Seeing Italian tennis fans slouch in their comfortably nonchalant way at the Foro Italico wouldn’t seem like the stuff of memories, but it has been for me every spring since 2007. That was the first and thus far only year I attended the Rome Masters, an experience that has stayed with me like few others I’ve had in the sport. The amphitheatre-style backcourts that were towered over by those distinctive stone-pine trees. The airless maze of the press area. The crowds, more playful and restless, and less judgmental, than those in Paris. The locals who greeted each other with a sustained burst of “ciao”s—literally, “Ciaociaociaociaociao!” And the sense, from the point of view of an American used to the new and clean, of a place with enough history that it could accept some cracked decay as inevitable. I can see and feel all of it today.
This was also my first visit to Rome, or anywhere else in Italy, so in between reports from the tournament I attempted to see as much as I could of the sprawling Eternal City and its many legendary sites. It was startling to view the Colosseum up close, a living piece of history that went back 2,000-odd years, not the customary couple of hundred that we get in the States. I was blown away by a Velazquez (or was it a Goya?) at a small museum in a former royal home. I dutifully toured the Spanish Steps, which were populated by wickedly hungover American college kids, and the Trevi Fountain. The highlight there was a huge group of Italian kids on a field trip who squinted into the sun for a class photo.
Fellow tennis writer Tom Tebbutt and I took a trip to the Sistine Chapel. We began by asking a guard at the front of the building, “Do you know the way to the Sistine Chapel?” He grunted and pointed to his right without moving his head or looking at us; clearly he’d heard this question a few (trillion) times before. It was certainly worth the long, winding walk that followed. In that hallowed and surprisingly small room, with Michelangelo’s mysterious, explosive paintings all around you, the deep past again was palpable.
Roaming the city on other days, I got lost and found myself circling its business district hopelessly, for what seemed like hours. I can remember angrily thinking, as I stumbled through that area one blindingly sunny morning, “What am I doing wasting my time looking at a bank?”
Once the tourist spots had been seen and mentally recorded, I settled into an easier and more local routine. Each morning I went to a café in the residential Prati section of town. It had a spacious outdoor section across from a small park. This was as close as I was going to get to doing something that an actual citizen of Rome might do. More important for me, it was a chance to read. I like to have some inspiration, a model, when I write from a tournament. Whether this is a good thing, I don’t know. My writing is susceptible to whatever I’ve just been reading, no matter what its literary merit. A tiny item on Gawker will make me snarkier for a few minutes; a column by Christopher Hitchens would usually add a little edge of viciousness to whatever my opinion was that day.
In Rome in '07 I was reading David Foster Wallace’s essay collection, Consider the Lobster. I knew Wallace’s work, of course. An underground music magazine I once wrote for, Puncture, had published an excerpt of his writing in the early 90s, before he’d become well known. In ’97, sick for a week, I had brought two books to bed with me, Nabokov’s short stories and Wallace’s earlier essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I started by switching back and forth between them, but quickly put Nabokov aside for the more compulsively readable Wallace stories about tennis, David Lynch, people who watch too much TV, and a cruise. By the third day, I didn’t mind being sick nearly as much.
Consider the Lobster had the same effect on me in Rome. Wallace isn’t my favorite writer, or the most influential on me. His geeky verbosity can be wearying in the longer pieces, he was more of a the-world-is-in-decline type than I am, and the real people in his essays often feel like fictional characters—in his eyes, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer were twins in innocence. Still, I was hooked on this book, and I found my own writing being freed up involuntarily that week. When I began this column in 2005, I had mostly stuck to tennis analysis pure and simple, and wrote in what I thought of as a very economical style. My greatest fear was wasting people’s time. A noble idea, I suppose, but in the few times I’ve looked back on those posts, they’ve come across as dry and needlessly terse to me.
I didn’t try to imitate Wallace’s informal energy; I could never be as wordy if I tried. But the style helped open me up. The best description of the much-eulogizied DFW's appeal came from A.O. Scott in the New York Times: “He was the voice in your head.” Wallace didn’t just write down the conclusions to his thoughts on a subject; he gave you the process as well, the careening, uncertain back and forth that went on in his own brain. Readers felt a personal connection. That week in Rome, the voice in my own head came out, and I ended up doing a sort of travelogue with tennis at its center, more lively and personal than anything I'd tried before.
Maybe because of that, the Foro Italico from that year is still vivid for me. A 20-year-old Rafael Nadal was the star of the week, and I remember seeing a tired Rafa lean down at the interview table and accidentally end up with the microphone in his left nostril. My friend Pete Bodo says he wishes Rafa was still as innocent as he was in those early days, but he never struck me exactly that way in the first place. From the start, he always made sure to get his viewpoint across, and not let people put words in his mouth. It’s just that he wasn’t on the player council back then, nor was he asked about tour issues as often. This was a more typical, humorous exchange from Rome in 07, when Nadal was in the midst of his record 81-match win streak on clay:
Q. After such a long run, so many wins, do you feel tired? Do you feel fatigued? Or do you feel okay?
RAFAEL NADAL: After the match of today?
Q. After so many wins.
RAFAEL NADAL: On clay?
RAFAEL NADAL: But it's after two years, no?
Most vivid of all to me, so much so that it still pops back into my head on a regular basis, was the Italian crowd serenading Nadal’s opponent in the semifinals, Nikolay Davydenko. “Dav-a-denk-o!” they sang, in perhaps the most complicated chant this American non-soccer fan had ever heard. Afterward, when he was asked about it, Davydenko, despite having lost the match 6-4 in the third, broke into a wide smile. “Yeah, that was nice,” he said, obviously moved by the support. How many other times had he heard his name sung by an arena audience?
When I think of Wallace’s classic tennis pieces, about the U.S. Open, or journeyman Michael Joyce, or Federer floating across Centre Court, I sometimes think: You can only write one article like that, and he wouldn’t have been able to repeat it if he had been a daily tennis journalist. And I think the same was largely true for myself after the Rome trip—how long could you write as if everything were still new to you?
But then again, why not? One thing about tennis, every week feels like a new start, and I’m enough of a fan of the game that I still feel that sense of fresh possibility at every tournament I attend. It seems like the least I could do, as a tribute to a fellow tennis lover whose writing helped my own, to keep trying to get that feeling across.