As he nestles into his mid-30s, Roger Federer is picking his spots to shine on the tennis court and extend his career.
Federer may have surprised himself when he claimed the Australian Open crown in January in another epic match against Rafael Nadal, his great rival.
At the same time he called that win in Melbourne one of the most special of his career, Federer also privately was contemplating retirement.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: Golden Age Sports Writers; Dolphin Icons In Decline; The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies; Giro d’Italia Centenary; Sports Book Club Reads; Remembering Lou Richards and Steve Palermo
The Grand Slam title was Federer’s first in nearly five years and extended to 18 his record haul for a male professional. It also led to some understandable excitement about the possibilities of another Federer-Nadal showdown in the French Open, which gets underway on Monday.
But Federer announced last week he won’t be present at Roland Garros, where he has claimed only one of his Grand Slam championships, a clay court venue where Nadal has reigned supreme.
Instead, Federer will take the next few weeks to prepare for Wimbledon, which he has won a record seven times, the last coming in 2012.
That’s when Federer’s dazzling Grand Slam run—one of the most impressive streaks of success by an athlete in any sport in any era—finally slowed down, mostly due to injury, as well as to the arrival of other stars.
As Nadal soared, Andy Murray matured into a champion and Novak Djokovic blasted onto the scene, Federer tried to practice patience, but struggled to recover.
The power, dominance and especially the style of Federer appeared to be fading, as a banged-up body, age and fatherhood intervened. He still exudes many of the qualities brilliantly explained by the late novelist David Foster Wallace in “Roger Federer As Religious Experience,” his acclaimed 2006 piece for Play magazine of The New York Times that’s included in the posthumous “String Theory” collection.
To savor Federer now, as he reserves his talent and energies in the twilight of his career, is to understand how astonishingly distinctive he became as he was reaching his prime, and as Wallace gushed:
“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 human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its 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.
“Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their ‘love’ of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.”
Aside from certain soccer players—the typically gifted-at-the-feet South Americans—these are indeed rare words accorded to male athletes from any shore, or from any time. They almost never come up in any discussion of male team sport athletes in North America. Can you imagine such lush language employed to describe LeBron James’ current destruction of the Boston Celtics?
Federer has done plenty of that in his career, but has had few peers when it comes to aesthetic expressiveness, as Wallace continued:
“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.”
In his celebrated book “Levels of the Game,” John McPhee wrote eloquently of Arthur Ashe’s 1968 match against Clark Graebner at Forest Hills, as the amateur era of tennis was coming to a close. The use of the English language was typical McPhee—luminous without being ornate—and is regarded as some of the best writing ever about tennis.
Wallace was more a creature of a postmodern sensibility, with complex words and thoughts at times becoming too intertwined. When I first read the end of the essay, I thought it was overwrought. But as Federer prepares for the stretch run of his career, it reads pitch-perfect today:
“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, 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.”
Tennis and the Arts
- Later this fall, two tennis films will hit the big screen. “The Battle of the Sexes,” about the Billie Jean-Bobby Riggs match, stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell, and a trailer has just been released;
- Shia LaBeouf is starring in a biopic of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry (trailer) that has an agitated McEnroe reviving his “you can’t be serious!” outrage. Borg’s son is playing his father as a child in the film, with Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason assuming the adult role;
- In the vein of nouveau soccer glossy magazines What A Howler and 8 by 8, as well as multi-sport Victory Journal, the fairly new quarterly Racquet is attempting to inject high-church journalistic coverage into tennis, a sport that’s losing many of its independent, non-corporate media voices.
Sports Book News
This week marked the publication of Lee Congdon’s much-awaited “Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age,” and it’s a fascinating continuation of present-day reverence for (or perhaps nostalgia about) early-to-mid-20th century American sportswriters.
In 2015, Bill Littlefield published a masterful collection of the work of W.C. Heinz, one of the featured writers in Congdon’s book and who’s become a belated inspiration for many of today’s younger, multi-platform sports journalists.
Indeed, I’m finding this to be an unquenchable subject, the so-called “classic sports writing” that curators like Alex Belth have been presenting to newer audiences in recent years. What is it about the men (and they were virtually all men) whose creative imaginations were shaped before the rise of television, who couldn’t rely on highlights and quote sheets and who had much more direct access to athletes they covered?
While I have yet to get my hands on Congdon’s new book, the fact that the lives of these long-gone figures is being recalled today is most encouraging. As the print format they mastered is withering away, it’s vitally important to recognize how their influence continues today.
- The Giro d’Italia is underway this month, and it’s the 100th staging of one of cycling’s Grand Tour events. At the Times Literary Supplement, John Foot reviews two new books detailing the race’s rich history, but wonders if its present and future can match the past: “Is it a great sporting event any longer? I’m not so sure;
- Navy veteran, journalist and author Jim Leeke’s latest book about baseball and World War I was published this month by University of Nebraska Press. “From the Dugouts to the Trenches” gets a heads-up from Ross Atkin in a recent new sports book roundup in the Christian Science Monitor, and as commemorations continue for the centenary of U.S. entry in the war;
- If you belonged to a sports book club, what would be on your list? One such member gets a shout-out from Nicole Lamy, the Book Match columnist at The New York Times, along with additional suggestions from her and readers. Some of them are familiar to sports book fanatics, but I also found a few others worth noting here: Dan Barry’s “Bottom of the 33rd,” about an epic minor league baseball game; and “The Noble Hustle,” Colson Whitehead’s gambling memoir that started out as a story for Grantland. Whitehead recently was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
A Few Good Reads
- Two from Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price on the health declines of two legendary Miami Dolphins: Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick, the latter residing in assisted living due to dementia. The concussion-related casualty rate for many of the great NFL names of my youth continues to soar;
- Two iconic fields of play in the British Isles are closed for good. White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur for 118 years, had a banger of a farewell last week, a 6-0 thrashing of Manchester United as the Spurs sealed a second-place finish in the English Premier League;
- In Dublin, Dalymount Park lasted almost as long, 116 years, as the home of Bohemians, one of the classic clubs of Irish football, and that is moving into a modern stadium with the same name although none of the memories;
- Off the coast of Britain, the Guernsey-Jersey football derby is about more than football: “It’s about the island;”
- Chuck Culpepper literally stumbled upon American Pharoah during Kentucky Derby week, and finds the latest Triple Crown winner is still a stud;
- From The Awl, a meditation on The Art of the Barbershop sports debate;
- From The Atlantic, suspend your fears and read about Skydiving from the Edge of Space;
- Cooperstown goes bubble gum with a new Big League Chew promotion that includes a bubble-blowing contest during induction weekend.
It’s been 100 years since the Dick, Kerr’s ladies football team was formed at a munitions factory in the English industrial city of Preston, and which often played games before big crowds to raise funds for wounded soldiers of the Great War.
In 1921, women’s football was banished by the Football Association, but the ladies of Dick, Kerr’s took their talents overseas on barnstorming tours, and even played against male sides in the United States.
This week the Dick, Kerr’s team became the first British women’s club to be honored with a plaque at the Strand Road ground in Preston, the latest chapter in a decades-long effort to give this club, and many of the women who played in obscurity, their proper due.
Leading the effort for the plaque honor has been Gail Newsham, author of the 1994 book “In a League of Their Own,” which in many ways helped ignite a women’s soccer revival in Britain.
By the time Barbara Jacobs published her Dick Kerr’s tribute book in 2004, the sport for women in Britain was pushing into new boundaries as a growing spectator sport.
Last Sunday, a record crowd of more than 35,000 at Wembley watched Manchester City, led by American World Cup star Carli Lloyd, trounce Birmingham City 4-1 in the finals of the FA Women’s Cup.
The crowds the Dick Kerr’s ladies played before were occasionally bigger, and the spectacle often just as palpable to the onlookers. The Dick Kerr’s ladies disbanded in 1965, ironically a few years before the women’s soccer ban was finally lifted.
But their place in history, thanks to some very determined advocates, is finally gaining some long overdue recognition.
- A state funeral was held in Melbourne Thursday, for Lou Richards, 94, an icon for the Collingwood Magpies and one of the first Australian athletes to make the successful transition to television star. “Louie the Lip” was never at a loss for words, and his celebrity status catapulted in the early 1960s when he put a few words together for his memoir, “Boots and All!” After the service, the motorcade carrying Richards’ casket passed by a statue bearing his name at Collingwood’s club headquarters;
- The career of Major League Baseball umpire Steve Palermo, 67, came to an end the evening in 1991 when he was shot and paralyzed assisting a robbery victim. Palermo was justly lauded for that Samaritan episode and never shied away from the recognition, but returned to the game as an MLB umpire supervisor and frequently attended Royals home games in Kansas City, his adopted hometown.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 83, published May 21, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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