The Paris Review sports columnist follows a nail-biting tour of men’s professional tennis.
For award-winning poet Phillips (Heaven: Poems, 2015, etc.), tennis became a “private joy” even after he stopped playing.” That sense of joy imbues his vivid recounting of one historic, emotionally roiling year: the 2017 Association of Tennis Professionals Tour. The author begins in Australia, where the first tournament of the year occurs in Brisbane on Jan. 1, in the summer heat. At that point, the two top-ranked players were Britain’s Andy Murray and Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, competitors, the author observes, who seem to be “heralds of tennis’s new form of dominance: sadistic resilience and rugged precision.” Meanwhile, “the best two players on the planet,” were Rafael Nadal, ranked 9, and Roger Federer, 16. Despite a short explanation about scoring and a 20-page glossary of terms, readers who don’t know a bagel (“to be winning or have won no games in a set”) from a breadstick (“to be winning or have won only one game in a set”) may be challenged to follow some descriptions of particular matches and the variables involved in players’ rankings, which “position players in a tournament like pieces on a chessboard,” indicating who gets to compete in qualifiers and where a player is arranged within the tournament draw. Nevertheless, Phillips conveys the relentless tension of a game where “one step in the wrong direction in the middle of one point can cause an avalanche that sweeps away any advantage, no matter its size.” Throughout the winter, Federer and Nadal crept up in rankings, and spring heralded tournaments around the world on clay courts, distinguished from other surfaces “in its erratic effects. Clay forces a player’s body to adapt or fail, a player’s mind to obey or die.” By fall, competitors’ face-offs, injuries, and brilliant strategies had eroded the “air of inevitability around the Murray-Djokovic rivalry” and led to an astonishing outcome.
A treat for avid tennis fans.