Tennis lessons

Posted on September 8, 2015


So we’ve reached a point where a player who’s won 14 Grand Slam titles (at least one on each surface), amassed over $70 million in prize money, and has a million other super-statistics that you only have to Google up his name to find, all before turning 30, is beginning to be written off as something of a has-been. But this isn’t about Rafael Nadal. This isn’t even about tennis. This is about our apparent inability to let people be… without crafting insta-narratives around them. So the man is in a slump. Maybe he’ll climb out of it. Maybe he won’t. But can we hold back the hand-wringing, please?

So this is a little about fandom, our unwillingness to tolerate even a bit of humanness in the gods we worship. We know in our heads that the apple that goes up will have to fall, et cetera. But we pray that, due to some black magic, it would remain afloat forever. Damn that Newton. We want our idols to be moonwalkers, and every reminder of the pull of gravity becomes a sin. We lose faith. It’s not just one player having a bad year. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s a reason for every sports columnist to type out an early obit note.

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This is also about – I think – our relationship with failure. We all fail. Sometimes we fail to become the people we want to be. The last season of Mad Men had a beautiful line about this: “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world cannot support that many ballerinas.” Other times, we fail with friends, with family. And so we latch on to our idols and keep expecting them to succeed all the time – it’s a vicarious form of achievement. We do through them what we cannot do ourselves. We win through them, we travel the world through them, we bask in the praise bestowed on them, as though we were somehow personally involved in shaping them, making them the successes they are today. And when the great flame begins to flicker, we are terrified of being cast off into the darkness all over again, alone with our failures.

I’m not above this. I’m not thrilled about what’s happening with Nadal. But there’s something else, the opportunity to support a struggle – a man battling not just his opponents but himself, his aching and groaning body, his mind. How terrible it must be to be the apple that must will itself back up again. It’s something out of Joseph Campbell. Suddenly there’s this wall, this big wall from heaven to earth, and the hero must find a way around it. You’ve got to be something of a romantic to appreciate this wall. Someone like Federer, who’s been kissed by every angel in the sky, will never know this wall. He may have known hurdles, certainly – but I’m talking walls. Had Federer been a Joseph Campbell hero, he’d have found winged shoes by the wall. He’s blessed that way.

But again, this isn’t about Federer. Or Nadal. This isn’t even about tennis. This is about suffering. It’s about seeing it all slip away. It’s about being king one day and then turning around and finding the crown is gone and you’re one of the commoners. It’s about upstarts on court not spending sleepless nights about facing you the next day. It’s about people not even being surprised anymore that you’re failing. It’s about reading about yourself in the past tense – he was a good player, he was one of the greats. It could happen to any one of us, but then we aren’t great enough for our failures to be documented, and neither are we honest enough to document them, and so we turn to our idols again, wringing hands and writing early obits, doing through them what we cannot do ourselves.

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