Federer As A Religious Experience

I was one of those kids who preferred not to play sports, preferred not to watch live sporting events, and preferred not to sit through their televised equivalent. To become a sports fan seemed like too much effort. It was just one more set of complex rules to learn in what was an already over-complicated universe, and a distraction from what I had naively determined more worthwhile pursuits. Pursuits like book reading, life drawing and a smattering of even more embarrassingly dorky fare.

My non-conformism was tolerated grimly by my parents. They were pleased that I liked reading, and resigned to my schismatic behaviour, but, they were still reluctant to see their child grow up a social pariah and/or clinically obese. Much to their credit, they never tried to radicalise me to the sporting life, but, nevertheless, they did make subtle efforts to encourage a conversion. I was bribed into attending a boxing gym once a week, and taken to see Crystal Palace play some second-rate football team a couple of times. None of it worked.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began to really appreciate what sports are about, and my metamorphosis was largely down to an essay by David Foster Wallace, entitled Federer as Religious Experience. It’s an amazing piece of writing. In it he dissects, analyses, re-analyses and other wises parses completely the 2006 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal in a way that lifts the game into a totally different register. His stylistic flair is what gives the article its pace, but what gives it substance is Wallace’s experience as a competitive player himself. Where once I’d seen a couple of guys patting a ball back and forth, I saw instead the complex interplay of two different styles and strengths. Furthermore, I saw all the physics, metaphysics, time, relativity, issues of gender and competition attendant to this weird little sport. It was a seminal moment for tennis, and reading about it was a seminal moment for me too.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about why this match was so exciting… about why this match had, as Wallace described it, “the revenge narrative, the king-versus-regicide dynamic”… about why it was important that here was embodied ‘the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the intricate clinical artistry of the north’… about why Nadal is a man of “kabuki self exhortations” and why he’s “mesomorphic and totally martial”… about why Federer’s forehand is a “great liquid whip” and his serve features an “eel-like all-body snap”…or about why the love of sport is the “human being’s reconciliation with the fact of having a body”… no, I’d like to cut to the chase and implore you all to just go ahead and read the fucking article. It’s a life changer.

And when you watch Federer and Nadal thrash it out – as they inevitably will –in the finals of the ATP next week, you won’t think of them as two weird, dorky-looking guys paddling a neon ball around, but, rather, two kind of special and kind of amazing and totally unique people engaged in ballet-warfare. Something, in fact, that is more like interplanetary alignment than a sporting event.

Read it, please. You can read it at the New York Times site here, but you have to register (which actually isn’t too much of a chore), or you can download a PDF here.

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