The retirement of Serena Williams and that of Roger Federer from the tennis courts has been the worst news in the sport in 2022. The Swiss turned tennis into one of the fine arts, and his game – that perfect mixture of strokes and movements, of short steps and a backhand that seemed executed by Apollo or some Olympian god – awakened the talent of one of the great American writers of recent times: David Foster Wallace (1962-2008).
The author of the monumental The Infinite Joke traveled to London to see the 2006 final between Federer and Nadal in Wimbledon. The result, which can be found in the book En cuerpo y en lo otro and in several compilations, is a masterful and essential chronicle of tennis, but, among other things, it is an ode to the ‘Federer Moments’, those moments in which the Helvetian floats in the air and hits the ball; he describes Nadal as his nemesis and shows him as a kind of barbarian from other times, a god of war willing to fight to infinity against Roger’s beauty and delicacy.
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“Roger Federerr –he wrote in his chronicle– is one of the few supernatural athletes who seem to be exempt, at least in part, from certain laws of physics. Other comparable beings would be Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high, but also hang in the air for a moment or two longer than gravity would allow, and Mohamed Ali, who could actually ‘float’ across the canvas and land two or three hits in the time it takes to hit one. There are probably another half dozen examples from 1960. And Roger Federer belongs to that category: a category that can be called a genius, a mutant or an avatar. You will never see him lacking in timing or balance. The ball that approaches him hangs in the air a fraction of a second longer than it should. His movements are more agile than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he’s up against.”
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Roger Federer – he wrote in his chronicle – is one of the few supernatural athletes who seem to be exempt, at least in part, from certain laws of physics.
The chronicle, without a doubt, is as exciting as the match itself, which Federer finally won, and it was the appetizer of the best match of all time in which the same protagonists fought tirelessly, on the same stage, the sacred turf of Wimbledon, just a year later.
Foster Wallace has another unmissable white sport chronicle with a title impossible to memorize: The professional talent of tennis player Michael Joyce as a paradigm of certain ideas about free will, freedom, limitations, enjoyment, the grotesque and human achievement.
No one today remembers Joyce’s exploits. Her best ranking was 64th in the world, and she never made it past a first round grand slam, but Foster Wallace, through his figure, showed all the difficulties a tennis player goes throughsat next to him and saw the rivers of sweat that ran down his body and, like few people, managed to explain what it means to be among the top 100 in the world in a sport like tennis and the abysmal differences between what the Top 20 and the rest of mortals who dare to wield a racket.
Tennis has not been an excessively “literary” sport. In addition to Foster Wallace -which among other things places his masterpiece, the infinite jokein a tennis academy – there are not too many examples.
Witold Gombrowicz achieves that in his novel the spellbound, one of his characters has an indecipherable blow: a cut shot that a master of Colombian tennis had: Mauricio Hadad. There is also a particularly malevolent tale of Patricia Highsmith in which a woman kills her husband with a killer diet and intense tennis regimen that sends him into cardiac arrest.
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Open, the memoirs of Andre Agassiwritten by the Pulitzer winner J. R. Moehringer, tells stories as funny as his defeat in a Roland Garros final because he was going bald and didn’t want to lose his precious wig to a two-handed backhand. Those were the times when the mane of Agassi it was a true trademark. Open has become not only a classic of tennis, but of literary journalism.
And there is a gem from 1977 recently published by a Colombian publisher: The Tennis Players, by Lars Gustafsson (Iron Horse). It is a novel that is read in one sitting and only produces healthy laughter.
Its protagonist – the author’s alter ego – is a Swedish writer who lives for a while in Austin as a visiting professor at a university run by a kind of mafia cowboys of education. His life takes place between classes on Nietzsche and Strindberg’s Infernohis bike, his musings on serving and its ultimate importance in the game, and a public tennis court filled with quirky characters running around.
The athletic professor –among other things– meets a skinny guy with psychological problems who works in a secret base and could unleash World War III. He also meets a girl who turns out to be some kind of Texan princess and, above all, and this is the last mystery of the novel, he meets a kind of Zen tennis monk who had the luxury of beating Rod Laver in straight sets. Y…
“I never ran. She walked down the runway with calm, springy steps and wherever the ball landed he seemed to have all the time in the world, his feet never accelerating beyond a normal walking pace.” Doesn’t he remind you of Roger Federer?
The foreword – written by Mariana Duke– is also unmissable and is undoubtedly a memorable adventure of Colombian tennis. Duke won the Roland Garros Junior in 2007 and he had to play it with some borrowed rackets, because his suitcase was stolen before he played his first game.
FERNANDO GOMEZ ECHEVERRI