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Federer as Religious Experience
David Foster Wallace • Play • August 2006
On the joys of watching the winningest tennis player of all time, then at the height of his powers and now in his twilight, play live.
“The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type—a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”
Raised By Women to Conquer Men
Frank Deford • Sports Illustrated • August 1978
A profile of Jimmy Connors on the eve of the 1978 U.S. Open. Connors’ legendary confidence, honed by his mother since childhood, was in freefall. (He would go on to win the final in straight sets.)
“That has happened is disillusioning for Connors and his mother. They speak of the latest wrack and ruin by Borg in hallucinatory terms, and Jimmy fitfully retreats to the glorious conquests of yore: ‘They’ll be talking about ‘74 when I’m dead. … Don’t forget what I did in ‘74. … Nobody can ever take ‘74 from me.’ On and on like that. And the greatest irony is that ‘74 will be devalued if he does not triumph over Borg in ‘78, because this year Borg can win the Grand Slam and the Davis Cup-and as extraordinary as ‘74 was, Connors did not achieve that. For history, then, what would ‘74 become but a real good year a kid had just before Borg became great?
“And that was so long ago: 1974. Since then Connors’s father has died, and his surrogate father—his manager, Bill Riordan—has become estranged from him. His only male instructor, Pancho Segura, has been discharged. His engagement to Chris Evert, the one sweet love of his life, was called off, nearly at the altar. Looking back, it all began to unravel then, the loss of dear ones and tournaments alike. A kind of incompleteness plagues Connors. In the big tournaments, the ones he shoots for, he virtually never loses until the finals. What is it there? What seizes him at the last step? There is a flaw somewhere, something that denies him consummation in his life.”
The Match Maker
Don Van Natta Jr. • ESPN the Magazine • August 2013
On Sept. 20, 1973, just a month after she won the U.S. Open, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes” watched by 50 million Americans. This spring, a man named Hal Shaw came forward with a secret he’d held for 40 years: Riggs, in debt to the Mafia, had lost on purpose.
“The men, Shaw says, used an array of nicknames for Riggs—‘Riggsy,’ ‘BB,’ ‘Bobby Bolita.’ Ragano told the men that ‘Riggsy’ was prepared to ‘set up two matches … against the two best women players in the world,’ Shaw says. ‘He mentioned Margaret Court—and it’s easy for me to remember that because one of my aunt’s names was Margaret so that, you know, wasn’t hard to remember—and the second lady was Billie Jean King.’
Ragano explained that Riggs ‘had the first match already in the works … and the second match he knew would follow because of Billie Jean King’s popularity and everything that it would be kind of a slam dunk to get her to play him bragging about beating Margaret Court,’ Shaw says Ragano told the men. Shaw also says he heard Ragano mention an unidentified mob man in Chicago who would help engineer the proposed fix.
“‘Mr. Ragano was emphatic,’ Shaw recalls. ‘Riggs had assured him that the fix would be in—he would beat Margaret Court and then he would go in the tank’ against King, but Riggs pledged he’d ‘make it appear that it was on the up and up.’
Serena Williams: The Great One
Stephen Rodrick • Rolling Stone • June 2013
The best women’s tennis player of all time opens up.
“I wait until Serena is in a trancelike state before asking her about her anger issues. In the recent documentary Venus and Serena, Serena listed her different personas: Summer, the one who writes thank-you notes; Psycho Serena, the tennis player; and Taquanda, whom Serena describes simply as ‘not a Christian.’ It was Taquanda, according to Serena’s mom, who threw the tantrum at the U.S. Open in 2009. ‘Taquanda got loose,’ Oracene says.
“Serena happily cops to the multiple personalities. After she struggled in an early match at the Sony Open, a reporter asked her what she was saying to herself on the court. Serena just laughed.
“‘When I’m down, I talk to myself a lot. I look crazy because I’m constantly having an argument with myself. We’re going back and forth and then I tell her she sucks and she tells me to shut up. Then we get along.’
“There’s been an uneasy truce between the many faces of Serena for two years. Serena followed her 2009 U.S. Open outburst with another one in 2011, when she accused a chair judge of being ‘the one who screwed me last time.’ (She wasn’t.) Serena knows she doesn’t play best out-of-control angry and talks frankly about what it has cost her. When we met, she had won the French Open only once, and she blamed near misses on her psyche.”
How the Daughter of an Ancient Race Made It Out of the Australian Outback
Harry Gordon • New York Times • August 1971
Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the first Australian aborigine ever to play serious competitive tennis, had just won Wimbledon when this story was published and was a favorite at the Open. Between 1973 and 1976, Goolagong would reach four U.S. Open finals. She never won.
“Jake Kramer believes she will rule women’s tennis for most of the seventies, and Frank Sedgman sees her as potentially greater than Althea Gibson, Maureen Connolly and Maria Bueno. Certainly she will make more money than any of her predecessors. As a ‘registered’ player, she can take the cash openly. Her prize money from this year’s tour, which she started as virtually an unknown player, will total $29,000, and soon it is expected to go to more than $85,000 a year. A firm of London business agents is handling transactions which will put the musical aboriginal name that means ‘nose of kangaroo’ on rackets, balls, socks and carry bags. For the right to interview her for publication they are demanding fees from £100 to £150— “depending on circulation.” The experts say that Evonne Goolagong will have $100,000 in the bank by the time she is 21—and that she’ll follow Rod Laver as a tennis millionaire by the time she is 30. Not a cent of her earnings goes to Edwards. He already runs Australia’s largest tennis school, and the publicity Evonne wins assures him that it will grow larger still. He pays his own fares to accompany Evonne, and has already invested a chunk of her earnings for her in real estate.
The Third Man
Lauren Collins • The New Yorker • August 2013
A profile of Novak Djokovic.
“It was true that Djokovic’s parents could be mildly obnoxious. (‘The king is dead, long live the king,’ Dijana said, in 2008, after Djokovic beat Federer, predicting that her son would soon be No. 1.) His entourage did not exude dignity. (To celebrate his 2011 victory at the Madrid Open, they draped the Serbian flag over a Lexus. While Djokovic cheered, Marián Vajda, his forty-six-year-old coach, climbed on top of the car and began humping the hood.) He could be annoying, with his bluster and his cheesy pranks. (He once pretended to show a reporter his vibration dampener and then hit him in the crotch, gasping, ‘That’s a basic joke of tennis! Sorry,’ as he doubled over in hysterics.) His sensibility recalled the soccer stadium rather than the country club. He seemed the type of person who, at a magic show, would die to be picked for audience participation. ‘He was like the guy who’s a bit uncomfortable at the cocktail party and had to do something different to try to be at ease,’ Thomas Ross, a longtime agent, told me. If Federer was the foxtrot, Djokovic was the Harlem Shake.
Ripped. (Or Torn Up?)
Cynthia Gorney • New York Times Magazine • June 2009
What Rafael Nadal’s brutal style means for his body.
“Nadal lost the French Open three weeks ago, yes. He lost shockingly, unexpectedly, before even reaching the quarterfinals. The knees might or might not have been a factor; Nadal refused to make any injury excuses for his defeat, but in any case, it was the first match he ever lost at the French Open, which he had won four times in a row. Because he left early, before he and Federer could face each other, there will always be an unanswered question attached to Federer’s championship: the French was the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, the majors, that Federer had never been able to win. He was beaten there by Nadal four years in a row. In last year’s final, in fact, Nadal obliterated him so completely that people either stared in fascination or averted their eyes, as though witnessing a dreadful car wreck. For a few days, when I was at the French Open, Nadal’s defeat made for richer drama than anybody else’s victory, and I would not really have understood why that was had I not also been at Indian Wells in the middle of the night in March and watched Nadal’s face during that second set against Nalbandian, especially when Nadal began moving faster and faster, coiling, springing, powering the ball into back corners, missing, driving again. After a time, I realized a new sound was coming from Nadal in between the hitting grunts, an even more guttural sound that was low, feral and drawn out between intakes of breath. He was growling.”
Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. One caveat: if any of John McPhee’s wonderful tennis writing was available online, it would have been on the list. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.