Picking Through the Aftermath

Friday, September 17, 2010 /by

As of 9:00 this morning, it was one of those perfect late-summer days in New York City. I walked out my front door and was seriously tempted to turn in the opposite direction from my normal route to work and just start walking—who knows, maybe never to return. But we’re wrapping up an issue today and sending it to the printer, so it’s back to the desk and the keyboard and the monitor.

The upside is that on the monitor I've been watching the various Davis Cup goings on, both of the semis and the U.S. relegation match all at once if I can move my eyes fast enough. Nalbandian-Monfils is underway as I write this. Davis Cup would seem to be an ideal place to see these two slacker stylists face off. If they’re going to give it their all, with no trick shots or tanked sets, it’s going to be now. (Update: It was definitely true for Monfils, who played inspired but not irresponsible tennis.)

Tennis never slows down—that’s its exhausting beauty. In the aftermath of the U.S. Open, it's catch-up time. Here’s a grab bag of thoughts and developments, mostly tennis-related.

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At ESPN.com, I’ve got a post up on Novak Djokovic, the general idea being: Where does he go from here? (First, considerimng that he had to pull out of his Davis Cup match today with a case of gastroenteritis, he goes to the bathroom.) His win over Federer should make him believe that he can still play for major championships, but that belief hadn’t sunk in yet by the time of the final. He played to win a set to start, but when he did, he got no momentum out of it. I don't think he could more than that against Nadal. When Rafa aced him at 5-4, 30-30 in the third, Djokovic threw his hands in the air as if all was already lost.

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Later in his career, the British art critic John Berger regretted that he hadn’t factored the idea of individual genius into his analysis more. As a good Marxist, he thought of artists as products of their times and societies and material conditions, and that was it. But as time went on, he came to believe that individuals could transcend those conditions.

I’m starting to feel the same way about the word “champion.” It’s roughly the tennis equivalent of a genius in art—you’re either a champion or you're not, you’ve either got it or you don’t, and those that do have it are set apart from the normal run of player. Despite the recent examples of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, I’ve been skeptical of this slightly mystical idea. I thought those guys were simply better, more talented, more physically gifted tennis players than their opponents.

But watching Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal this year, I’ve started to come around to the idea. Williams is clearly a superior athlete, but she also does a lot of things you wouldn’t teach and hits a lot of winning shots from unlikely positions. It isn’t just natural talent that lets her do that, because she’s the rare player who hits more of those winning shots in the moments when she needs them. That combination of fearlessness and giftedness defies the normal run of human action.

Nadal does get nervous, and it affects his play. And he can’t win points and get out of jams as easily as Federer or Sampras—whatever his record, he’s never been as plainly superior to his opponents as those guys were at their best. In the Open final, there were times when Nadal appeared to be about to give the advantage back to Djokovic. His backhand in particular was very tight on break points. With any other player, I would have expected consequences—a lost of momentum, a turnaround in his opponent's favor, a loss of another set. But Nadal finds a way through. As with Serena, it’s more than just being “tough.’ There’s something unexplainable about it, the mark of a champion.

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A couple of months ago I posted a clip from a documentary on the 1981 French Open. Here’s another one, of Yannick Noah talking, from what I can tell, about the uncanny perseverance of Bjorn Borg, who tries to answer him. Is there anyone out there who can translate what Noah is saying about Borg?

For good measure, I've included one more clip from the movie above. A good start to any tennis fan's weekend.

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Speaking of the Angelic Assassin, did he give up on tennis because he and his family were too superstitious? During his Wimbledon run, he stayed in the same Holiday Inn each year, ate the same meals before matches, folded and unfolded his clothes the same way, drove to the club by the same route, always sitting next to his coach, with his fiancée in the back seat. His parents were only allowed to come in odd-numbered years, which might have been a good thing. In the 1979 final, his mom had been chewing on the same piece of gum (or candy, or something, I can't remember) for good luck. When Borg went up 40-0 in the final game of the fifth set against Roscoe Tanner, she decided it was safe to spit it out. She was wrong. Borg proceeded to lose all three match points. His mom picked up the gum off the floor of the player’s box and stuck it back in her mouth. Borg won the next two points and the match.

When all of that superstition finally failed to work two years later, you sort of wonder whether Borg believed his demise was fated.


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What’s your favorite score of all time? The three-out-of-five-setters have their poetry. Much more so than the scores of other sports, they communicate the ups and downs and the epic quality of a great match. They’re numerical tongue twisters, and you get some idea of the effort involved when you recite them. I thought that the score of the Djokovic-Federer semi was a good one: 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. Strange, symmetrical, but with a surprising twist in the fifth. The 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 final is hardly a classic, but its descending numbers at the end do a good job of showing how Nadal wins matches, by wearing you down, in body and score.

You never remember scores the way you do when you’re young. One of my favorites to think about as a kid was Jimmy Connors’ 7-5, 7-5, 7-5 win over Borg in the (yes) 1975 U.S. Open semis. I can’t remember them exactly now, but I once committed the scores of the Pancho Gonzalez-Charlie Pasarell 112-game epic at Wimbledon in 1969 to memory. Those 112 games were, according to at least one writer, a record that “could never be broken” because Wimbledon had eliminated the tiebreaker. He somehow couldn’t foresee Isner and Mahut, who gave us the scoreline of 2010.

My favorite score always was and still remains Borg over McEnroe at Wimbledon 1980: 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. It starts low, shoots way up, comes back down to earth, shoots back up, and then, against the odds, goes higher at the end. As a kid, I used to roll it around in my mind like a poem.

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I learned recently that my favorite rock critic, Robert Christgau, has had his venerable and essential Consumer Guide column tragically terminated by MSN—or whoever he was writing for these days; I knew him from the scratchy copies of the Village Voice that came like messages from another planet to our local public library in PA. When I visited New York looking for work after college, I actually found where he lived, walked to the address, and looked up at his apartment window from the sidewalk. I was awed: Robert Christgau lives there.

He was my writing God in high school and college, before I found others (though I never left him). I loved and copied the speedy energy of his capsule record reviews. His longer stuff can get convoluted at times, though any Beatle fan should read his John Lennon obituary from 1980. It’s a model of the form at its most emotiomal and rational.

To a few of my friends and I, Christgau was always right. Even when you disagreed with him, you had to say that at some level, within his own system, he was right. It was the strength of his writing and judgment that made you respect him even when you thought he was off base. He stayed true to himself, but was also able to surprise you; you can’t ask for more from a critic. When a friend and I discovered Pavement’s first record in 1992, we thought we were onto something, maybe the next great band. But we were cautious. We didn’t know what “Bob” thought yet. We happened to see his Voice review of it when we were together. We read it at the same time, shoulder to shoulder. At the bottom was his grade: an A! That was a rare mark from Bob. “He loves it!” we both said. It was the equivalent of a high-five, from two people who would never high-five. We were right, Pavement was the real thing.

Recently, Christgau came out with his Top 10 records of the last decade. MIA was No. 1, no surprise there, but No. 2 was a serious curveball: an album from 2005 by a duo from Ohio named Wussy. Who? What? Second-best album of the last 10 years? I had to get it, of course. I listened respectfully for a couple of weeks. They were good, but best-of-the-decade good? No.

One day this summer after playing tennis, I got caught in the rain. Torrential rain. With no umbrella. But I was too far from my apartment to bother running, so I just decided to enjoy it. On my IPod was the last song from that Wussy album, “Don’t Leave Just Now.” It’s a good walking in the rain song—it rolls along gently. For the first time, I paid attention to the words.

The garbage trucks are on parade
The drivers smile and wave as they go rolling by

Good start. Then:

Accuweather calls for rain
It’s falling on the little things you love the most

Better. Finally, it ends:

Beside you in the driveway
I’m considering the things I never figured out.
Like trying to describe to you the feeling
That goes through me when I kiss your mouth


Damn, I thought, smiling, soaked with rain: Christgau’s right again.

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Have a good weekend.

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