As some of you may have noticed, there’s been a month-long gap since my last tennis writing roundup. I apologize. To make it up to you, I am going to highlight 10 of my favorite pieces from the last month, and point out a lot of other goodies as well. Nothing brings out the great writing or writers like big-time tennis. I love it.
My 10 Favorite Tennis Reads of the Month:
1. “Nadal vs. Djokovic: Metal Gods on Fire” by Brian Phillips of Grantland.
Oh man. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we are so lucky that Brian Phillips is a tennis fan. His running diary of the match of the French Open is an absolutely hysterical and insightful must-read that, as hard as it is to believe, might even be more entertaining than the match itself. The introduction alone captures the Rafole rivalry perfectly, and it only gets better from there.
Rafa Nadal’s best matches against Novak Djokovic are the closest tennis gets to a metal concert — sweaty, technically proficient, fury-bellowing men assisting each other in the commission of extreme assaults on the senses. If you watched their testosterone-soaked, six-hour doomfest in the Australian Open final last year, you know this already. There aren’t really strategies in play when they meet, because that would imply that either of them had exploitable weaknesses. Instead, it’s just an all-out frenzy to play faster, louder, longer, and with less mercy. It’s phenomenal theater, even if the laser projections of dragons bursting from the eye sockets of red skulls are mostly left to your imagination.
2. “An American in Paris: Serena Williams’s Dominance of Maria Sharapova and the French Open” by Louisa Thomas of Grantland.
We’ve been so spoiled by the greatness of Serena Williams, that perhaps we’re beginning to take it for granted. Louisa Thomas explores this notion in her thoughtful article on the French Open women’s final, and dares us to question the way we watch and appreciate the French Open champion.
The funny thing is, I wonder if the best way to watch Serena now would be to watch onlySerena. Some of my favorite moments during the women’s final came when replays kept the cameras trained only on Williams’s reactions, not the ball, so that all you could see was how she moved — her intensity and poise, her quickness and patience, her power and touch, her defense and aggression. She almost cartwheeled across the clay. She was always at once perfectly balanced and about to fall. It’s fitting that she ended the match with aces, the one point that an opponent doesn’t touch. “I thought, I’m not going to be able to hit groundstrokes,” she said. “No joke. I really thought — and as you see the one groundstroke I did hit went like 100 feet out. I thought to myself, Look, Serena, you’ve just got to hit aces. That’s your only choice. I just had to hit aces.”
3. “Grass, the Lost Civilization” by Steve Tignor of Tennis.com.
What a treat to have Steve Tignor at Queen’s Club last week, bringing his insights to the quaint but prestigious Wimbledon tune-up. In this essay, he talks about the intricacies of the grass court game through the lens of the Lleyton Hewitt vs. Juan Martin del Potro match. His descriptions of the posh Queen’s Club crowd spice things up too.
Hewitt’s last winner could be described as a “control shot,” which is something we don’t see much of in tennis these days. At least we didn’t see many of them through the clay season that occupied us all spring. On dirt there are offensive, defensive, and touch shots; for the most part, all of them are hit with as much spin and racquet-head speed as possible. So this week it has come as a surprise to see the men at Queen’s mixing in balls that aren’t hit with maximum spin or speed or power. Grass gives you less time, and less predictability, than other surfaces; while its quality has improved over the years, you still never know when a ball will flat line, jump straight at you, or die in the weeds. If clay is exhausting from a stamina perspective, grass is draining from a watching-the-ball perspective. Especially on a windy day like today, you have to work a little harder to make contact in the right spot.
4. “Kucova makes some noise in her last hurrah” by Douglas Robson of USA Today.
I absolutely loved this story by Robson on Zuzana Kucova, who had came to the French Open just to say goodbye to tennis and ended up having the best slam of her career. Sometimes the best stories are the ones from the least recognizable names. Kudos to Robson for bringing attention to this fairytale.
For someone with aspirations to be a sports journalist, Zuzana Kucova stumbled on a pretty good story. Her own.
Kucova has no ranking. She is a month shy of her 31st birthday. She is a classic journeywoman who has never won a title, cracked the top 100 or reached the second round of a major — until Monday.
That’s when the Slovak upset No. 24 seed Julia Goerges of Germany 7-6 (10-8), 6-0 to reach the second round of Roland Garros.
5. “Tommy. Can You Hear Him?” by Peter Bodo of Tennis.com.
Bodo was certainly on the right page at the beginning of the French Open, realizing that Tommy Robredo was going to be a big story long before the second week. In the first round, the veteran writer trekked to Court 16 to watch the veteran tennis player take on Jurgen Zopp. Bodo provides insight into the career of the “forgotten” Spaniard, and brings to life a routine first round match. Pieces like this prove why we need writers on location; not just watching from television or computer screens.
Robredo’s forehand is a thing of beauty, partly because he’s so light on his feet. It’s as if gravity is reversed for him and his natural state is airborne, even if gravity occasionally compels him to touch down between those huge cuts. When Tommy uncurls into the ball, clods of clay fly from his soles and beads of sweat fly from his head with such velocity that they leave divots.
6. “Unheralded American Tries to Change That” by Ravi Ubha for Straight Shots, the tennis blog for The New York Times.
This is just a fantastic profile and interview with Varvara Lepchenko. She talks frankly with Ubha about the problems she has attracting clothing sponsors and attention from American journalists, despite being one of the top-ranked women’s players in the country. I love that she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and go after the representation and deals that she deserves.
“It seems like I’m in the shadow,” [Lepchenko] said. “I follow a few journalists on Twitter from the States, and I always see they post once someone loses or wins from the United States, and I never get mentioned until I win a few rounds or I never get mentioned in terms of what my strengths and weaknesses are. It’s been pretty much like that my whole life.
“But I didn’t come here to own the tour or play tennis just so I can get attention from U.S. reporters or some press. I came to produce the best tennis I can, and I wanted to see the smiles on the fans’ faces.”
7. “Grass-Court Report: Del Potro and Malisse, from Top to Bottom” by Hannah Wilks of Tennis.com.
Hannah Wilks is an all-too-infrequent contributor to Tennis.com, but when she does get a chance to write reports–usually during grass season–she never disappoints. In this piece, she does a phenomenal job capturing the ups and downs of the bizarre coaster that was the Del Potro and Malisse match in the second round of Queen’s.
Malisse should have coasted to victory as Lopez did earlier, but del Potro is no neophyte. He’s capable of opening his shoulders and taking flight at any moment, and the fact that he might not for a certain length of time is no guarantee that he won’t, as Malisse learnt to his cost when del Potro suddenly produced consecutive forehand winners—a commodity in scant supply throughout the match—to pressure a break back for 3-3. Del Potro failed to hold his serve, but responded by picked Malisse off at net with his first successful passing shot. Slowly, del Potro was making the match all about him, win or lose. After he successfully challenged on consecutive points, punctuating each one with long, ominous stares at the umpire, he got two lucky netcords which helped him immeasurably to get back on level terms.
8. “Benoit Paire and the Pursuit of Sanity” by Tumaini Carayol of Foot Fault.
How does one even begin to describe Benoit Paire? Well, Carayol takes a shot in this fantastic profile that explores how Paire went from pure tennis folklore to a top 25 player in just a few years. Written during the Rome Masters, this piece is a humorous but humane look at how the Frenchman has reigned in his crazy antics but still remains true to himself.
Long before his first appearance in the top 500, Benoit Paire had already carved out a reputation for himself in the sizable circles of tennis’ working class. Despite the seeming vital requirement of all tennis players to come innately equipped with a figurative screw loose in order to cope with the demands of travelling around the world, inflicting irreparable damage to their bodies and bank account as they chase measly pots of money and almost non-existent points in the hope of one day breaking that tiny glass ceiling; the Frenchman somehow pushed boundaries of batshit insanity beyond what the human mind could ever envision. That these stories – and there were numerous – were stretched to their very limit and perhaps carried barely an atom of truth to them was quite irrelevant. As the Frenchman rose, his on-court demeanor spoke louder than any old fable, and the noise his behaviour emitted was pure garbage.
9. “It’s Not Easy Being A Legend” by Matt Zemek on All I Need is a Picket Fence.
Okay, so it is well known that I am not a diehard Roger Federer fan. I will not pretend otherwise. However, I do immensely respect and admire him, and have found it fascinating to watch how both he and his fans handle the aging process. In this piece, Matt Zemek does a fantastic job giving some insight and perspective into Federer’s slow but inevitable decline. His writing is geared towards Federer fans, but the piece is so nuanced and well-written that all tennis fans can take something from it.
The critics, you see, are right: Of course Federer is in decline. Of course Federer can’t summon up the ol’ magic with the frequency or reliability he once did. That’s been established and explained in the above paragraphs. Fed’s peak years concluded in the spring and early summer of 2010, when Robin Soderling snapped the streak of 23 straight major semifinals and Tomas Berdych snapped Fed’s run of seven straight Wimbledon finals. Nadal stood on the mountaintop in his titanic 2010 season, Djokovic floated above the clouds in his epic 2011 conquest of the ATP, and Fed’s career moved from the freshness of springtime into a kind of indian summer. He’s in autumn now, albeit a rich one; the colder autumn still awaits.
Decline? Yes. Unquestionably.
Let’s draw one very simple distinction, though: Federer’s decline is a slow and gentle one, not a dramatic and conspicuously abrupt fall from a skyscraper.
10. “Why We Watch: John Isner, Sagging Giant” by W.M. Akers on The Classical.
This is just an amazing take on what it’s really like to watch John Isner play one of his marathon matches. Even the casual tennis fan can get frustrated with the way Isner drags himself and his opponents, no matter the quality, into tedious but somewhat gripping wars of attrition.
His legs gone by the second or third game of the set, Isner more or less stopped running, letting Haas take any game where he got more than one or two points ahead. He got tired in the way that only big men can, shedding grace, patience and speed consecutively, until only power remained. His serve stayed howitzer-like into the fifth set, and though it was almost enough, it finally wasn’t. A lumbering war machine with only one weapon, Isner is a human ironclad: powerful enough to fight to a draw, too slow to win. Every match he plays has the potential to turn into the Battle of Hampton Roads.
More Pieces I Really Loved:
For me, no major is complete without reading Jon Wertheim’s “50 Parting Thoughts.”
I loved this Boston Globe writer’s account of his very own fan slam.
Great reporting from Ben Rothenberg on the craziness of sports gamblers attacking low-ranked tennis players on Twitter.
This is a fun look back at how Nadal’s mannerisms have changed over the years by Christopher Clarey.
Another gem from Bodo, this time on the Fognini/Nadal match.
Tom Perrotta looks at the “Hardest Working Man in Tennis.”
This is a hysterical takedown of Queen’s Club by Alix Ramsay of Tennishorts.com.