One way of seeing Roger Federer’s game.
Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
In 2008, at the age of 27, Roger Federer had finished his fourth consecutive year as the number-one ranked tennis player in the world, already won 13 Grand Slam tournaments, and made most of his opponents look as if they had come to play against him with a cricket bat instead of a tennis racquet. That year the Onion published a photograph of Federer, on which was listed his strengths and weaknesses. Among his weaknesses was cited “speaks fluent German,” “has weakened knees by falling to them in victory 750 times a year,” and “incapable of hitting a 120+ mph serve with his left foot.” The joke, of course, was that Federer had no weaknesses. He was, clearly, among the favorites of the gods.
Seven years have passed, leaving Roger Federer, at 34, no mere veteran but in that ambiguous category of athletes known as Older Player. People, recalling his past glory, have begun referring to “the old Federer.” Still very much a contender—he made it to this year’s Wimbledon finals—he is now far from invincible. If he gets knocked off in a tournament in the round of 16 or in the quarter-finals, it is no longer shocking news. Yet Federer retains a large number of fans—fanatics, really—who look upon him as the last remaining connection with tennis as a sport of elegance played by men and women of good character.
William Skidelsky, the son of the biographer of John Maynard Keynes, is among these fanatics, a man for whom Roger Federer has been more than a splendid athlete, merely, but a symbol, an idol, an image made flesh of a world of perfection he has longed for in his own life yet realized he could never attain. His book is an account of his one-sided romance with Federer (the two personally encountered only twice, at press conferences) which along the way is filled out with a good deal of useful information about how the game of tennis has altered over the years and is played today.
Owing to the change in tennis equipment—chiefly the advent of graphite racquets, allowing the controlled use of topspin, and of co-poly strings that allow still more spin—tennis has gone from a game of strategy and stylishness to one dominated by raw power. Topspin, as Skidelsky notes, has become “the bedrock of the game.” The players have grown larger, with most female professionals 5’10” or taller, many male players over 6’5”. Serves are clocked at a blistering 130 mph and more. Players now stand at the baseline slugging away with killer topspin forehands and two-handed backhands in what is known as “the power-baseline game.” The velocity of serves and strokes is noted by speed guns; cameras record and arbitrate close calls.
Watching television film of the tennis matches during wooden racquet days, one sometimes feels one is viewing the sport played in slow motion. The notion of amateur spirit—playing, that is, for pure love of the game—has also departed. Everything in tennis has become professionalized, with players now having what they call “teams,” by which they mean coaches, trainers, and sometimes sports psychologists, on their payroll. A single goal reigns: Win the match, take the money, get back to the weight room and practice court, bring on the next opponent.
William Skidelsky is excellent at showing how tennis has changed over the decades. He is informative in showing how technology has been the chief factor of change. He is quite marvelous in setting out the strange drama inherent in tennis owing to its system of scoring. Tennis is, after all, the only athletic contest in which one can win a match without winning a majority of points, or even games in the match. In tennis, not all points carry the same significance. The rhythm of a match can be radically altered by a decisive winner or unforced error, for tennis is more mental than most sports, its players more given to mood, shifts in momentum, drifting concentration, and leaking confidence. A clearly superior player will defeat an inferior player, but one superior player can lose to another for tenebrous, even mysterious, reasons.
The traditional spirit of tennis was irreparably altered with the appearance of two American players in the 1970s, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Connors was the first self-congratulatory tennis player: fist-pumping, touchdown dancing when he scored an important or otherwise impressive point, revving up the crowd at every chance. McEnroe stopped matches to scream at umpires and linesmen when close calls did not go his way, all this in the name of an unashamedly ugly competitiveness. Both men, each unattractive in his own way, violated every tenet of sportsmanship once integral to the game of tennis, and left it changed for the worse.
How and why gifted students are shortchanged.
Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By ANNE CONTINETTI
‘You could have your students write tweets as if they were Martin Luther King Jr.,” said the educational consultant leading our professional development workshop.
It may be too early to say.Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
In the early 1990s, amid public outrage over Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit photographs, including several of private parts, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) would settle arguments on the matter by pulling out his own. That the most avowedly conservative politician in America felt the need to carry around such a photograph shows how controversies over public morality were then dominating politics.
Wyatt Prunty, poet of the fallen world.
Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By JAMES MATTHEW WILSON
Half of Wyatt Prunty’s ninth volume of poetry consists of “Nod,” a dream-vision narrative set mostly in the darkness of a shopping mall parking lot in Atlanta. Standing there, a man, who refers to himself as Fulton, though “of course there was no Fulton,” finds himself in an age so mired in inanition and meaninglessness, it is like “the flu before the fever touches you, / The ache without a place to point.” He wishes it were otherwise, that a time might return when Hank Aaron was at the plate and “T-bills” meant “what they say.”
Uncollected writings from the Shirley Jackson vault.
Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By DANNY HEITMAN
During a literary career that lasted a quarter of a century, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) published six novels of the macabre, a collection of short fiction, two books for children, a play, and two comic memoirs of motherhood—enough work to fill a small shelf. But she’s best known for a nine-page short story, “The Lottery,” in which the residents of a quaint Norman Rockwell town are slowly revealed as participants in a ritual act of murder.
Children, by the millions, scattered across the USSR. Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
When 55-year-old Stephen Pasceri walked into a Boston hospital last January and fatally shot Michael Davidson, a 44-year-old heart surgeon who had taken care of Pasceri’s late mother, his futile rage deprived others of a superb physician and changed in an instant the lives of Dr. Davidson’s three young children. They are fortunate to be growing up with their mother in upper-middle-class America, where their trauma will gradually heal.
How, exactly, did it come to this?Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By JOHN PSAROPOULOS
When James Angelos embarks on a series of trips to report on the Greek debt crisis, he finds that no one is to blame for it. On Zakynthos, for example, three-quarters of blindness disability beneficiaries were exposed as frauds. The island’s ophthalmologist had liberally handed out certificates of blindness, countersigned by the prefect. Angelos approaches the prefect first: “The doctor!” he says. “Only he has responsibility. The doctor puts you down as blind.
The Broadway impresario’s ‘maelstrom of mirth.’Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Although I was a frequenter of burlesque in its last days, with its comedians, strippers, and feeble orchestra—the Casino Theater in Boston was a good escape from the toils of graduate English at Harvard—I knew little about its more dignified ancestor, the Ziegfeld Follies. So this account of the man and his work was new territory, even though that territory has been pretty fully covered already by Charles Higham’s (1972) and Ethan Mordden’s (2008) biographies.
Eminent domain as social enforcer.Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By JUSTIN TORRES
It’s a rare constitutional law case that has something for everyone to loathe. But 10 years ago, the Supreme Court sparked a singular moment of bipartisanship when it held, in Kelo v. City of New London, that states can take property from one owner and give it to another to re-develop for a higher, better (read: more lucrative) use. Conservative property rights advocates, liberal civil rights groups, and almost everyone in between denounced the opinion, and states passed dozens of laws rejecting its central holding.
A real-life Hollywood mystery remains unsolved.Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By JON L. BREEN
Among classic American murder cases, the 1922 shooting death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor is one of the most intriguing. Although Lizzie Borden’s axe murders, the assassinations of Kennedy and Lincoln, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the O. J. Simpson trial continue to inspire retelling and speculation, these cases are all generally regarded as solved. But no one knows for sure who fired the shot that brought down the handsome and well-liked Taylor, an admired and influential figure in the film community, albeit with a shady past.
A Victorian alliance of love and politics. Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By JAMES BOWMAN
On the first page of this enjoyable double biography, Daisy Hay quotes the Mister-half of her titular couple as having said, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”
Mankind has yet to meet the pigs halfway.
Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
Ask which domesticated animal is most like humans, and the answer comes quickly: “Dogs!” Like us, dogs live in hierarchical packs, thrive on affection, and are smarter than the average cow, sheep, or goat. Yet all this is also true of the pig.
At the end of life, reading as therapy.Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By THOMAS SWICK
All writers begin as readers, and the majority, the ones worth reading, continue life as more prolific readers than writers—especially, it seems, as they age.
Any message in a valedictory novel? Aug 24, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 47 • By JONATHAN LEAF
In 1967, Milan Kundera was the most famous writer in Czechoslovakia. His novel The Joke, probably his best, had run through a printing of 150,000 copies—in a nation of 15 million. Among the century’s masterworks, The Joke exposed the incessant absurdity and routine vindictiveness inherent in a society commanded by Communist apparatchiks, demonstrating how life under such tyranny turns our best impulses, feelings of love and devotion, toward resentment and enmity. Kundera was a national hero.
Reflections of a Chinese human rights hero in exile. Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By DAVID AIKMAN
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing in May 2012 for a top-level conference with Chinese officials on strategic and economic issues, she got much more than she bargained for. A handicapped Chinese human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, had managed to obtain provisional asylum in the American embassy. Chen, who has been blind since infancy, was well-known to diplomats, journalists, and observers of human rights in China.