Hello, my name is Justin, and I’m excited to be TENNIS.com’s new Gear Editor. (Richard Pagliaro, come next year, will return to writing about his first love: the pro game.) I grew up in a tennis family—my father is a career tennis professional—and studied English at Swarthmore College, a small school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I also played tennis there on the college team.
So, as fitting for an introduction, how about a story?
I was in high school when I first experienced pro tennis in-person. One Friday in March, my Dad and I packed sandwiches, a couple extra shirts, and proceeded to drive 600 miles to Miami for a day and change at what was then known as the NASDAQ-100 Open. It was 2005—the year Roger Federer trailed Rafael Nadal by two sets in the final and, teetering on the edge of defeat, clawed his way back for the victory.
But that wouldn’t be until the following Sunday. The morning we arrived at Crandon Park—only 10 a.m. but already in the throes of dazed perspiration—the tournament was still buzzing with early-round frenzy. Those first hours passed by in a blur: reddened, middle-aged men with exotic headgear and sweat towels; bevisored women in skittle-colored outfits; bands of wide-eyed 12-year-olds, felt pens and tennis balls in hand, on the prowl for autographs; Nadal and entourage driving phalanx-like through the jostling throng; Tim Henman skittering deftly to the net; Gael Monfils limping melodramatically to the line and then cracking an ace; that sense of “being there.” So much to see, too little time, etc.
Yet memory sharpens when I recollect that afternoon’s marquee match: Federer vs. Olivier Rochus. Up in the nose-bleeds initially, we soon snuck down and claimed some decent seats in the mezzanine, ending up about yay close. The match was powerful to behold, but not because of any competitive suspense. No, this contest was but a formality, its outcome never in doubt. So I’m overstating a bit. Still, this was 2005, amid the zenithal years of Federer’s supremacy. His few losses in the mid-aughties were aberrations—even Federer’s first defeat to Nadal at a major, an ominous one indeed, in the semis at Roland Garros ‘05.
Maybe this wasn’t the case for older generations of fans who’d watched earlier champions rise (and fall), but it certainly was for my adolescent tennis friends and me. We were animated by a narcotizing, pro-Federer energy. It ran rampant through the junior ranks, inspiring some games but ruining most others. I saw the best players of the local pond slow their irregular but quick footwork (in self-delusional fluidity) and exchange their consistent two-handed backhands for erratic one-handers (under the pretense that it “gave you more reach”).
The Fed emitted an invulnerable glow; this was the context. And so, I didn’t find it odd at all when Rochus began the first rally of the match, rather desperately, with a rushed and poorly-executed drop shot. It was in keeping with the spectatorial thinking of the time, the throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-Fed strategy—of course still hopeless, but better, we all thought, than rallying with him and getting drummed.
Federer started with an easy hold and, as the match progressed, I got lost in the focused intensity that attends radical interest. Little thinking or internal dialogue, just staring, numb, at Federer’s play: his effortlessly light footwork; his eyes mesmerized by the ball’s flight; the titillating, liquid flourishes of his form. Then suddenly, Federer hit one of those wicked, left-to-right backhand passes. It all happened so fast: Rochus approaching the net, Fed running to his left, an emphatic flick of the arm, the ball practically turning over sideways as it passed over the net, Rochus stumbling into the ground as it whirled ridiculously out of reach, the stadium crowd erupting—gatdamn!
After that spectacular moment and throughout the rest of the match, I remember being struck, one after the other, by two feelings.
The first came on abruptly, a giddy sense of joy and excitement. There I was, watching a body move with hitherto unseen power and grace. (Federer didn’t look like this on TV.) There was a sense of untapped human potential—of unforeseen gifts that I could perhaps access. If only I could somehow plumb the depths of my own intrinsic abilities, I thought, perhaps I could move and play with power and grace, too. Federer’s play was instructive. It gave hope for personal improvement.
But as that initial pleasure subsided, a second insidious feeling crept up inside me: an intensely sad conviction that I’d never be able to play like that. Of all of us who love playing this game, surely I’m not the only one who’s felt this? In this sense, Federer’s play was not so much self-edifying as psychically destructive—a potent dose of inadequacy. He was gifted, and I was not. I could only resign myself to praise and deify him.
I continue to vacillate back and forth through these antithetical states when I reflect upon Federer’s and my own game, and have yet to figure a solution. I suspect, though, that we can reach some satisfaction by working toward and building upon our own small on-court achievements, those short moments of personal improvement and repose.
It’s in this spirit that I hope to serve as your Gear Editor—by making aware to you the equipment, techniques, and tools which can, in however small a way, help us release those self-imposed limits on our own potential, whatever they (and it) may be.
Happy holidays. Let’s try to surprise ourselves this New Year.