Is there any way I could have resisted this?
There are few things more thrilling than reading something written about your favorite sport, and your favorite player, and written not by a sports journalist but by a writer who happens to love the game. That happened on the last weekend, when the New York Times Play Magazine published an article by David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest. The article is titled Federer as Religious Experience and, for me, it was comforting to know that someone outside the tennis-playing community could be moved by Federer to that extent. Over the past three years, many people on tennis courts and online forums, are going crazy about this player that tennis seems to have conjured up as if by magic. The article is a major coup for tennis, because tennis players rarely get this kind of coverage in the U.S. where men’s sport is dominated by full-contact team games, large paycheck transfers, and larger-than-life personalities. In all that razzmattazz, it is nice that such a widely read publication chooses to focus on a nondescript Swiss man who seems to dance a ballet rather than annihilate opponents on a tennis court. Wallace writes about the experience of watching Federer paint the angles, and discusses at length the difference between watching him on TV versus seeing him perform live on a court. As someone who frequently surrenders to the intoxicating high of playing and watching tennis, but who complains constantly about the tiresome tone of sports writing, I was enthralled.
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
In an interview on NPR, Wallace said that watching a Federer match was akin to seeing Baryshnikov. His interview, a scant 4 minutes long, can be accessed here at NPR’s Weekend Edition.
For people who are insane about tennis, or reading (or both), Wallace’s long essay comes with a large number of footnotes, which can be accessed here; some of them are as interesting as the main text. Footnote #17 for example:
By the way, it’s right around here, or the next game, watching, that three separate inner-type things come together and mesh. One is a feeling of deep personal privilege at being alive to get to see this; another is the thought that William Caines is probably somewhere here in the Centre Court crowd, too, watching, maybe with his mum. The third thing is a sudden memory of the earnest way the press bus driver promised just this experience. Because there is one. It’s hard to describe — it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.
(William Caines is the young cancer patient who tossed the coin to begin the Wimbledon final.)