Friday, September 08, 2006

The poetry of Roger Federer

The novelist David Foster Wallace has penned a brilliant paean to Roger Federer, perhaps the greatest tennis player ever. You don't have to enjoy tennis to appreciate Wallace's essay, you only have to appreciate fine writing.

Here's a description of one of the writer's favorite moments in Federer's game:
It's the finals of the 2005 US Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There's a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today's power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner ... until suddenly Agassi hits a hard, heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which, of course, is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer is scrambling to reverse and get back to centre, Agassi is moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does - Federer's still near the corner but running toward the centreline, and the ball's heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there's no time to turn his body around ... and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi, who lunges for it but the ball's past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi's side, a winner - Federer's still dancing backward as it lands. And there's that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), "How do you hit a winner from that position?" And he's right. It was impossible. It was like something out of The Matrix.
If only sportswriters could write like that.

And here's Wallace's deft summary of the tennis ace:
Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It's just that that's not all he is. There's also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace - all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men's tennis as it is now played. Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today's pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men's tennis, and for the first time in years the game's future is unpredictable.
Beautiful stuff.

David Foster Wallace was a serious junior tennis player and has a well-documented love of the sport. His 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest was partly set at a tennis academy, and his Esquire article about power-baseliner tennis pro Michael Joyce is part of the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Click here to listen to his August 19, 2006 interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.

--Marshal Zeringue