not be more consistently good right now, just having taken a third consecutive title Down Under to the surprise of no one. he was so good that he was trumping variance when he made his rise to #1 in 2011, winning the first 40 matches of the year (including some best-of-three affairs). while that was happening, the women's game was in utter disarray, crowning three ladies #1 without ever winning a major title. Dinara Safina never will. Jankovic and Wozniacki are, at this point, being lumped in with "the rest of the field" by oddsmakers. they are victims of variance: highly talented players in an environment where dropping a set is danger, and dropping two is a loss.
i've wanted the women to play best of five in the majors for several years now. they are in every bit of physical condition as the men (i'm fairly certain that Serena Williams could crush me with her pinky finger, and Maria Sharapova stands a full head taller than me). they are also being paid the same amount as the men, so the only real concern seems to be scheduling; there's a finite amount of court time, especially at weather-plagued tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. nevertheless, working within the format, there have still been some thrilling matches between today's top ladies, e.g. Dementieva – Stosur at the 2010 U.S. Open (high on my list because i was there, all the way until 2 AM), and both of the 2012 Australian semifinals. and at the other end, there is still room for domination…witness Sharapova's insane run in the first five rounds in Melbourne, losing just nine games in ten sets before running into Li Na like she was a brick wall. in the end, Vika Azarenka defended her title, just as Novak did the next night, but there was zero sense of inevitability about it.
this is the two-headed beast of modern tennis, and, if i've done it any justice in words, it is tremendously exciting. it is not uniform, but perhaps that is to our advantage. and it no longer is embodied in any one man. as much as anyone, including himself, is loathe to admit it, Roger Federer is slowly on the wane. his whipping backhand and master strategy still outshines all but three humans on this planet, as the cliff drop between #4 and #5 on the ATP rankings documents neatly. his future, and the future of tennis, do not seem unpredictable. we are finally, really, solidly in the midst of a great era in this sport, and Federer (and Williams and Williams) ushered it in. it's hard to say what David Foster Wallace would think of Tennis 2013, seeing as the final major in his lifetime was the 2008 U.S. Open (another Federer triumph, for the record). but his phrase, "…and not", invites many possibilities. "and not" is contrasted with "flesh", but almost certainly does not refer to Roger Federer's racket. or the pixels arrayed to display him on my iPad. or even his topspin. it is much more likely "&c," an unbounded and still-growing list of everything that he has transformed by physically whacking a tennis ball. it will be on display again in June in Paris, and i'll be watching.