Thursday, June 24, 2010

Isner, Mahut and 'Levels of the Game'

Just moments after tuning into American John Isner and Frenchman Nicholas Mahut's five-set epic at Wimbledon, I started thinking of John McPhee's Levels of the Game.

It was an odd thought. If they were to reach for any analogue at all, most people would probably think first of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe's 1980 Wimbledon final, with a fourth-set tiebreaker that went to 18-16. That's assuming they thought it worth the effort to try to draw any comparisons at all. At this point, Isner-Mahut defies most of them.

Consider the following:
at 7 hours, 6 minutes in length, the fifth set alone eclipsed the duration of the longest tennis match in history by 33 minutes;
Isner has already broken the record for aces (78) by a solid 20 (98);
Mahut has broken it by 17 (95);
they are tied at two sets and 59 games apiece;
59 games is enough to win over three different matches in straight sets;
the match is not over.
This is no ordinary degree of overtime. During the broadcast, increasingly loopy broadcasters whom one suspects were obliged to urinate in empty jars behind the desk on set kept mentioning sports overtime anomalies that might seem comparable and failing. There are none. Not only has no one done anything like this in tennis; no one has done anything like this ever. The longest baseball game in history went 25 innings over eight hours. Isner and Mahut have been playing this match for ten hours over two days, set to try to conclude it on a third.

Another reason not to think back to Borg-McEnroe is that it's likely to be the default analogy for sportswriters looking for sloppy means of putting this match into perspective. Why bother?—everyone else will do it for you. Journalists in general don't like to work without comparative examples: it's why they measure everything in Rhode Islands. But sportswriters in particular seem beholden to forcing analogies, even if the only purpose is to break them later. Take the Boston Red Sox's incredible comeback against the Yankees and first World Series title in 86 years. Even then the default strategy for demonstrating the scale of the achievement was to labor to liken it to something else, only to explain why the similitude failed. This was totally unique because it was just like these other things, except for how it wasn't.

Perhaps this is a symptom of the greater ill of prefabricated narrative. One can hardly fault journalists for doing work ahead of time. They have to file stories every day, and often the stories themselves aren't innately entertaining without human-interest backgrounds, pointing out skill sets identical to famous older players or drawing a potential cinderella storyline for a participant. Besides, audiences enjoy arguing over these details. The black- and reptilian-eyed cipher/failure known as Tony Romo wouldn't be half as compelling if we couldn't yell about whether he was the new Brett Favre.

By the time someone gets to Wimbledon, a serious tennis journalist has seen him or her several times and gleaned enough information to start forming these narratives. Whether from a desire for economizing on personal time or for placating an audience that needs tennis ability measured in half-Agassis and Sampras-like serves — the promotional package starts taking shape before the opening ceremony. In this case, Isner played here before, and Mahut has hung around the qualifiers for the last couple years. Even during the regular tennis season, outside the Grand Slam events, players go head to head, do unique things, offer themselves as rising stars or potential narrative elements.

Isner and Mahut made a mess of that sort of thing. They're both guys destined to exit early, maybe upset a star in the early rounds before getting sent home or, in extreme cases, make a surprise run ending in the quarterfinals. They're not supposed to make history on so absurd a scale in the first round. They've left writers reliant on prefab narratives bereft. Barring something else pretty exceptional happening, it's quite likely that the men's final match won't be a tenth as interesting or memorable, the winner disappearing into a haze of middling years between Roger Federer winning several titles back to back and the next dominant player winning several titles back to back.

There's also the small matter of the match not being over yet. Too many sports journalists cling to their ability to be right 53% of the time and wrong only 47% of the time to go out on a limb with poetry before a decision is made. Nobody wants to gather laurels for one player only to watch him lose. And while partly that worry is no different from the natural human desire not to look foolish, it doubtless relies also on sportswriters' need to maintain the illusion of expertise and necessity. Going to Wimbledon in the flesh, traveling with a baseball team, seeing football players nude: these are all things that make them distinct from their readers, that elevate their observations beyond mortal grasp and into meriting a paygrade for words. Waxing lyrical about John Isner only to see Nicholas Mahut clobber him the next day lessens the import of their mediation.

It's just as well, because sportswriter poetry tends to be pretty bad, and the human touches of the match itself are plentiful. Poetry only gets in the way of what they are. Take Isner, lumbering around at 6'9" and slamming first-serve aces and improbably great second serves. For all but two shots in the fifth set, the man couldn't hit a backhand. He worked his way around Mahut's sailing service returns to get a forehand shot on them. He looked like someone's uncle if you could go back in time and see him in his twenties: a man gifted with certain tennis abilities and desperately working around shortcomings that wouldn't go away. Then, in a concession to exhaustion so totally honest that it provoked a wince and a smile, he just stopped trying for any shot more than about four feet to either side of him. Oh, well, fuck it, he seemed to say. I'll try to get that one back on the serve. He was just too goddamned tired.

Mahut fared little better. Despite having a cumulative ten hours to figure out how to return Isner's serve, he hadn't the arm strength or response time to get his wrist over it. His returns blooped lamely over the net, crushed back by Isner's forehand. But as Isner flagged, Mahut's aces increased. At the same time, his volley game grew more effective, as he made Isner thud ineffectually on the court until he wound up in just the right place to be eaten up by his terrible backhand. The two were amazing complements: one man who could serve but not move, the other who could not return serve but who could volley his opponent into position to fail.

Yet something of Mahut's attitude, some frustrated spark, stood out during two plays. On the first, he leapt to try to maintain an unusually long rally. On the second, he leapt almost crazily into the middle of the court on a shot he had no chance of reaching. It seemed like he dove because he felt like it — like it was something different to do, some gesture that would mean something and be fun in the first place. Then, just as he was about to hit the turf, he flung his racquet out, as if he hoped it would land just under the ball and doink it over the net. In that moment, he was every little kid going loopy from tennis practice, every kid sick of being fed forehands and backhands, told to approach the shot the same way over and over, told to change direction and get a return. He was jazzed and fed up, almost giddy from being so tired. He got up and smiled as the crowd showered applause. He's 28 years old.

It was these kinds of things that made me think of John McPhee.

Most people who recognize the name probably read the New Yorker, and because of that only know the old McPhee. Like a lot of great nonfiction writers in their dotage, he's developed Old Great Journalists' Syndrome, where pretty much anyone will publish his writing about whatever he damn well pleases, so that's exactly what he writes about. In his case, the disease runs the full course, from innocent hobbies to obnoxious habits.

The former is fine but dull. McPhee's long loved fly fishing, and he writes about it with his customary élan. But anyone who's ever read anything about it knows that it's a lot like the line about the Civil War. Just swap
those who know next to nothing about it know that it was about slavery; those who've read a bit about it know that it was about a lot of factors, and those who know a lot about it know that it was about slavery
those who've read next to nothing about it think all the articles say the same thing; those who've read a bit about it know that there are many diverse and subtle topics covered, and those who've read a lot about it know that all the articles say the same thing.
In McPhee's case, it's tolerable because it's McPhee. Also, because it's not his other type of Old Journalist article.

Those take the form of his interest in the natural world in general, which has morphed from great writing like Annals of the Former Worldto a kind of boutique tourism that mentions geology. If anything, this presents a symptom of Great Old Journalists Syndrome, where luminaries of the craft forget that normal people don't get to travel the globe on expense accounts and meet wealthy people in pursuit of their personal interests. A few years back, McPhee published an article in the New Yorker of seemingly interminable length that was nominally about a swath of limestone running from southern England into France but whose purpose seemed to be, "Come up with a plausible geological reason for my tasting really awesome wine and eating well in a bunch of rich people's estates in a couple countries, then telling people about that as if it's something any ol' body enjoys, just 'cause you're a body and alive."

This is the McPhee of old age, but not the McPhee of old, whose nonfiction curiosity covered a considerable breadth and which resulted in the best book about tennis ever written and arguably the greatest sports profile ever, Levels of the Game.*

* — This last contention is best qualified with "individual sports profile." Covering athletes that compete individually requires a different skill set and different attentions than putting up with whole locker rooms, coaching staffs and the cattiness that those bring. It's probably fair to keep two lists for these different books, but in any combined category of great sports books, Levels of the Game takes a place up top, alongside Plimpton's Paper Lion (or, for modern tastes, Fatsis' A Few Seconds of Panic) or Halberstam's Breaks of the Game.

In 1969, Levels of the Game offered sports journalism a full-length treatment of the deep New Journalism profile that Gay Talese popularized with "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" and "The Silent Season of a Hero" (1966). While Talese broke new ground by covering his inability to "cover" either subject, in effect making his efforts at journalism an insight into the subjects of the profile, McPhee's approach might have been more audacious because of its marriage of traditional profile journalism with a longer form and an allegorical treatment. Talese tried to get stars to give him their insights, to work from the inside out, and in the process of dealing with their intractability got their daily lives to speak about themselves by proxy. McPhee took the jobs of explaining, in detail, a single tennis match and two personal biographies and made each reflective of the other, each an outside moving inward at two people and a single conflict. His subjects were Arthur Ashe, Clark Graebner and their men's semifinal match at the 1968 U.S. Open.

In 1968, no one had any idea that Arthur Ashe would go on to become the most famous black men's tennis player, nor a spokesman for social and political issues. Similarly, no one knew that Graebner, despite posting a career win-loss record that still marks him as one of the best, would nonetheless disappear from popular tennis memory. Instead, all McPhee knew at the time was that the men were mirrors of each other in terms of age, placement and potential. When they met at the Open, Ashe and Graebner were both 25, both on the cusp of eliminating flaws in their games, perfecting new strokes and realizing potentials as greats. Moreover, they were not strangers to each other. Because the world of competitive tennis is so narrow, the field of top-flight talent so small, they had seen each other from across the net for a dozen years already. Ashe and Graebner were practically brothers by trade, habit and familiarity.

McPhee's approach to the book was simple. He covered the semifinal match in exquisite detail, pacing the changes of advantage and momentum to make the outcome seem in doubt. Readers at the time who were concerned with tennis knew who won, but the way he interwove personal flashbacks, stepping away from the flow of the game, seemed to move the course of the competition from the foreseen to the new and disorienting. Even a reader certain of the outcome today has to interrupt what seems a fait accompli to appreciate how the battle began in the first place.

This jumping back and forth also has the effect of playing up the in-game similarities only to undermine them as soon as McPhee treats the players as individuals. Ashe and Graebner stand as equals, old foes and practice partners, but nothing can alter the profound differences in each man's personal story. Graebner, son of a dentist, a white man from Cleveland, can never be anything like the young black boy from Jim Crow Virginia. Graebner can never know the challenge of trying to practice day to day in a part of the country where he isn't allowed on most tennis courts.

Gradually, the differences in each man's game manifest themselves in both the match and in the steps leading to it. Graebner offers thundering serves — one of the strongest of his era — with power strokes and sure shots in bounds. Ashe's game is puzzling, inconsistent at times, feinting, playful. Graebner has been born into a world in which his "selfness" will never be doubted. Ashe had to move to two other cities to practice tennis, unencumbered, like any old human being. Graebner's life is already fixed: conservative, Republican, married. Ashe is still in flux. Single, liberal, black in an America unsure if it's ready for him.

McPhee doesn't invent these distinctions: both players reify them willingly. Ashe describes Graebner's game as quintessentially Republican. It's assured, power strokes, low-risk, safe. Graebner too reveals his respect for Ashe, but also his criticism and doubt. Ashe plays like a liberal, like a court Democrat. He challenges when he should not. He ventures things that might not have utility. He does things that are unsure and unusual. He risks. McPhee packs personal and player data into taut prose; then the subjects themselves unpack their meaning. In an era without predetermined press narratives meant to enlighten or enliven a tennis match — or at least with ones so diminished, compared to our own, as to make no odds — those involved want to sort themselves out at and for someone. McPhee would never suggest that Ashe and Graebner, two old practice partners with similar ability, are wrestling with flawed avatars of themselves as a means of understanding themselves. To do so would be insulting. Instead, the players and their play suggest it. The process of discovery is mutual, for each player and for the reader.

In fact, McPhee's prose seems almost spartan at times, journalism in the old craftsman sense, without punditry and most definitely without the saccharine Rick Reilly moment that signifies when you should be moved, cry and forward the article to your mom and then to some sort of awards voting committee. He eschews adjectives, adverbs, long constructions full of dependent clauses and asides. His prose describes and attacks with verbs. His is the active voice as a discipline and credo. The point is not that McPhee effaces himself, some monkish surrender of his own agency. Rather, he lends to each motion on the court an ability to create its own importance in the absence of authorial intercession. Ashe and Graebner paint their conflict in grunts and failure, in great heaving strokes at the ball, whether it goes in or not.

What is beautiful is their own creation. What is lamentable is theirs as well. Nobody needs to explain it, only to tell of it. John McPhee saw to as much. This is the treatment that John Isner and Nicholas Manut deserve.

Rating: 4.5
It can't be perfect. Too many people don't understand tennis. And of those who do, few probably recognize this kind of tennis, having been reared on a solid 20 years of grunt-UH-HUH-ing baseline-driven tennis. This is tennis for the near-ancients, when people went to the net without fear and before the final handshake. That confusion or inaccessibility is bound to have a negative effect for some readers. That said, anyone with any talent for mimicry could read this book several times, try to sound like it and become a quality journalist. This book isn't a journalistic classic because reviewers are lazy about updating lists; it's just that solid, from opening toss to final shot.