Death in Tennis by John Stephens

If such things can be declared (they can, though needn’t be agreed upon), I declare John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams last at bat to be the most illuminative moment in the history of sports journalism. The mind of the reader cannot help but being left imprinted by the light of such images as the Kid standing on third base like Donatello’s David, and that of rounding the bases, after exploding the crowd with his last-at-bat home run, like a feather in a vortex; the lasting sense of Williams as a loner who drank nothing stronger than a milkshake and battled against numbers and the mechanics of the swing in a solitary void. It’s splendid stuff: it’s more than splendid stuff, it’s the artistry of an historic athlete manifested by the artistry of literature with it’s finest, most delicately gilded touch. The merit shouldn’t be confined to sport, and journalism’s realm needn’t be divided as such: the subject here is no less important than Murrow’s subject dispatching from a London rooftop as the town is alit and ruined with shells: the subject is, merely, humanity: it’s latent glory, it’s sorrowful tragedy. John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams last at bat is one of the most illuminative moments in the history of journalism in general, if such things can be declared.

Though there is another, published in the New York Times in August of 2006, which ascends similarly; and in the wake of Sunday’s history it seems proper to carry the relic to the front of the crowded room again. The piece is David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience”. In quality of composition, tone and touch, it is no equal of Updike’s essay; though it’s arbitrary and silly to pin the two against each other in merit. It is in the exaltation of the body and it’s manifold faculties, the poetics of flesh and it’s lucid grace, that Wallace transcends perception and touches on the great virtues of dissection by word and athletics as an ancient constant which overlies humanity, skips across the higher consciousness in force, sets in stone along great halls: “—The truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.” The subject is, again, in one half the glory of man. Yet there is something ominously elegiac written within the lines which seems to place itself out ahead, to portend the inevitable failure of flesh: to meet halfway the glory with the sorrow; something flickers within the light which indicates a future darkening. We know now that the substance of this sensed sepulchral procession was held somewhat in the author’s own hand and forthcoming death; yet there was something hinted at in the rise of Roger Federer’s demons which foreshadowed a living darkness: it seemed for a time that the decay of the author’s flesh was mirroring itself in the struggle of Federer with his own: Thus, in the re-transcendence of one, let us unfold the pressed pages of another.

There was something far-reaching in David Foster Wallace’s admiration of Roger Federer: there was a love, almost a lust, for the staggering beauty of Roger’s game. Hell, there was a love for the beauty of Roger as a being, an individual. I think of Hamlet, when the poet Shakespeare—who resided in the same body as the playwright Shakespeare—speaks through his tortured creation so profoundly contemplative of his end, by his own hand, and says:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god!

But still, he continues:

the beauty of the world!
the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

It was the essence of this quintessence of dust which David Foster Wallace couldn’t overcome. In aggregate it had settled upon and dulled each thing that had shown so brilliantly and eventually put him in an oppressive and darkened room. Yet, how he admired the beauty that was there still animate before him! This is something to behold, to admire, to learn from. In a generation which has widened the supposed divide between aesthetic, intellectual pursuits and those of sport, it is reason to collapse the two into a rapturous whole: to celebrate the innate glory of man, in a time when it would seem to be in it’s most repressed state, as manifest by the artist and athlete: to celebrate the eclipsing of history, and a writer deceased who was a seer of such amongst us. One who admires Roger Federer admires his grace and stoic comportment, his geometric and foreseeing intelligence, the seeming ease of his gliding, dancing movement, the sheer and utter beauty of his shots; a game so stylized, so attuned, a mind so centered, so rational, yet freely capable of a genius which computes itself in minute fractions of time. It is these qualities, these heightened qualities, which stand certain individuals in relief against the general tableaux. David Foster Wallace wrote from a place which—while possessing no lack of visceral human passion, hilarity, irony, colloquial-nees—seemed so scientific, so mathematical; wrote from a mind which seemed to function like those of particle physicists, questioned in such a modally logical way. Thus, he studied and presented the dynamics of modern baseline tennis and the apex and answer represented by Roger Federer with such rigor: slowing down the mechanics of return-of-serve and the topspin forehand so that to expand unseen fractions into lengthy moments of deliberate yet ingrained, nearly involuntary action: and found divine beauty therein. It would be redundant of me, in the discussion of the essay, to engage in any lengthy exposition on the qualities of Roger Federer as a tennis player; though I wouldn’t be surprised if it were amongst the handful of things which I give to the walls of a quiet room as I whisper my dying thoughts to a sweating bedside secretary. Yet I can say that I knew then, in 2006 with these pages of the Times there on the kitchen table before me as the morning unfolded alike, that I was in the company of one who understood these qualities similarly; where then those insights which we feel belong to us alone are put in such light of clarity; and I then appreciated further the illuminating ability of literature: where an author has given shape and definition to thoughts which have lurked dimly but deeply in our own inner recesses; thoughts which we meet with half way upon the page. We are perhaps given no new understandings in reading, but rather given completion to understandings which we already possess but have not yet held fully formed before us. David Foster Wallace had fixed the lithe physical glory of our sinuous and mortal flesh in it’s most admirable form and movement: had held in place the mind as it reacts in imperceptible moments of infinite calculation; the mind as it reaches out ahead of the present to glance the order of events as they are to occur both by and beyond the force of our hand. He had fixed things thus, and not long after ended each as it was his own, where to let his body contribute to time’s multitudinous collection of dust.

The ostensible background upon which David Foster Wallace put to words his dynamic portrait was the Men’s Final of the 2006 Championships Wimbledon. At that time Roger Federer was upon the forward crest of a wave that had built momentously and carried him upon history for roughly six years, the statistics of which are exhaustive and exhausted. The particular qualities of the author’s infatuation, belief and awe, had proved themselves over an unheralded procession of major trophies and tour wins; records fell like stacks of paper from a desk and each attentive tennis fan had in the mind a fluttering montage of Roger Federer falling into himself, his body seeming to go completely lifeless beneath him, as he crumbled to various surfaces in his familiar match winning moment of exaltation, relief, and release. Yet Nature, with a divine predictability, attempts an equal and opposite reaction to each force, and the wave upon which Roger Federer was hurled forward would in two year’s time crash and recede upon the form of Rafael Nadal. When the 2008 Wimbledon Final ended after seven hours in a near darkness amongst a storm of flash bulbs with Federer sitting unutterably smashed up in his chair as Nadal climbed into the stands to be congratulated by Spanish Royalty, I thought of David Foster Wallace. I knew he had just hung upon each and every groundstroke as devotedly as had I; I knew he felt the same gathering gloom and sorrow. It is a difficult thing to qualify to those who are unknowing or uninvested in the narrative; and, as such, it will fall on rightfully deaf ears to say that Nadal had taken what was rightfully Roger’s where Roger could never touch the French Open that was rightfully Nadal’s. When Roger turned from the camera to conceal his grief as John McEnroe—speaking through the constriction of tears—tried to thank him for giving us what was immediately considered The Greatest Match of All Time, I thought of David Foster Wallace. It was a moment which would perpetuate and tear apart the illustrious physical philosophy which Federer had written with his specific form of grace: one man’s glory counterposed to one man’s tragedy upon a form of life’s lined stage. It was the momentary triumph and saga of fleeting bodies which end and decay in time, yet, for a moment in time, act the mortal poetics of flesh and mind before us. I knew where it was fixed and lifted in words, and I thought of David Foster Wallace.

I trust a few will regard this as unimportant, yet to deem such things unimportant is to take importance from it all in the humility of my mind.

Three days after Roger Federer stopped for a moment what would soon be the relative depths of his decline with a win at the U.S. Open, David Foster Wallace was found dead. I wouldn’t mean to suggest any relation between the two, though understand the small corner of oneself which we may hold up with the pillar of sport, be it a team, an individual, a country: especially in those times of gathering despair, wherein the once understandable divinity of things as they are becomes flattened, dark and obscured. It is in moments of disbelief in the exhaltation of the mind and trajectory of the species when we may instinctually look for meaning in the simple physical movement of our animal bodies in space:

“The human beauty we are talking about here is beauty
of a particular type; It might be called kinetic beauty.
It’s power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do
with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do
with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact
of having a body.”

This late afternoon, in the wake of Roger Federer having completed his re-ascension by winning the 2009 Championships Wimbledon—just weeks after finally winning the French, and now securing the greatest record in tennis with 15 Grand Slams—one couldn’t help but considering David Foster Wallace, who saw in his athleticism the qualities most reserve for the artist. I took for a moment the folded pages of “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience” and skimmed the paragraphs with no particular attention, but aware of something. The truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces our muddled confusions, our mediocrity of thought, our lowliness of tendencies, also produced this vibrant insight of David Foster Wallace, and just look at it lying there: look at that! I pressed the pages back into a large monograph book on Claude Monet, collapsing three forms of humanity’s creative arc into a few hundred leaves, sat upon a shelf in the closet amongst a hundred thousand leaves,—shored against time where it all collects dust and eventually decays.

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