Every generation has its geniuses, but some endowments of genius are greater than others. As Harold Bloom once wrote, we can assume that we’ll see another Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong, a Picasso or Matisse, a Proust or even a James Joyce. But “to hope for a Dante or Shakespeare, a J. S. Bach or Mozart, a Michelangelo or Leonardo, is to ask for too much, since gifts that enormous are very rare.” Little did the world of Renaissance Italy know that the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael would never grace this planet again.
Do we know genius when we see it? I don’t know. But I do know that when we witness what may be once-in-a-generation genius, we should treasure these glimpses, for we can never be sure if we will see anything comparable again. As in art, so in tennis: The 1970s had Borg, Connors, and McEnroe, and the 1990s had Sampras, Agassi, and Courier. But the tennis world has never seen a trio the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic before, and it may never see such a terrific triad again.
Federer’s superlatives have already been limned by the late David Foster Wallace, and Nadal’s talents have been widely appreciated for the better part of a decade. Djokovic, however, has not yet had his moment in the sun. For various reasons—lack of sustained success, a hard-to-pronounce name, an occasionally abrasive, McEnroe-esque temperament—the “Djoker” has yet to be fully embraced by fans. He doesn’t have the puissant panache of Nadal, nor does his game possess the balletic beauty of Federer; but Djokovic has every shot in the book, is a shade quicker than Nadal, is more consistent from the baseline than Federer, and has the greatest return game since Andre Agassi. Indeed, Djokovic may be the most talented of them all. After upending Federer in an epic Wimbledon final this past summer—and in spite of his anomalous lapse against Kei Nishikori at the U.S. Open—the Djoker is on the cusp of surpassing tennis’s Bach (Nadal) and Mozart (Federer). Now, fresh off his fifth Australian Open championship, Djokovic is poised to become the tempestuous Beethoven of tennis—exactly at the moment, though, when we may be losing the opportunity to appreciate his genius.
In recent tournaments, the United States Tennis Association has permitted increased crowd noise during matches. Tennis, it is said, needs to become more “fan friendly,” and one of the ways it can do so is by allowing more noise during matches. “Let us have crowd noise during matches,” so the thinking goes, “let us be like all other sports.” As it happens, while many players are perturbed by the development, the mercurial Djokovic supports it. He feeds off the fans in a fashion not seen since John McEnroe. But while allowing more mid-match crowd noise could benefit Djokovic, in an ironic twist, it would also detract from fans’ ability to appreciate him. Increased mid-match noise would deprive tennis of the one element that makes it unique.
Tennis is no mere game; more than any other sport, it resembles art. Spectators observe the sport in serene silence: It is the only sport that does not allow crowd noise during in-play competition—my apologies to golf, but a game in which the greatest amount of physical exertion consists of gently strolling along finely manicured lawns cannot be considered a “sport”—and it is this very absence of noise that, like attending a symphony or an art exhibition or reading a book in a library, endows tennis with a mesmerizing, meditative quality. It is not for nothing that tennis was the sport of Nabokov, and of Humbert Humbert. It was also the sport of Shakespeare and Henry V’s Hal, Philip Roth’s Neil and Brenda in Goodbye, Columbus, and John Updike’s concupiscent pairs in Couples.
In Henry V, Prince Hal ridicules the Dauphin’s gift of a container of tennis balls with this well-placed cross-court shot:
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set . . .
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
The way in which Updike and Nabokov wrote about tennis almost made it seem as if the sport was created for writers. Here is Updike describing a seemingly simple exchange of groundstrokes and serves: