Courtly Love

The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey BY Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey

In film, no long shot is more iconic, precise in its intention, disturbing, and startling than Alfred Hitchcock’s of a tennis match in Strangers on a Train. The camera looks at the crowd looking intently at a game in action; the crowd mirrors the audience watching the film (the meta Hitchcock loves). In a full grandstand, multiple heads move left, right, left, right, back again, synchronized, following the ball like cats do a swinging object. But only one head, among so many, remains absolutely still, staring straight ahead at the camera. It is that of the malicious mastermind, played by Robert Walker, one of two conspirators to murder, looking across, lethally, at his co-conspirator on the other side of the court. Each man had sworn to murder a person not known to him but to the other. There would be no reason, no motivation—the perfect crime. Walker already did his murder, but the other man wants to back out of the deal.

I have been fascinated by a tennis ball’s being hit over the net (and Hitchcock’s movies) since I was a child. My mother played, and I would accompany her to the courts. In summer camp I played every day if I could (in competitions, I would lose when applause for me started). I played a lot, especially as a teenager, and fantasized I could go pro with the right coach. Ridiculous. Then I loved watching tennis as much as baseball, horse racing, and human racing.

My first tennis hero was Pancho Gonzales. One day, when I was six, walking up Fifth Avenue with my mother or father beside me, I saw a man coming toward us. I thought I knew him and ran up to him—Pancho Gonzales! Oh heart! He smiled his gorgeous smile, amused, maybe delighted. Now, my heart thumps for Federer, Serena, Djokovic, and newer players coming up. It also cycles way down for players like Donald Young, a fast-rising US star as a junior, who hasn’t reached his potential.

Watching matches, I sense how a player begins to defeat herself, how a certain twist in a match, a mis-hit, sends a player spiraling into more losses. Regularly, I make analogies to writing, how a writer can beat herself, how in writing there is no best, but in tennis there is, for a moment in time. (Tennis players are much better at applauding the other’s game.) The fierce, highly visible competition in tennis makes it painful, say, to watch Serena and Venus battle against each other. Or an injured player going on with the match.

The romance of tennis, if you love the game and follow it, depends on knowing the players, having favorites and dream players, rooting for underdogs, wanting champions to keep winning—the elegant Federer—seeing on their faces hopes, wounds, the vicissitudes. Then, to you, each match is a heroic endeavor, in which psychology is as much in play as skill. I am fully conscious that this heroism I perceive may seem very strange to others, because it’s “just a game.” But also, “la vida es sueño.

The author at age four.
The author at age four.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) is a tennis romance, and unique. Phillips knows the love. He is a sportswriter and poet, and remarkably, because tennis love isn’t easy to explain, he has found the right supple, sometimes tactile, and tender language for it. “Because tennis can offer what Robert Frost said poetry provides: a momentary stay against confusion.”

Phillips writes as if he’s near the players, calling accurate play-by-plays and doing color. I could see the ball speed over the net, drop over, or go into it on courts that are blue, green, and red—clay, grass, and hard. I could see the players racing for the ball, nearly doing a split. “But tennis is a game of undulating rhythms that exist in four concentric circles—the rhythm of a point, the rhythm of a service game, the rhythm of a return game, the rhythm of a set—that are interrelated but don’t necessarily touch.”

Phillips decided to follow all of the ATP tournaments of 2017. Miraculously, he did. It is the kind of promise I would want to make, that I would daydream about making, and know I’d never keep. He followed sometimes in person, other times on the screen, waking at crazy hours to watch matches all over the world. “It’s January, and 2017 has a vise grip on the mind. And here I am, groggy as hell, keeping up with news about tennis from sixteen hours in the future.” He didn’t just cover the majors—Australian, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, US Open—but all of it.

Phillips might call me a Grand Slam fan. “The extremely public spectacle of Grand Slams . . . tends to bring out the tennis fan in all of us, even if only temporarily—[and] reaches its peak with the final one of the year.” That’s the US Open. (As it happens I’m watching the 2018 Open while reading Phillips’s book, and have to put it down, reluctantly, to watch the players he’s talking about.) To the slams, I’m pretty faithful, a fan not a fanatic, attending the US Open only three times. But I watch every game I can on TV. Everything else can go to hell.

Phillips is the complete tennis lover, knowledgeable and a player, amateur but serious. Reading his book, I learned more about the intricacies of the game, court tactics and when they’re employed, who serves which type of serve to whom and why, and how Federer recently altered his backhand to hit flatter. Tennis is cerebral and physical human chess, the players figuring it out as they go along, if they can, mind and body changing. The greater the players, the more flexible they are, the better able to alter their plan of attack. (Phillips has also provided a glossary of terms. See “inside-out forehand.”)

As if writing a mystery, Phillips keeps his tour story suspenseful. He develops each player as a character in the greater game—that is, their lives—and, through the narrative, also tracks their hopes, travails, luck, failures, their tennis magic. He knows and assesses the players very well, gleaning, to my mind, their tennis souls. Since he was very young, Phillips has felt tennis love and grown up along with the players and the game. “When you’re in your teens, words like resilience, endurance and perspective aren’t real.”

The narrative was determined by the 2017 ATP tour’s chronology, from the start of the season until its end. Phillips augmented its drama with stories about previous matches and player anecdotes. He never loses the book’s propulsion; I kept up with it and him, relishing it to the end, but “to be honest,” as Dave Chappelle says when he’s going in for the kill, Phillips’s minute explanation of how a player is seeded drove me a little crazy. I couldn’t focus on it, so didn’t learn how it worked. I did, though, learn its importance: The draw, based on the seed, can make or break a tournament. “A draw exists to keep the presumed two best players in a tournament as far away from each other and out of each other’s way until the presumed showdown at the end.” The two best players in the world should not be on the same side of the draw, because the order of contests must lead to that denouement: the two best players against each other. If not, it would be like finding out that the butler did it before the murder.

You may never have played tennis or watched it, but Phillips beautifully describes the experience of loving it. His exegesis might stand in for any fan’s love of any sport. Which can be strange for a nonbeliever. (I am dumbfounded by ice hockey.) So, I often ask myself about this strange phenomenon—grown people watching a ball putted into a hole; or slam-dunked into a basket; or hit into the upper decks at Citi Field.

Let’s think about what a sport is—an activity that engages the body and mind. Loving an endeavor, developing a skill, pursuing a goal. To me, practicing a serve hour after hour, a backhand slice, and the obsession to get it right—this is akin to the practice of writing, but practice never makes perfect, for writers. Not perfect the way Djokovic smashes a forehand right down the line. Writing doesn’t allow for that, really. But people have a need for a goal, and hope to succeed. All of these activities and attributes, or symptoms, entail existential questions. Sports are a microcosm of life—it’s how you play the game. I mean, what do you do with the time you have, and what is your approach to the trouble of being alive.

It’s not surprising that many writers and artists love tennis. There are definite winners and losers. With exceptions. There are chances at coming back. Some love to play (me, once). Some also love to watch (me, now), to feel on edge, to be in amazement at rallies that appear endless, heartbeat accelerating, when, say, that white or yellow ball skims over the net and remarkably lands in the ad corner, back of the court, right on the line.

These shots are to die for. Or to live for. You feel that in players, that they live for it. You, fan or fanatic, see their passion and exist in that moment with them. They play to win, but there is no murder, there’s ferocity, losing faith, regaining it, overcoming, going on; there’s the pleasure of a win and the acceptance of a loss. “Everyone dreams of the Grand Slams, and for that reason they are for everyone; they are as much the fan’s dream as the player’s.” It’s just a game. What a game.

Lynne Tillman’s most recent book is the novel Men and Apparitions (Soft Skull Press, 2018). A new edition of her 2006 novel, American Genius, A Comedy, will be published by Soft Skull in February.