Applauded at Every Point

A TENNIS MATCH HAS AT LEAST FORTY-EIGHT BEGINNINGS and endings; you need to win a minimum of forty-eight points to win a match. An orchestra traditionally receives a single round of applause at the conclusion of a performance. A professional tennis player at a large tournament is applauded after every point.

It makes sense, then, that Geoff Dyer would write a book about tennis that doubles as a book about endings. The Last Days of Roger Federer begins by mourning what seems to be the imminent ending of the career of Federer, the most sublime tennis player of all time. This meditation leads to two intertwined questions that preoccupy Dyer for the rest of the book. What shape does a career—literary, artistic, athletic—take when the end is in sight? And how can we retrospectively make sense of the twilight phase of an athlete’s (or a writer’s) career?

An avid tennis player, Dyer is even more avid as a fan. His appreciation for the game and the strength of his prose when describing players’ styles are reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not.” Wallace wrote about his experience watching Federer play in person, concluding that there was something metaphysical about Federer’s play that others simply did not have; the way he glided around the court, the way he was able to create an angle out of nothing, the way he could hit the perfect shot for the match’s context: these were all miracles to Wallace.

Dyer notes more than once that he does not want the book to end. But like Federer, he knows that sooner or later even the greatest players have to get off the court. 

Billy Lennon is the founder of the Cleveland Review of Books.