There's more to being a pro than just playing tennis. The more successful you are, the more people will want out of you. It won't always be something you'll want to do, and it won't always be fun. The pressure will be as exhausting as anything you'll ever do on the tennis court. But as a tennis champion, you have that responsibility. You play tennis because you love the game, not because you love the limelight, so get ready. Think about getting some media training. It'll go a long way. Luckily, you'll be out of the game before these things called Twitter and Facebook come around. Be thankful for that. One day you'll understand what I mean.
Oh, and put the newspaper down. Don't read what people are saying about you. No good can come of it. And if you do hear or read something negative about yourself, don't sweat it. Let your racket do the talking.
There's nothing that distinguishes Sampras' letter from others of the format, but it got me wondering if these letters from successful people to their younger selves would have the hoped-for impact. It seems to me that success requires struggle, failure, and a bit of stupidity...or if you want to be nice about it, a beginner's mind. Skipping even some of that might take some of the edge off. Perhaps Sampras should write another letter to his 15-year-old self urging him to ignore any subsequent correspondence.
Wimbledon winner and world No 1 Novak, 25, wants the donkey's milk cheese to supply a new chain of restaurants in his Serbian homeland. The delicacy, known as pule, is made in Zasavica, Serbia, and is described as similar to Spanish manchego. Donkey milk is said to be very healthy for humans as it has anti-allergen properties and is low fat.
The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park -- or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls -- but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. "I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers," Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, "and telling them: 'The girls are going to be professional. We're going to need a lawyer, and we're going to need an accountant.' "
Isha, the middle daughter -- sharply funny and practical, fiercely loyal to the family -- told me: "Life was get up, 6 o'clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis. But it was consistency. I hate to put it [like this], but it's like training an animal. You can't just be sometimey with it." She still can't sleep past 6.
One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it's just a way of being in the world. It's a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They'd almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.
The Super Manning Bros anecdote hits because, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in his evisceration of tennis player Tracy Austin's biography, it can be difficult for gifted athletes to talk about why and how they are able to do what they do. But Venus obviously can and I wish there'd been more of that in the main essay.
Both players, clearly, were serving well. But their ground strokes were near-perfect, too. They made almost no mistakes. Isner remembers feeling so happy with his game that "it's hard to explain. I never thought about technique. I had no dark thoughts in my mind. I was just swinging away and the balls were going in - no matter if it was a big point, or whatever. It was crazy."
Mahut, meanwhile, recalls an almost spiritual dimension to his play. "When we got into the money-time at 6-6 [he says 'money-time' in English], there was only John, myself, and my team. No one else. I didn't hear the crowd. There was only the present time. I didn't think about the point before, or the point after. I just stayed in the moment. I had absolutely no fear. The level of focus and awareness I had was so high. Normally, you don't keep up for a long time. But that moment - I kept it for a long time."
Mahut's enjoyment, he says, was triggered by more than competition. After the many frustrations in his career, his pleasure came from fulfilling his potential. In this regard, his experience recalls Jean Bobet, the French cyclist of the 1950s, who wrote about experiencing "La Volupte" - the rare and sensual state of perfect riding. "La Volupte," wrote Bobet, "is delicate, intimate, and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness."
How did it feel, to play tennis like that? "It was the biggest moment of my life," says Mahut, gravely. "It was magical."
Roger Federer has spent longer as a "still" athlete than any great player I can remember. You could even argue that it's one of the signs of his greatness. Other top players hit the "still" moment, hang around for a little longer, and then whoosh, they're gone, broken up into memorial clips and Hall of Fame inductions, classic rock bands who've sold their copyrights. Federer, after three straight years of diminished results -- 11 to 12 singles titles a year from 2004 to 2006, then eight in 2007, and four to five every year since -- is ... well, still really amazing. He's still near his best, which means he's still playing some of the best tennis the world has ever seen. If anything, he's improved his serve to compensate for what's maybe been a slight decline in his movement and shot-making -- although, as McEnroe pointed out during the French Open, his movement is "still great." Heading into Wimbledon, historically his best tournament, he warmed up at the French by sensationally ending Djokovic's 41-match winning streak and playing as well as Paris has ever seen him play against Nadal.
But because he's been "still great" for so long -- because we keep seeing the end coming, even if it never actually comes -- Federer has also acquired an aura of weird sadness over the past few years that's hard to reconcile with the way we used to think about him.
Speaking of sports, Grantland, and Federer, Bill Simmons said of Lionel Messi earlier this year that "he's better at soccer than anyone else is at anything". That's a pretty short list but got me wondering, if you expanded the criteria slightly, who else might join Messi on the "better at their sport than almost anyone else is at anything at some point in the past 5-6 years". Off the top of my head, possible candidates include Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, Tiger Woods, Marta, Shaun White, Jimmie Johnson, and Annika Sörenstam. I don't know much about hockey, but maybe Alex Ovechkin? No basketball, baseball, or football players on that list; Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds are the most recent candidates in basketball and baseball (please, don't give me any of that LeBron crap) and I can't think of any football player over the past 20 years who might fit the bill. Barry Sanders maybe? His team never won a lot of games and didn't win championships, but man he was a genius runner.
This series of videos from the NY Times is called The Beauty of the Power Game and I can't tell if they are cheap & exploitive or beautiful & revealing. They show women tennis players hitting shots in slow motion. The one of Victoria Azarenka is the best by far...the camera pans up her body slowly, showing first her footwork, then the pivot, backswing, intense focus of the eyes, swing, and finally the followthrough.
Novelist Nic Brown plays his childhood friend Tripp Phillips (former ATP circuit pro) in tennis. The challenge? To win a single point.
What I can't do, no matter how hard I try, is win a single point. Not one. "You have no weapons," he tells me two days later, over a lunch of cheap tacos and cheese dip. He reviews the match in this specific analytical way I've experienced with other professional athletes. To them, match review is engineering, not personal nicety. The performance is fact, not opinion. "No matter what," he says, "I was going to have you off balance. And no matter what you did, I was going to be perfectly balanced. I knew where you were going to hit it before you hit it. It's the difference between me and you. But if I played Roger Federer right now, he'd do the exact same thing to me."
That bit reminds me of David Foster Wallace's article on tennis pro Michael Joyce (Esquire, July '96). Specifically, how much of a skill difference there was between Joyce (the 79th best player in the world), the players he competed against in qualifiers, and the then-#1 ranked Andre Agassi.
It's gotta be weird for Roger Federer. Last year at this time, people were saying that he was the best tennis player of all time. Now, near the top of his game and height of his powers, he might not even be the best current tennis player. And if you look at the statistics, Rafael Nadal may turn out to be the best tennis player ever.
Federer won his first Grand Slam title at age 21 and, by his 23rd birthday, had won two more. Sampras had won four by that age. Nadal is well ahead of that pace, having won his first Grand Slam at the precocious age of 18. The Australian was Nadal's sixth and he will be a prohibitive favorite to capture his fifth consecutive French Open just a few days after he turns 23 in June.
In his latest podcast, Bill Simmons apologizes (sort of) for his stupid article on why tennis is sucky and boring, calling it "maybe the dumbest column I've ever written". But then he goes on to say that what Wimbledon needs is a retractable roof on Centre Court and lights so that matches can proceed without fear of rain or night. Both of which are totally happening next year, unbeknowst to Simmons.
If you're a sports columnist, it helps if you're, you know, interested in sports. Many columnists are only interested in the big three sports -- football, basketball, baseball -- and treat other sports with a not-so-veiled disinterest or even distain. Competition, both against others and with the self, is at the base of all sports and if, as a so-called "sports fan", you can't find something of that to love about tennis or badminton or NASCAR, maybe you need to look elsewhere for work. Simmons needs to bring himself up to speed on tennis; he's missed a lot.
And if you're writing about a sport you don't know much about and argue that it needs to be changed in such a way that makes it more exciting for the short attention span generation, you should also be prepared to advocate for the 35-game NBA season, the 60-game MLB season, moving the pitcher's mound back to 65 feet, eliminating charging in the NBA, and 11-on-10 in NFL games.
1. The Federer/Nadal final at Wimbledon was epic. I was tense for the entire duration of the final three sets, which lasted about 2.5 to 3 hours. After years of sportswriters declaring that Roger Federer is the best player of all time, we might be faced with the possibility that he's not even the best player of his generation. Two data points: 1) Nadal has shown that he can win on any surface, including Federer's specialty, and 2) Nadal's head-to-head record against Federer is 10-5 (although many of those wins came on clay). The match also clearly reveals the idiocy of this lame Bill Simmons article about how tennis needs to change.
2. Joey Chestnut successfully defended his title this weekend at the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, eating 59 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. He needed a 5-dog overtime to hold off long-time champ Takeru Kobayashi, who has lost to Chestnut the last two years. Chestnut weighs 230 pounds while Kobayashi is only 160 pounds.
3. The US Olympic swimming trials are over and Michael Phelps qualified in 5 individual events and will likely participate in three relays as well, giving him a chance to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympics. Overshadowing Phelps' achievements was "41-year-old mom" (that's how they kept describing her on TV) Dara Torres, who qualified in both the 100-meter freestyle and the 50-meter freestyle.
Update: Ok, Nadal can't consistently win on hardcourt. But he's 22...give him time. (thx, everyone)
Almost 20 years since her last grand slam singles title, Martina Navratilova is back in action on the circuit -- only this time she is turning tennis strokes into brush strokes as she helps to create a new form of contemporary art.
In its crudest and, perhaps, most joyful expression, it involves the player hitting paint-covered tennis balls at a canvas, usually marked with court lines and prepared to resemble a playing surface: clay, grass or artificial.
I love the idea of conservation of concentration conveyed in this piece about Roger Federer, that we've got only so much intense focus to go around and successful athletes like Federer are really good at saving it up for the big moments.
A couple of times during press conferences, I noticed something kind of interesting about Roger Federer. I'll get to it in a minute, but let me describe the scene first. Players enter Interview Room One, where all of the Rajah's pressers take place, at the corner diagonally opposite from where the players enter. The players come in and turn right, to take their seat behind the microphone on the little dais or stage. Most players look to their left as they enter, just gauging the room and who is in it and how full it is. Federer, though, always keeps his head down and eyes averted, until he sits and begins to answer questions, when he makes direct eye contact with each questioner.
Anyway, a couple of times during his press conferences, someone's cell phone went off, each time with an annoyingly loud ring tone. Both times, everyone turned, first to locate and then to glare at the culprit: have you no shame? And both times, I noticed, Roger kept his eyes locked on his interlocutor, never glancing in the direction of the phone. I'm sure he was conscious, on one level, that there was an interruption occurring, but he had decided to ignore it. Not even a darting of the eyes towards the irritant. Both coming in the room with his head down and refusing to allow himself to be distracted or interrupted seemed to convey the same thing: he chooses to focus selectively, and focuses intensely once he does.
Daniel Coyle travels to Russia's top tennis player factory in search of how to grow a super-athlete. "Deliberate practice means working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback and focusing ruthlessly on improving weaknesses." The article starts off a bit slow but gets interesting a few paragraphs in.
Update: Via email, a nomination for Pakistani squash player Jahangir Khan, who engineered a 5+ year unbeaten streak during which he won the International Squash Players Association Championship without losing a single point. (thx, abbas)
Update: Also via email, a vote for darts champion Phil Taylor, who has won 13 world titles, including 11 out of the last 13. (thx, krush)
Oh happy day, a new nonfiction article by David Foster Wallace! This one's on Roger Federer. "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war." The footnotes appear on a separate page and almost comprise an article of their own. I love reading his writing about tennis. (thx, stephen)
Update:Here's a short clip of Wallace on NPR talking about Federer. When asked about the similarities between great athletes and great novelists, Wallace suggested that great athletes possess the ability to "empathize without sympathy" with their opponent, something that is useful in fiction writing when putting yourself in the shoes of a character.
Update:This YouTube video shows the Federer/Agassi volley that Wallace describes in the epically long sentence in the second paragraph...look for it starting at 8:10. (thx, marco)