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Growing up I was good enough at sports to be caricatured as a standard jock, with little to offer the world but a form of low-level entertainment, and something like “street smarts” or “common sense.” In college my response to condescension of this nature—including the accusation that I received favorable jock treatment from sports-fan-professors—revealed insecurities I wasn’t mature enough to fully appreciate. Like most kids, my parents taught me not to judge books by their covers. But one of my young-adult good-athlete defense mechanisms was to resist anything endorsed by non-athletic pseudo-intellectuals, which meant I formed an even more objectionable habit: occasionally judging books by the cover of the people who spoke about them the most. Unfortunately, that meant missing out on some authors I should have read much earlier in life, and for all the wrong reasons David Foster Wallace was one of them.

Little did I know that Wallace, like me, was a jock who read a lot of books, grew up in a rural Midwestern town, and wanted nothing more than to play the sport he loved at the highest level. Like me, he also discovered that opportunities to play competitive sports rapidly narrow in late adolescence. For him that meant professional tennis was probably out of the question. For me, it meant that if I made the cut for a Division I soccer team I’d probably spend a lot more time on the bench than I did on the field. He ended up playing Division III. So did I. In retrospect, it seems almost appropriate that my resistance to Wallace at least had a competitive backbone, fueled by something like intellectual ambition. But whatever biographical similarities we shared (being a literary genius was not one of them) it’s hard for me to believe that I never had a meaningful thought about him until shortly after college, when a friend sent me an essay I was told I’d love. It was called “Federer as Religious Experience.” I loved it.

It was late in the summer of 2006. At the time, Federer was my new favorite player and clearly on his way up. Wallace—as was only really known to his family and close friends—was depressed and at risk of spiraling down. As he wrote in an email to Jonathan Franzen a year later, he felt “washed out.” But there were no signs of washing out in “Federer as Religious Experience,” where Wallace sought to understand, from a spectator’s perspective, how athletic events could elicit such powerful intellectual, emotional and even spiritual responses. The essay began with Wallace describing, in great detail, one of the “Federer Moments” he had witnessed from the comfort of his living room couch—moments when “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.” I was not a former college tennis player like Wallace was. But I still knew what it felt like to be “down on one knee” gawking at the TV with what “looked like novelty-shop eyeballs,” having just witnessed Roger execute a shot that was “like something out of The Matrix.”

Partly because of his own experience in the sport, though, Wallace knew that “TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.” So he needed to witness Federer’s incarnation in person. The cathedral for his theological investigation would be “the cathedral”; Centre Court at Wimbledon, where he went to watch the 2006 final between Federer and his burgeoning young nemesis, Rafael Nadal. The match pitted the man who had “taken the modern power-baseline game just as far is it goes”[1] against a man “who’s transfigured that modern game, whose precision and variety are as big a deal as his pace and foot-speed, but who may be peculiarly vulnerable to, or psyched out by, that first man.” But for all the drama that would ensue in the coming hours and years, the developing rivalry was for Wallace just a footnote to the felt reality of watching Federer play up-close. Trying to articulate what elite athletes do can be no less mindboggling than attempting to imitate their physical achievements. In an effort to bring Federer’s technical mastery into focus, Wallace proposed that examining “the aesthetic stuff” was the best strategy, and even that you had to come at “obliquely, to talk around it, or—as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject—to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”

Watching Federer in person at Wimbledon, Wallace immediately sensed that he would only be able to approximate, for his reader, the “beauty and genius of his game,” which perhaps accounts for why his attempt to describe the 2006 final can at times feel exhausting:

Federer now hits a very hard, deep topspin backhand, the kind that hisses, to a point just slightly on the ad side of Nadal’s baseline, which Nadal gets to and forehands cross-court; and Federer responds with an even harder, heavier cross-court backhand, baseline-deep and moving so fast that Nadal has to hit the forehand off his back foot and then scramble to get to center as the shot lands maybe two feet short on Federer’s backhand side again. Roger Federer steps to this ball and now hits a totally different cross-court backhand, this one much shorter and shaper-angled, an angle no one would anticipate, and so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the line and takes off hard after the bounce, and Nadal can’t move in to cut it off and can’t get to it laterally along the baseline because of all the angle and topspin—end of point.

It’s worth noting that the outline of this particular Federer Moment began about three hundred words earlier, because “watching it live, you can see” (much more clearly than on TV) “that it’s also a winner that Federer started setting up four or even five shots earlier.”

That this type of artistry could revolutionize tennis when it did was hardly predictable. Prior to Federer’s ascent, the sport had been in the midst of a dull staccato era, where points were often won off the serve (from the likes of Boris Becker, Goran Ivanišević, Michael Stich and Pete Sampras), or very quickly on the ensuing volley. However, rapid advances in racket technology tilted the balance the other way at the turn of the century, giving players a better chance to return previously untouchable serves. New materials and designs also helped generate more power and accuracy, while attenuating the requirements of technique, skill and finesse that had defined previous generations. The results could have easily swung tennis into an equally dull legato era, where baseline rallies never ended because twenty-first-century equipment wouldn’t let inferior players miss.

It didn’t, according to Wallace, largely because Federer is a “kick-ass power-baseliner” who was also capable of mixing “spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace.” The aesthetic transformation of the game he ushered into being was so dramatic that Wallace could only resort to a metaphysical explanation for it: namely, that “Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appears to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” So powerful was his exemption—“a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light”—that he had single-handedly reintroduced the prospect of an open and unpredictable future for his sport. For Wallace, Federer’s genius was “not replicable.” But like transformative religious revolutions, “inspiration … is contagious, and multiform—and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

No matter how many prophets are resurrected, or how many athletes transform their sport on a spiritual level, having a body isn’t easy to reconcile. Decline is inescapable. While Federer beat Nadal at Wimbledon in 2006 and again in 2007, and kept producing Federer Moments on his way to winning a record seventeenth Grand Slam in 2012, his ability to defy the laws of nature clearly started to fade at the end of the last decade.

With the depths of Wallace’s own life and work stirred by this summer’s release of The End of the Tour, I recently returned to “Federer as Religious Experience,” seeking some resolution of my own. This time I read with a measure of sobriety that led me to wonder what Wallace would say about tennis today, or the sports world writ large, if he could still speak to us in the flesh. That athletic competitions are always vulnerable to scandal goes without saying. But since Wallace’s tragic death in 2008, it seems that the breadth of those scandals has grown—ranging from the mundanity of Deflategate to the perversity of Penn State football’s cover up of child molestation to the devastating demise of figures like Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez to the tragicomic abuses of power at the NCAA, NFL and FIFA.

After rereading “Federer as Religious Experience,” I coincidentally came across a far less recognized essay in which Wallace explored the sport’s Realpolitik, written for Tennis Magazine twenty years ago. The article was appropriately titled, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.” In 1995, just over a decade before his theological discussion of Federer v. Nadal, Wallace addressed the “postmodern Peloponnesian War” between Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, “two ethnically agnate and archetypally distinct foes, an opposition not just of styles of play.” But Wallace’s primary focus was less on the aesthetic features of the match than it was on how the match, and the U.S. Open more broadly, reflected “fundamental orientations toward life, imagination, the uses of power … plus of course economic interests.” Where Federer’s rivalry with Nadal was a footnote to the metaphysical explanation of Federer Moments, Sampras and Philippoussis were the backdrop to an examination of the impersonal gears of trade that annually brought the National Tennis Center to life for two weeks in the fading light of summer.

Having attended the U.S. Open myself in the recent past, Wallace’s description is dated only by an evolving roster of sponsors, more polished marketing platforms, and newly sophisticated ad campaigns targeting the tournament’s uniquely democratic fan base. As Mary Pilon reflected earlier this week for Vice, “There were moments, strolling the 2015 U.S. Open, when it felt like you landed in a large shopping mall that just so happened to have some tennis courts.” Without question, the event caters to Manhattanites and suburban elites. But it’s no less inviting to middle-class and blue-collar attendees who are equally “fucking pumped” (according to two surprisingly tennis-savvy toughs from Philadelphia I lined up with at the Grandstand) to watch Tomas Berdych and then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga “fucking back to back! Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” No, the U.S. Open is not kidding you, and that’s at a stadium anyone can access with a general grounds pass. To enter Arthur Ashe Stadium costs a bit more, but the seating is capacious enough that you’re just as likely to cross paths with the CEO of JP Morgan, or snap a photo with Common (which I did), as you are to be seated next to a bellicose Jets fan who’s partial to David Ferrer and Jack Sock. Of tennis’s other major championships nothing compares to the U.S. Open’s ability to gather fans from all walks of life. For the event’s principal sponsors, nothing could be better.

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Wallace saw this at the National Tennis Center, where every corner of the interior, and near-exterior, either caressed or bombarded visitors with commercial invitation—from the gorgeous young hirelings handing out free packages of coffee, to retail vendors of tennis equipment and apparel, to high-cost, low-reward (twenty years ago) cash-only concessions, to the gaudy bank of brand new Infinitis, whose “leather interior gets somehow mysteriously illuminated when the sun goes down so that from a distance the car seems like a beacon.” Juxtaposed against the lines, rules and physical boundaries of tennis’s canvas, Wallace noticed that the Open’s unabashed economic drive revealed how “commerce is by its nature uncontainable.” He wasn’t surprised to discover that “the most vigorous crepuscular commerce is taking place” outside the grounds of the NTC.

There, Wallace admits that at a certain point even he lost focus in the dizzying spectacle of economic transaction. Like the eye-popping experience of witnessing a Federer Moment, trying to describe the uncontainable commercial power of the U.S. Open left an American literary prodigy searching for an explanation: “Some of the time it’s hard even to know what it is you’re seeing take place.”

And that’s just it. Whether we’re talking about the competition inside the lines, or the commercial forces that both support and surround major sporting events, sometimes it’s hard to know what we’re seeing take place. In that sense, “Federer as Religious Experience” and “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” have a lot more to say to each other than initially meets the eye. On the one hand, we come to high-level sports for an understanding of the human condition. On the other, we find surrounding those events the insatiable pursuit of commercial pleasure. The former promises to satisfy our desire to find meaning and purpose, while the latter almost inevitably leads to disorientation and confusion—something Wallace imagined on the level of collective psychosis in his great novel Infinite Jest. The question is whether or not the transcendent experiences of sport can survive the commercial forces that threaten to compromise and corrode the authenticity we’re drawn to, often first as athletes and then, later, as spectators. In tennis, for example, there are growing murmurs that the sport is rife with performance enhancing drugs.[2] (Federer has been an adamant proponent of expanding tennis’s anti-doping program, but we’ve heard empty appeals like that from our transcendent athletes before.)

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That Wallace’s live witness to the beauty of Roger Federer was my gateway to his work is something I’m thankful for. The irony is that the more I read his fiction and other essays, the more I find myself holding my Federer Moments at arm’s length. In years past, some of them have brought me to tears. But with a more sober perspective, I (regrettably) wonder if Roger’s moments are any different than the Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones or Mark McGwire moments I once thought transcendent in their own right. This summer, when I heard commentators talk about Federer’s late resurgence, saying that at 34 he’s playing some of the best tennis of his career, I couldn’t help thinking that I have no idea what my favorite tennis player is willing (or expected) to do to remain on center court.

When I do watch, I still marvel at those moments that require metaphysical explanation, and I couldn’t help but cheer from afar as he attempted to upset Novak Djokovic in last Sunday’s final. But more than wanting him to win, or to create another religious experience, I hoped that I was witnessing an athlete who’s worth believing in—that is, one who could reconcile my admiration of his work and my appreciation of high-level sports with my growing skepticism about what feeds them. I hope it’s not too much to ask.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. At the time, yes, but Nadal’s best years were still ahead of him, not to mention the rise of Novak Djokovic. That both players (who together hold 23 major titles) would eventually develop stylistic elements that resembled some of Federer’s strengthens Wallace’s argument for Federer’s historical significance.
  2. Unsubstantiated rumors have persisted about Rafael Nadal for many years. But beyond that, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, Marin Cilic, served a four-month doping suspension in 2013 for ingesting the respiratory enhancer, nikethamide. He was originally banned for nine months, but as the New York Times reported, his punishment was reduced on the basis that “he had inadvertently ingested the substance because of linguistic confusion.”
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