Kevin Lincoln’s entry into tennis fandom culminated with Novak Djokovic’s world-beating victory over Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final.
It’s funny. Every year, July settles like an electric blanket on the country, and there is no NBA, there is no NFL. In 2011, this state of affairs hasn’t changed. What’s different is that, most Julys, we have the delayed gratification of definite seasons to attend to down the road, in the crisp rejuvenating falls that will come without fail. Regular seasons or not, the leaves will wither and be shed by the trees in a tableau of reds and browns, but this isn’t supposed to be consolation or profound in its loveliness; atmosphere is enormously important to a happy life, sure, but when’s the last time you spent hours every week watching the leaves die? We need to be entertained.
This year, though in any other I’d have no professional basketball or football to watch—save the drafts, which are fun as hell—I’ve felt the gradual sucking pressure of the two lockouts. It’s as though the sports world has been punctured, and its atmosphere will steadily leak out until the agreed-upon beginnings of the seasons roll around, when everything will seem deflated. In search of a panacea for this existential dread, I let myself get caught up in the Twitter maelstrom during the Federer-Tsonga match; and following the spectacle of that fifth set, where Federer looked like a dress rehearsal of himself, I stuck with Wimbledon through the brilliant match Sunday that concluded with Novak Djokovic taking the championship.
Many would be quick to point out that there was nothing brilliant about the championship match, in which Djokovic essentially kicked Nadal to the floor and, excepting a brief sign of life in the third set, put him out his misery with mechanical ease. I disagree. In sports, there are two standards an exhibition can meet to be thought of as memorable or significant: it can be spectacularly competitive, or it can contain an exceptional individual performance that, irrelevant to whether the match ever seemed in doubt, causes you to watch in nervous tension and wonder. Can he seriously keep this up? Toward the end of such a contest, you feel as though you’re watching someone walk a wire: they’re higher up than anyone else, but the tension of their walk is enormous. And yet, they often look so at ease.
During the Wimbledon championship, you could sense this greatness in the strained, disbelieving contours of Rafa’s face. Here is a man, number one in the world all of a week before the match—unanimously number one, the agreed-upon best individual in a field of individuals; you don’t have this sort of equivocal qualification in team sports—getting absolutely throttled by the pace and placement of his opponent. Looking at Rafa’s face, you could see the cosmic frustration of a man not used to playing well and getting beat. Twisting his body inhumanly, returning shots that were over his head, sliding across the court, Rafa’s face looked damp with the knowledge that there was nothing he could do to stop the surgery of Djokovic, who, especially during that unbelievable second set, looked like he could’ve hit the ball into a teacup you’d placed on the opposite corner of the opposite baseline.
As is the case with many of the things I end up getting interested in, I’d been reading about tennis a lot recently. Last summer, I read for the first time David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer in the dearly missed New York Times’ Play magazine; last month, his piece on Michael Joyce and the upper-echelon players you never see, from Esquire; and up until last week, three months with Infinite Jest, a book that deals exhaustively with the physics and metaphysics of tennis. I also discovered that John Jeremiah Sullivan, my favorite writer of nonfiction and someone I’d argue gives Wallace a run for his money, almost wrote that Federer piece for Play, and I read Brian Phillips’ piece for Grantland on the downward-sloping path of Federer’s late career.
The sum effect of this reading was that I became interested in professional tennis just in time for Wimbledon, and not only because I accepted the sport as Wallace portrays it—the demilitarized zone between chess and boxing—and as Phillips shows it now. In high school, my brother was a four-time varsity high school wrestler, and going to his meets my dad and I became familiar with a sport that is about as adversarial as anything in the world, at its core the one-to-one matching of strength and technique against another person. There’s something irresistible about such a stripped-down, minimalist version of the elaborate, multi-headed beast of competitive athletics, and tennis has it also.
For a variety of reasons, the American sports complex doesn’t reward and gratify this type of competition like it does team sports. The reasons why could fill a doorstopper of a book, but I’d say it probably extends from the national admiration for individual heroes who demonstrate selflessness in the context of team sports, who belie their massive gifts by putting them to the service of the greater group. Tennis, wrestling, boxing, and other one-on-one competitions seem to facilitate a prima donna complex, an individual who, though sometimes competing for country, most of the time just answers to him- or herself. (Golf is different, because while ostensibly a contest between the various golfers, the true elemental struggle at the heart of the sport is between the individual and the course, and man vs. nature is distinctly American.) And from a commercial standpoint, sports like tennis and boxing and golf rely entirely on the wattage of their individual contestants, which, in a downtime, can mean the sport fizzles out due to a lack of star power—i.e. boxing. Compare this to basketball, where individuals are essential and define the health of the league, but team loyalty functions as a safety net—think the dark age between Jordan’s retirement and the renaissance of the mid-2000s—and football, that ultimate of team-focused sports.
But when you strip away the team, a sport like tennis allows for the completest engagement of an athlete. If, as an offensive lineman, you miss your assignment in football, the fullback might be there to pick him up. If you’re a cornerback and your man beats you, the opposing team’s quarterback might overthrow him. In basketball, it’s the same way: you get crossed-up, but a help-side defender swats the shot. You thread a spectacular pass through the lane, but your teammate botches the layup. In tennis, you have neither the fallback nor the excuse of a teammate. It’s 100 percent one-on-one.
Watching Wimbledon, I was pulling for Djokovic, and I was pulling for Djokovic, once his momentum had taken on density and speed, to not only win but to crush Nadal. It’s tough, exactly, to say why. It wasn’t common underdogism; I would imagine that Djokovic wasn’t even the underdog, seeing as he’d taken on the number-one mantle and he’d beaten Nadal four out of the last five times they’d met. It was more like the insurrectionist satisfaction of watching a great man being torn down. For the viewer without any stake, turnover at the top is good, because it keeps the narrative fresh; and here was Djokovic churning the stew into something unrecognizable, into a situation where neither Nadal or Federer were world number one—something that hadn’t been the case for seven-and-a-half years. That second set at Wimbledon was the Eureka moment, and seeing it live, seeing Nadal’s crisis of faith as Djokovic exploited and outdid him, felt like a junction, a perfect time to start watching professional tennis.
—Photo AP/Anja Niedringhaus