Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Nibbling at the edges – Readings for the fortnight – 1

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 14, 2012

While watching any sport I instinctively gravitate towards the underdog. My sympathies always lean towards the loser for I can never forget the cruel barb which says that despite the hard work and toil a runner-up is the first loser. A lifetime’s effort can be trashed using this dismissal. Wimbledon 2012 was no exception. In a way it was the battle of underdogs. However, I wanted Federer to win. The world number 3, was trying not only to wrest the cup back for the seventh time but also perch himself on the pinnacle of world rankings. I have admired Federer’s game for the effortless grace, power, reflexes, agility, aggression, acumen and tenacity he displayed. There were a few valuable things that one could take from his sport and apply in one’s life. His game is life-educative in many ways – excellence, decency, fairness, perfection, commitment were a few of them. Above all, there was something fluid and beautiful in the way he played the game. He was the only tennis star besides Stefan Edberg whom I loved to watch and cheer unabashedly. The next day after the match as we were settling into the office, I had made a mention of this to a colleague who himself is a tennis player. After a few minutes I received a mail from him containing a link to an article written by David Foster Wallace titled “Federer as Religious Experience”. The article was written in 2006 and published in NY Times. What started as a tepid read rapidly elevated itself into to a breathtakingly brilliant and unforgettably impressive narrative of the world of modern day top-notch professional tennis and the centrality and pre-eminence of Federer in it. It was a stunning piece of writing and probably the best piece I have ever read on any sports coverage. The only other piece that could come anywhere in the vicinity of this was an article titled TDF: The World Chess Championship by Julian Barnes (T for Trap, D for Dominate and we all know what F stands for). Ever since, I have read the piece many times over. Foster describes the dynamics of the game with an extra-ordinary insight, literary flourish and understanding which is super-human. The beauty and appeal of this article resides in its sympathy – for it is told from the eyes of a spectator. Here are some excerpts:

……………. Anyway, that’s one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV — and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love…..Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

Describing the set-up and atmospherics of the 2006 finals at Wimbledon, Foster gives us a glimpse of his writerly talents:

This Wimbledon final’s got the revenge narrative, the king-versus-regicide dynamic, the stark character contrasts. It’s the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the intricate clinical artistry of the north. Apollo and Dionysus. Scalpel and cleaver. Righty and southpaw. Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Nadal, the man who’s taken the modern power-baseline game just as far as it goes, versus a man who’s transfigured that modern game, whose precision and variety are as big a deal as his pace and foot-speed, but who may be peculiarly vulnerable to, or psyched out by, that first man

(Apollo and Dionysus! How many times have I told myself to learn some aspects of Greek and Roman mythology) …and the narrative accuracy continues

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip (wow…. what an expression!!!), his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height

For most of us who are used to TV tennis, Wallace provides a fantastic and unforgettable reality dose:

…..TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting. This loss is simple to explain. TV’s priority, during a point, is coverage of the whole court, a comprehensive view, so that viewers can see both players and the overall geometry of the exchange. Television therefore chooses a specular vantage that is overhead and behind one baseline. You, the viewer, are above and looking down from behind the court. This perspective, as any art student will tell you, “foreshortens” the court. Real tennis, after all, is three-dimensional, but a TV screen’s image is only 2-D. The dimension that’s lost (or rather distorted) on the screen is the real court’s length, the 78 feet between baselines; and the speed with which the ball traverses this length is a shot’s pace, which on TV is obscured, and in person is fearsome to behold. That may sound abstract or overblown, in which case by all means go in person to some professional tournament — especially to the outer courts in early rounds, where you can sit 20 feet from the sideline — and sample the difference for yourself. If you’ve watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving, how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer…………….Interestingly, what is less obscured in TV coverage is Federer’s intelligence, since this intelligence often manifests as angle. Federer is able to see, or create, gaps and angles for winners that no one else can envision, and television’s perspective is perfect for viewing and reviewing these Federer Moments. What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world-class athletes around this way requires, in turn, a better technical understanding of the modern power-baseline game than TV — again — is set up to provide

TV viewing of any sport will never be the same again for me. I will always be haunted by a permanently resident sense of gnawing of its inalienable and inherent drawback. LED, LCD, 3D… I really do not think any improvement in technology will eliminate this gap. This longish article is full of brilliant observations, juxtapositions and a continuous joy while reading. Here are a few more excerpts:

Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light……………The upshot is that pro tennis involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action………….. Temporally, we’re more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled

Subtlety, touch, and finesse are not dead in the power-baseline era. For it is, still, in 2006, very much the power-baseline era: Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.

And then comes the final paragraph of speculation on future of tennis and tennis players post Federer

Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled

Yes, to read an inspiring literary treatment of an intensely physical game of elegance and athleticism is also to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. There was also an accompanied sadness at the conclusion of the reading for here was a writer of immense talent and who for reasons beyond rationalization and analysis ended up committing suicide – spectatorially speaking – this was an unnecessary and avoidable double fault at the prime of the game of life

A fine piece of sports writing worth reading many times over

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