Prim, preppy, and proper; sometimes stylish, sometimes snobbish; always, to use the marketing term, classic: these are people’s commonly if vaguely held impressions of the game of tennis. Each new group of rebels, from the tennis brats (led by McEnroe, Vilas and Connors), to the young, peroxided Agassi, to the country-club scandalizing Williams sisters, stand out, according to this view, because they contrast so strongly with the politesse of the sport of the tasteful rich, the sport of whites in white. This set of received opinions about the social milieu from which tennis came might have some credibility as a remembrance of time past. It’s also all wrong. Far from a leisurely and well-mannered display of sporting good cheer, the game is at heart about controlled brutality. There is much virtuosity and style involved, but if professional tennis resembles any other sport, it’s boxing. Both consist of a dialectical exchange, a conversation, between two opposed personalities, who are attempting to send the same deep message: “You cannot hope to defeat me, even if your skills are superior, because I won’t stop, I won’t give in, I won’t tire, until I destroy you.” The significant difference between the two sports is only in their chosen media. In boxing, the only intermediary between the two combantants is their gloves. In tennis, the players communicate indirectly, by the sweet science of applying force and imparting spins to the ball; it speaks a poetic language of aggression.
Here’s your chance to appreciate this savage beauty: the U.S. Open, the last of tennis’s four Grand Slam tournaments (the others being the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon). It begins this morning in Flushing Meadows, Queens, a short hop on the 7 train from Grand Central. Go in person. If you’ve only seen tennis on TV, mostly you end up following the ball in a kind of video-game trance, watching it go this way and that, the players themselves materializing only at the last instant to hit it. What you miss is the movement, the guessing, the psychic uncertainty that plagues each as they attempt to wrong-foot and misdirect the other. You miss the electric fields that crackle in the air in the decisive moments of a grueling five-setter. You miss sequences like this one, from the first professional tennis match I ever attended: in the 2001 Wimbledon final, in the absence of Pete Sampras (dislodged by an 18-year-old named Roger, about whom more below), Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic played an almost unbearably tense final set. Rafter’s nerve failed first: at the climatic moment, he served a miserably safe ball slowly into play, which Ivanisevic contemptuously lashed past him. Now Ivanisevic, one of the top servers in history, had only to unleash a decent one to win. He couldn’t. A historically great professional, he served five times into the bottom of the net before finally succeeding. On television one saw only an inexplicable performance at a crucial moment; in person, the devastating pregnancy of the moment made failure seem a perfectly human response.
Above all, what you see in person is the incredible variety of spins, speeds, and placements of the ball that professionals are able to conjure. Point after point, you watch and begin to understand the necessity of the unexpected. The standard groundstroke, hit with topspin, can be struck with booming pace and arc high over the net before curling down inside the line and jumping or kicking back at the opponent. Yet if she or he finds a rhythm and begins to respond, the all-important ability to dictate play, to make the other essentially reactive, can be lost. So, variety: every so often a sliced ball, floating low over the net and then skidding, or maybe a sneak attack, coming into the net and pounding away the surprised response. Or maybe an occasional lob, or other changes in pattern designed to confuse. The loneliness of tennis tactics, of being out there by yourself and working out what to do, demands a fortitude that inspires the audience and perplexes the person across the net.
The absolute master of this kind of bewilderment is tennis’ majestic young king, Roger Federer. Federer not only plays every shot with facility, he varies his patterns considerably at important moments, unlike every other player, who stick to their “bread and butter” when it really matters. Even more remarkably, Federer interprets the unfolding action flawlessly and unconsciously. Like a conversationalist to whom the other’s speech occurs before it is uttered, Federer knows what the other player will do before he does it – his opponent’s tactics actually seem to occur to him before they do to the other. For this reason Federer is never out of place, never unbalanced, always smooth, always balletic. For this reason he can win on any surface, under any conditions, against any player, playing any style. Unlike Sampras, who seemed to approach breaking records as hard work to be slogged through, or McEnroe, for whom talent was a burden that cut him off from others, Federer seems to play with a pure joy in his miraculous abilities. Sampras’s goal was to accrue numbers; Federer’s is to express himself in as eloquently as possible, to play in all its senses. It’s a worthy quest. The uncanny, almost empathetic anticipation that marks all his play has allowed him to dominate as no one in my twenty years of watching tennis has. You’d do well to allow yourself the pleasure of witnessing him; without hyperbole, he is a genius.
Playing Henry Bolinbroke to Federer’s Richard II is the piratical young Spaniard Rafael Nadal. Like Bolingbroke, Nadal is a character of huge confidence and instinctive dominance, whose utter lack of fear and pragmatic brutalism carried him past Federer at Roland Garros in May. It must be grindingly oppressive to play him: where others stare at Federer’s poetic breakthroughs in awe, Nadal simply clenches his jaw and refuses to let a ball get past him. It takes three, sometimes four shots that would be winners against anyone else to win a point against the terrifying Rafa (the only player who approaches his defensive abilities is, of course, the chameleonic Federer). When Federer plays, one gets the sense of a brilliant soliloquy being delivered; the victim is rendered no more relevant than Yorick’s cranium. By contrast, watching Nadal is like watching a tormenting matador (if you’ll excuse the too-obvious metaphor) generate sympathy for his opponents, who are humanized in their suffering.
If tennis is like boxing, my favorite pugilist is still Andre Agassi. Now well into his mature elder sportsman role, Agassi still will astonish you with the pugnaciousness of his hitting. His backhand is a left uppercut, his forehand a right cross. His quarterfinal with Nadal, should it precipitate, will be a thing of supreme, cross-generational electricity (Nadal is nineteen; Agassi has played professionally for nineteen years). Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and Marat Safin, all former champions, will be in the running. Look out for the hearthrobbing Felianco Lopez and Robbie Ginepri, too. On the women’s side is has become very difficult to predict who will do well. Elegant Venus Williams won Wimbledon in inspirational fashion, but hasn’t played much since. Lindsay Davenport cannot seem to stay healthy and fresh enough to win long matches. Kim Clijsters, the hottest player on tour, has a history of vain attempts on big stages, as does Amelie Mauresmo. Maria Sharapova is capable of winning, and so is Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne and the defending champion, Svetlana Kusnetsova. I don’t want to spend much time handicapping the field, though, because I would rather encourage the spectator to take a front-row seat at a small court (this is easily possible in the first week), and watch any two of the best two hundred tennis players on the planet. Up close, you can appreciate the gorgeous subleties, unthinkable crosscourts, and lonely tactics of the other sweet science.