A Thank You and a Good-Bye

Monday, September 15, 2008 /by

OpenIt’s been a busy and bewildering week or so at the TENNIS Magazine offices. I’ve been putting together a wrap-up article on the U.S. Open for our next issue and trying to get my head around the suicide of a great writer and lover of tennis, David Foster Wallace. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on, among other things, two weeks spent at Flushing Meadows and 10 years of reading Foster Wallace’s writing, about tennis and pretty much any other subject imaginable.

1. Favorite quote: At the end of Sam Querrey’s press conference after his loss to Rafael Nadal, we heard this exchange between reporter and player:

I’m curious if you have any nieces or nephews so that we know whether you're actually Uncle Sam?

QUERREY: No, I don’t. Oh, wait. No, no. I only have a sister who’s younger than me. (laughter)

Some of my cousins had, like, some kids, and I was just spacing.

It’s a sad fact that the silliest questions always elicit the most revealing answers. I present to you Sam Querrey, space cadet.

2. Favorite Matches: Novak Djokovic d. Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. There was a pro wrestling quality to this one, but could you take your eyes off it?

Novak Djokovic d. Marin Cilic in the third round. Ball-striking from the future, in Ashe Stadium today.

(I think we can deduce from these two matches that I like to watch Djokovic when he’s playing well. That’s why it’s always so disappointing when he seems indifferent out there.)

Roger Federer d. Igor Andreev, in the fourth round. Federer learning, on the spot, to embrace and enjoy the new challenges that have come his way this year, and will continue to come his way.

3. A Comeback: The Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg is an excellent writer and a stylistic role model. But I thought his U.S. Open article about Roger Federer last year reached for more significance than can be grasped in an athletic contest. This year he kept himself in check when he visited Flushing Meadows.

I didn't realize until today that Klinkenborg was a colleague of Foster Wallace's at Pomona College. He wrote this tribute in the Times.

4. Reading Material: I took a commuter train, the Long Island Rail Road, to and from the Open each day, plus a subway to and from Brooklyn. The three-borough trip takes an hour each way. The downside is that the combination of the trip, the tennis, and the writing gets tiring. I hit the wall in the middle of the second week and had trouble getting out of bed at all for a few days.

The upside is that the long journeys allow me time to read undisturbed. When I’m at a tournament and writing, I typically try to read someone with a distinct voice that will seep into my own stuff. This year I alternated between two Brits: David Lodge’s mid-60s comic novel of academic misery, The British Museum is Falling Down; and a tour memoir from the 1960s and 70s by tennis writer Rex Bellamy, The Tennis Set.

The former begins with this sentence, about the hapless main character: “It was Adam Appleby’s misfortune that at the moment of awakening from sleep his consciousness was immediately flooded with everything he least wanted to think about.” That gives you a pretty good idea of the blackly humorous tone of the rest of the book.

As for Bellamy, he describes young Chris Evert like this: “She plays like a computer with a heart.”

What I read usually has an indirect effect on my writing, even though I don’t end up mimicking the style. But Bellamy’s influence was more direct, even if I didn’t realize it until just now. This is how I described Juan Martin del Potro in my final-grades post: “His game has a machine-like quality, but it’s a machine with a heart.”

5. Pressed: I spent more time in the media room this year. In the past, I’ve written my posts from home or in the office; this time I commandeered a desk and composed them on site, beer in hand, sitting next to my friend and colleague Tom Tebbutt of the Toronto Globe and Mail. There’s an odd sort of camaraderie among the tennis press. You know every one around you, but you have a chance to talk to them only sparingly—a shared meal here, a shared match there—over the course of your two weeks together.

This is especially true for me in New York, where I head home at the end of the day, rather than to a media hotel. This year I didn't run into another friend, Doug Robson of USA Today, until the fourth or fifth day of the tournament. We’d been sitting a few rows apart for 10 hours each day but hadn’t seen each other once. On the final, 15th, day of the tournament, Matt Cronin of Inside Tennis, who I also know pretty well, walked past and tapped me on the shoulder. It was the most contact we had the entire tournament.

The atmosphere is best in the morning. You get there at 10:30, sip your coffee, and look at the day’s schedule. There’s a sense of possibility. By 5:00 or 6:00, it's gone. You’re woozy from catching glimpses of dozens of matches, watching hundreds of balls fly back and forth, and waiting for players to come into the interview room. You need to start writing very soon, if not immediately. And there’s a nagging feeling in the back of your head that the great match, the memorable moment, the essential story, the day itself has gotten away from you.

6. Surprise favorite match: After the men’s final, I came back to my desk in the press room not wanting to look another tennis ball for the foreseeable future. Somehow, though, the monitor in front of me had been turned to the Tennis Channel. The network was airing a Fed Cup match from 1990s between Steffi Graf and Kimiko Date (who attempted a mini-comeback this week at age 37). Maybe it was the novelty or maybe it was the players—always loved Graf and marveled at Date—but I couldn’t stop watching.

7. Night session notes, in front of Ashe Stadium, Sept. 3, 2008: “French girls in white Lacoste sneakers. Two guys with untucked dress shirts. Blood orange sunset. Vintage Nikes. Green calypso wrap dress. Costume jewelry. Sweater over shoulders. Special Topics in Calamity Physics under a woman’s arm. Trucker hat. Mets shirt. American flag blowing in the wind above the stadium. Lime green shirt. Light-brown blazer. Favre No. 4 Jets shirt. Dark suit, no tie. Heavy tans. Hair product. Loafers, no socks. Goodyear blimp. Guy behind me waiting in line for the night session wants the Murray-Del Potro match to end; he yells at the Jumbotron: “Flub it, Du Pont!”

8. The Lonely Slam: When I was a kid, I read about an old vocal-group song by the Tradewinds called “New York’s a Lonely Town.” I wondered how New York could be lonely with all those people there. It doesn’t take long to find out once you move here: In New York, you see hundreds of people every day, every hour, who you will never see again. If you want to get some kind of realistic idea of your significance on this planet, take a long stroll through Manhattan.

The Open, for the same reason, is the loneliest Slam. Like my notes above indicate, an early evening walk through the grounds leads you through a sprawling mass of wealth and health that’s impossible to grasp and seems to have no end. After one of these excursions this year, I walked back to the media center in a daze. The time alone had filled my head with a million tiny anxieties: “Did I pay the rent this month?” “Does this shirt have a hole in it?” “Could I possibly get a mortgage now?” “I’d be so much cooler if I knew a second language.” “Is it lame to have crepes three straight days?”

These thoughts inevitably turn darker—“My thoughts just way me down/And drag me to the ground,” Ray Davies sang in the Kinks’ “Too Much on My Mind.” And it’s true even at the U.S. Open. This time I found myself staring at the dusky sky, reliving some terrible, tactless, shameful incident from the past, and asking, out loud, “What is wrong with me?” As I neared the press-room door, I saw Jon Wertheim of SI. He’s the most successful of my colleagues, the Walter Cronkite of tennis writers, and a great guy as well. I wondered: Does Wertheim, as he walks around the grounds here, ever find himself looking up at the sky and asking, “What is wrong with me?” For his sake, I hoped not.

9. Seeing the Lights As I said, I took the Long Island Rail Road back from Flushing Meadows each day. Until the last one, that is. The special trains for Open fans had been discontinued by the final Monday, so I went the old-fashioned way, by the No. 7 subway line. It was dark and I could see the ruins of the 1964 World’s Fair for the first time all tournament. The Unisphere, the Space Age rockets, the rusting pavilions: It was a landscape of kitschy wreckage. A little farther on, I saw two bright beams of light that soared into the clouds. 9/11 was nearing, and the city had recreated the shapes of the Towers at ground zero with these lights. Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and the green calypso wrap dresses were things of the past. The Open was over.

10. A Small Tribute In the last year, I’ve criticized David Foster Wallace’s NY Times Magazine article about Roger Federer on two occasions in this blog. I didn’t like the way he set up a good vs. evil dichotomy between Federer and Rafael Nadal, as if a tennis match were akin to a screen play. He has used this scenario in other articles as well: Pete Sampras vs. Mark Philippoussis in a U.S. Open article for TENNIS; the reporters vs. the roadies on the McCain bus in his famous article on the candidate for Rolling Stone.

ImagesThis doesn't mean I viewed Foster Wallace with anything less than awe. His pieces about playing the game in the Illinois wind, and on journeyman-turned-Sharapova-coach Michael Joyce are about as good as tennis writing ever gets. I never spoke to Foster Wallace, but I did send him a note a couple years ago asking if he would be interested in writing a piece about John McEnroe for some kind of anniversary issue. He hand-wrote a very nice note back that addressed me as “Mr. T” and closed with a smiley face. He didn’t want to write about Johnny Mac, but he was interested in other projects. I doubted we could afford him.

This morning I read that he had hanged himself. I was floored and sickened; I knew he was a deep, hyperactive thinker, but had no idea he his problems were that serious. My first sad thought after finishing his obituary this morning was that we can never, ever know what’s in anyone else’s head.

So I’ll have to thank David Foster Wallace posthumously for helping me with his writing on two occasions. In 1997 I contracted pneumonia and couldn’t get out of bed for three weeks—I couldn’t even breath without coughing up a lung. I pulled up the covers and tried to read a new, much praised collection, “The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.” I couldn’t get into it, so I stumbled to the book store across the street and picked up something that looked a lot more fun, Foster Wallace’s essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I coughed my way back to bed, pulled up the covers again, and strained to hold the hardback above my head long enough to get through a sentence. I read the book non-stop for the next four days. The geeky, massively informative prose had a momentum that couldn't be resisted. The title piece is a whopper, but well worth the time spent on it—no one else has gotten to the bottom of the cruise-ship experience quite like DFW. By the time I was done with the book, I felt better, but I didn’t really want to get up and leave the apartment. I just wanted to keep reading it.

Ten years later, I wrote a blog from the Rome Masters tournament for Tennis.com. Like I said, I usually read an author with a strong voice to inspire me. At Indian Wells this year it was Norman Mailer, at the Open last year it was Anthony Lane, this time it was Rex Bellamy. Judging from the reaction I got for my Rome blog, I’ve never written anything better. Readers still tell me how much they liked my stuff from there. I’ve wondered why, and have read the posts over from time to time. The first thing I remember is how freely I wrote for that week. The second thing I remember is the book that I was reading while I was there: David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, which, like all his other books, had a thrilling sense of freedom inside its winding sentences. From one tennis player and tennis lover to another, I can only offer a sincere thank you, and a sickened good-bye.

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