By now the outcome has probably been decided, but yesterday tennis fans watched in suspense for over seven hours as two men battled out the fifth set of a match, only to have darkness postpone the finish until yet a third day. In the first round at Wimbledon, American John Isner and Frenchman Nicholas Mahut confronted each other and—at least in terms of tennis history—showed unprecedented extremes of endurance, only to go home exhausted and uncertain of the day to come.
According to any standard, the game is already a legend: delayed because of darkness twice; both men breaking the world record for aces in a single match; both men beautifully complementing one another in terms of ability and fatigue; both men polite, respectful and the picture of good sportsmanship. The suspended fifth set alone, at 7:06 long, was already longer than the previous longest match in history. Almost everything about it is amazing.
It's the unexpected stuff that makes for the most compelling sports stories. Currently, anyone can turn on the TV and see the World Cup, and despite its global interest, it's a little predictable. These teams went through years of qualifiers. Journalists have had years or months or, at least, weeks to massage team and player stories into the talking points that you hear on the air or read in articles. The same happens every year with Wimbledon, too, as players go through earlier tournaments and qualifiers.
Isner and Mahut came from nowhere and somehow loom larger than Wimbledon. In a way, their match echoes John McPhee's Levels of the Game, still widely considered the best book on tennis ever written, in which he detailed a 1968 U.S. Open Men's Semifinal shot for shot. To be sure, there is no perfect parallel here, but there's a similarity to the undiluted beauty of both matches, to the way that both allowed individuals to define themselves even while putting on a physical clinic.
At the time, McPhee's book presented something of an oddity. Like a magazine profile stretched to an extreme length, he tried to understand the character of two men through a single game, without skimping on describing either man or match. What he produced was a wonderful hybrid that readers can enjoy as a sports story and a smart personal study.
McPhee focuses on Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, the competitors in one of the two men's semifinals of that year. We don't know that Ashe goes on to become one of the most famous men's players in the world, an activist against apartheid and a spokesmen for the HIV positive (after he contracted the disease from a blood transfusion), just as we don't know that Graebner fades into obscurity. At the time, the two are equals, both on their way up, both 25 years old, both intimately familiar to one another. In fact, having both grown up in the relatively small world of high-powered tennis competition, they have already practiced with and played against each other for 12 years.
That intimacy, familiarity, and similarity gives McPhee a chance to show how little differences can become huge defining factors in a narrow world. Ashe seems playful and more doubtful, the more inspired but also a flightier talent. Graebner's crushing serve helps push a more pedestrian talent, a solid game with a consistency of goodness and much fewer flashes of brilliance.
Perhaps these different gifts come from different backgrounds. Ashe is a black man who grew up in the segregated south, who had to travel even in his own home county to find a place to play, who had to move to two states already and reinvent himself. Graebner, on the other hand, is solidly middle-American: white, conservative, religious, married, from a comfortable background and already creating the same for a family. In fact, Ashe thinks Graebner plays like a Republican, refusing to take risks and relying on force and predictability. Graebner, to his credit, is willing to return this serve of judgment. He thinks Ashe's tennis is Democratic: liberal, inconsistent, risky, and unwise.
Interpreting the game continues to this day, and it's easy for new readers to bring subsequent events or ideas to the same battle. Is Graebner really so stolidly conservative? Is Ashe really such a "liberal" player? Also, even though Affirmative Action could not have applied to Ashe as a player, it's impossible not to want to add his story to the discussion.
Regardless of its fertile possibilities for political debate, the book is about two men and can easily be read without much interest for such divisive concerns. Even if you remember the outcome, McPhee's pacing of the game and personal details make it engrossing and suspenseful. Even if you remember the players in question, doubtless you've forgotten little things about their pasts or how they came to be there on that exact day.
The book can also be read just for the beauty of its language. McPhee employs classically economical but vibrant journalistic prose. He's devoted to words of necessity and ruthless about the extraneous. Every sentence printed is one that should be there. No one could really write a book via journalism's "inverted pyramid," but one gets the sense that McPhee tried. (Indeed, this book is often suggested to aspiring sports journalism students and to journalism students in general. One can learn a great deal about the craft just by rereading Levels.)
Isner and Mahut's game yesterday (and the day before, and today) was only a first-round game, whereas Ashe-Graebner was a semifinal. The winner went on to win the whole tournament. It's easy to conclude that this makes one more important than the other. The depth of human concern that McPhee brings to Levels of the Game, the importance he accords both stories leading to the match on that day, say that that conclusion is wrong. Every match has two biographies running up until the first serve. Hopefully Isner and Mahut's will be written someday.
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