I am only now writing about the remarkable U. S. Tennis Open tournament that concluded a week ago because I have been finding it hard to think of applicable literary texts. The tournament must be written about, however, because it confirmed what a number of experts are saying: we are currently living in the Golden Age of Men’s Tennis. In some desperation, I’ve turned to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but I’ve had to massage them a bit to make them fit.
We are living in tennis’s golden age because never before have we had three champions playing at such a high level all at once (four if one includes Andy Murray). Any one of these four would have regularly won tournaments in a previous age. All four made it to the U.S. Open semi-finals, and two of the three final matches were altogether memorable.
First there was Novak Djokovic’s amazing come-from-behind win against Roger Federer. Then that was followed by the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman four-set four-hour Monday final where Djokovic beat down defending champion Rafael Nadal.
In the past when I described Federer losing to hard hitters like Juan Martin del Potro, Robin Soderling, or Thomas Berdych, I turned to Ralph Ellison’s contrast between the prizefighter and the yokel. Although Federer is a consummate artist whose racket has been described as a wand (in other words, he’s a prizefighter), he is vulnerable to pounders and grinders. When he lost to pounder Soderling, I quoted the following passage:
Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific. His body was one violent flow of rapid rhythmic action. He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent’s sense of time.
In his miraculous comeback, Djokovic pounded the greatest return-of-service winner I have ever seen to fight off a match point. For all his power, however, he cannot be described as a yokel. He has an artistry of his own, an ability to retrieve virtually any shot and to slide (on asphalt!) into shots before flipping them down the line for winners. Had it not been for a loss to Federer in the French Open (his first loss of the year), there’s every reason to believe that he would have won all four major tournaments in a single year. No one since Rod Laver—not Federer, not Nadal, not Andre Agassi—has pulled off that feat.
As it was, Djokovic went on to beat the defending U.S. Open champion in the finals, just as he had beaten him in the Wimbledon finals. Nadal is at the height of his powers and he still lost in an epic match that featured 30-shot ralies where each player either equalled or surpassed every shot that went before.
One has to feel for Nadal. I’ve come to think of him, Federer and Djokovic as involved in a drama of brothers, which allows me to bring in Dostoevsky and the Brothers Grimm. For years, Nadal toiled in Federer’s shadow, a younger brother who couldn’t quite dislodge his sibling from the world’s top ranking, which Federer clung to as though he were entitled to it. (Federer has the record for most consecutive weeks at #1, Nadal for most consecutive weeks at #2.) Then, when Nadal finally took over top spot, he was there for little more than a year before being displaced by his upstart little brother.
In Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is the flashy older brother. It is he who attracts the woman that younger brother Ivan longs for, even though Ivan is smarter and more responsible. Dmitri, like Federer, seems to use up all the oxygen in the room, even though Ivan can think circles around him.
But who turns out to be the major brother in the book? Who is managing the family by the end? The overlooked Alyosha, brother #3.
Or to shift stories, I found myself thinking of one of the Grimm stories that involves three brothers, say “Puss in Boots.” The two older brothers are the father’s pride and joy (which is what Federer and Nadal are to the International Tennis Federation) whereas Brother #3 is a fool, a Djoker. For years Djokovic was better known for mimicking other players than he was for his tennis. He also periodically melted down in heat and humidity.
Suddenly, however, it is the Djoker who is killing giants and becoming king of the realm. Some kind old man that he was good to appears to have fed him something magical (and gluten free) and suddenly Djokovic is playing like a man possessed.
If I am forced to bring in fairy tales, it may be because, at present, Djokovic appears to be perfect (in a tennis sense). As Aristotle informs us, we can’t have drama if the lead character doesn’t have a flaw. We are drawn to literature because we want to see how men and women work through conflict, and at present Djokovic’s game has no weakness. He can pummel “the bull” Nadal and he can outplay the magician Federer. Consequently, he has left his two older brothers at a loss: Federer wonders whether his magnificent shot was lucky while Nadal admits that Djokovic is in his head.
So I now have an insight into why this post was hard to write. Perfection doesn’t invite literature in. It’s easier to write about dogfighting culprit Michael Vick or diva Brett Favre than an athlete who appears to have it all. It’s why, say, Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots who is currently enjoying a stellar year after winning the MVP trophy last year, also doesn’t lend himself to my posts.
I don’t wish you ill, Novak, but I need you in a story. You’ve become a better player, but as a result you’ve become narratively less interesting.
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