Dragons, screenplays, and drama – oh, my! In tennis commentary, fewer literary devices and more analysis, please. A joint Balke Bros post.

5 Sep

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There were no fire-breathing dragons.

No one had written a 1960s screenplay that mirrored the “drama” unfolding on court.

And for as much as we would have loved to see Roger Federer literally levitate off the court while down two match points in his U.S. Open quarterfinal against Gael Monfils, alas, the Swiss stayed firmly affixed to the deco-turf surface at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Yet, had you opted out of watching the match itself, and depended solely on the morning after coverage online and in the rags, you could have been forgiven for thinking that something supernatural, if decidedly predetermined, had played out late Thursday night in the Big Apple.

Tennis writers have become bizarrely focused on assigning narratives and unshakable, often down right odd, characteristics to the players who pick up sticks and hit balls around on the court.

Thursday night’s quarter provided an apt example.

Federer, the dogged, resurgent, renewed-ly confident, timeless champion, was looking to take another step forward in the quest to build on his all-time record of 17 major titles.

As a finely calibrated Swiss timepiece coldly marches through time’s struggles with suave continental style, The Maestro stepped onto the court that he had made his own: the bright lights under which so many a lesser warrior soul had withered like a desert rose? These were HIS lights, as the gallivanting Swiss had conquered so many strange lands, far from idyllic Basel. No, Darth Federer has ensconced himself within the cloak of his symphonic charm to win acolytes from the dirts of Roland Garros to the pastoral time warp of tennis’ hallowed grounds at the All England Club, and indeed to the gritty starstruck hustle of Flushing Meadows. The greatest trick Mesostopholes ever played is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. The rakish cosmopolitan devil Fed has vanquished the tennis world with a wink and a laugh, leaving us begging for more.

Pro tennis’ statesman, the cool, calm, and collected Swiss veteran seemed to have all the momentum on his side, and needed only to continue playing “his game” to march toward what would be his seventh U.S. Open final. He’d been in this situation before. Knew what to expect. Had a plan, a back-up plan, and then a tertiary plan to weather any series of tactics, body blows, and knock-out punches his opponent could throw at him. The stage was set for a Fed victory.

Or was it?

 

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On the other side of the net, Monfils, the unruly, untamed, endlessly talented but even more endlessly undisciplined Frenchman, seemed primed to stop Federer’s run. He’d shown “remarkable poise” in making the quarters, staring down higher-ranked compatriots, ascendant Americans (to the extent they exist), and even upstart Bulgarians to reach the final eight, and did so without losing a set. At long last, Monfils seemed to be “putting it all together,” shunning flamboyance for boring, effective tennis. As tennis writer Jon Wertheim put it in a piece just after the match, in reaching the quarters, Monfils seemed to be “finally marrying his limitless talent with sound decision making and something resembling poise.” It was like a maturation process playing out right before our eyes.

Calder Willingham’s 1967 screenplay The Graduate depicts a young, unruly Dustin Hoffman trying to figure out what to do with his post-college life. After a series of fits, starts, and reckless behavior, including an affair with the bombshell mother of his true love, Hoffman figures things out, casts aside the self-destructive antics of his youth and decides to pursue things that he deems truly important. In Thursday night’s battle at Ashe, Gael Monfils was that wayward youth.

Except that he wasn’t.

In fact, the quarter between Monfils and Federer resembled no screenplay at all. Nor was its fate predetermined. Fed didn’t “flip a switch” or “find that extra gear,” nor did Monfils “revert to form,” “succumb to the inevitable,” or “let his talent get the better of him.”

Monfils started the match playing a bit better than Fed, then the Swiss raised his game and came back. Monfils secured two match points in the fourth. He would’ve won the second one had Fed hit his down-the-line forehand an inch lower, which could have occurred because of any number of factors, including excessive closing of the racquet face, sluggish racquet head speed, or a little birdie flying by as he hit the shot. Anyone who tells you that Federer’s victory was written in the stars either doesn’t understand the mundane factors that determine most points at that level of tennis, even the key ones, or has read one too many Brian Phillips articles.

I’ve been reading up on the 1972 Chilean coup that removed the democratically elected leftist government of Salvador Allende. Bespectacled Allende, perennial presidential candidate, emblematic of reasoned opposition to the stratified post-colonial chaos that had strangled Latin America for generations. There’s something surprising in the fact Allende finally managed a win. But as famed Chilean poet, lyricist, writer, senator, thinker, martyr, diplomat, and izquierdista Pablo Neruda once remarked “But from each crime are born bullets that will one day seek out in you where the heart lies.” Allende won. A new day was born. Until Pinochet and the Chicago boys put an end to the dream of a free Chile. Inevitability superceded the nascent upstart movement.

This has nothing to do with last night’s tennis match. I could easily fashion a haphazard link that makes me look well-read and you happy you read such an intelligent blog. Unlike someone who gets paid to write about tennis in today’s mediascape, we here at Balke Bros feel no need to put out such trite grasps at the facade of literary excellence. Tennis is a beautiful sport filled with tactics and strategy above all else. The moments don’t drip significance, but each rally tells you something new about the players and the unique match you’re watching.

As we look ahead to tomorrow’s semis and the men’s final on Monday, anything could happen. But the bigger point, the one that everyone needs to understand, is that the result of tomorrow’s contests will turn more on Cilic’s forehand than some forgotten Diane Keaton line buried deep in the second half of Annie Hall, more on Nishikori’s first-serve percentage than any lesson one could possibly glean from Garcia Marquez’s use of magical realism in 100 Years of Solitude.

We love tennis, and we love people who write about tennis, but c’mon! Things are out of control.

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So, before homeboy Phillips describes another up-and-coming Aussie as playing like he was a man on fire, or Jon Wertheim describes the outcome of a key match as following a script written by The Fates, we’d ask simply, and respectfully, for our fellow comentaristas to spend a little less time on dragons, fire, and hidden meanings found in classic texts, and a little more time describing what actually happened in a match and why it was important.

Until then, though, save us a seat on the Zeppelin, Brian. The titanic symphony of racquets and yellow fuzz sets ablaze our neural jungle as feverishly as a well-constructed metaphor.

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