The majority of this piece was obviously composed back in late June, when the action took place and the writing was relevant. However, 5 day-per-week jobs and a desire to make this something more than a match recap elongated the process. Holding onto the essay this long has given me some unfair premonitions and editing advantages. A lot as happened in the past couple of months. I turned a year older. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the Republican primary. And loads of tennis has been played. Novak Djokovic had his ticket number called for the Major Championship raffle, and now he’s got a smile on his face as deep as a Serbian tank top neck and just as shiny as the gold chain that accompanies it. A few lines I wrote about the juvenile, tantrum-prone attitudes and championship inabilities of Djokovic were edited out. They seemed malevolent and, frankly, made me looking silly. Congratulations to him. He earned his new status as World Number One. What has become apparent to me, though, in these two months of adding and subtracting while tennis has still taken place, is that we might have reached the end of an era. Federer is too old. Nadal is too bruised. It was my favorite tennis era (granted I’ve only witnessed about two), and I can’t guarantee you that I’ll be this invested in watching the sport for a long time, unless someone else equally captivating comes along. I hope he does. So, this will be the first and (likely) last essay I write on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. I obviously idolized only one of these men, but I genuinely liked both. I hope that is reflected in the essay. If careers continue on the track they are on, then their peak performances will be missed. I’ll take the Auburn cap from my wardrobe and place it on my head so I can remove it in the proper ceremonial fashion.
TWO games in and the crowd is already chanting “Roger.” They might just want a champion who can parlez-vous francais so they can understand the victory comments at the conclusion of this year’s final. But the cheers have powered him to three aces in a row, a minor slip-up, and then a serve-and-volley for the game. 3-0.
John McEnroe described Roger’s serve, pre-match, as “the best it’s ever been.” The greatness of Roger’s serve differs from other great serves (i.e. Andy “MPH” Roddick) because its greatness is harbored in Roger’s accuracy, not in his brutal athletic power. Instead of beating the viscera out of the ball to rocket it past opponents like the majority of his contemporaries, Roger simply places it – with a fluid cobra motion – out of the opponents’ reach, as if dangling string away from a kitten, and because he has been kicking his serve to the outside at will throughout this French Open tournament, I think McEnroe is right on.
McEnroe also opined, pre-match, that this is the most important match in Roger’s career, and if he were to somehow, miraculously, pull off a victory, he would be the undisputed (except by those who dispute it) Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time.
JohnnyMac is right two times.
Roger Federer is the most successful tennis champion of the past decade. He also happens to be my favorite tennis player, which is about as ballsy of me as eating lunch at a McDonald’s in downtown Paris. I typically loathe the kid in the LeBron jersey as much as the next non-Miami fan, but there is a certain aura cloaking Roger as he moves about the court that makes him irreversibly perfect for the game of tennis, as if he and tennis were destined to shake hands for eternity, not in a passive-aggressive, hand-cramping assertion of alpha masculinity, but rather a gentle, synchronous left and right-handed embrace. As comrades. As equals.
Roger’s tennis perfection is the reason I love him, the reason I’ve stayed awake until 4 a.m. on school nights to watch his Australian Open matches, the reason I tie a bandanna around my head every time before playing tennis, the reason I tell myself It really is just to keep the sweat out of my eyes.
His tennis perfection is also the reason I’ve run out of occasions to cheer for him. Roger has won 16 Grand Slam titles (the record), been named the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year for four consecutive years (the record), and spent 237 consecutive weeks ranked as the No. 1 tennis player in the world (you get the idea). Perfection has a difficult time retaining enthusiasm before boredom sets in. Ask a cuckold. Or a deity.
But Roger has never beaten Raphael Nadal in a French Open final, or anywhere else of significance for that matter. Not recently, anyway. Out of the 24 times they’ve played each other, Roger has lost 16. Two-thirds. Which obviously encumbers his argument for G.T.P.O.A.T., unless he can top Nadal in a French Open final.
For these reasons, this morning, I am excited. This really is the most important match of Roger’s career. Yet he’s indescribably, infectiously loose. I felt cocaine confidence as soon as I turned on the television to watch him warm up, and I’m just lying around in boxers in my childhood bedroom at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, which is pretty much the opposite of what induces confidence. Seriously. A koala teakettle sits on the shelf of my TV’s entertainment center, staring at me with googly eyes. A framed school picture of my chubby 12-year-old former self is hidden behind it. But I’m confident, damn it, and so is Roger, because we’ve both been here before. I at this screen. He on this court. Four times each. Roger won the final in 2009 when Rafael Nadal was a Swedish guy named Robin Soderling, so the French is no longer his beluga. The unattainable has been attained.
Which might explain the placid expression stamped on Roger’s face, like he’s posing for a cigarette magazine ad, as he dances around the clay ballroom floor, hitting stroke after stroke without ever divulging that what he’s doing requires more energy than it takes to peel a grapefruit. And while Nadal occupies his face with the same stoic, finely and meticulously sculpted expression, he’s tighter than Fed, missing shots that he normally places inside the grid, and somewhere underneath those…contours…you have to believe Nadal can detect the inevitability that’s carpooling in inchoate sweat globules out of Roger Federer’s pores. The Perspiration of Destiny. 5-2.
Age is a queer mistress in professional sports. Older athletes uphold a tradition of being sagacious, situationally adroit veterans whose minds perceive the frenzied chaos of the sporting moment with a déjà-vu-like clarity. But as the mind steels itself to maintain tunnel vision focus, the body can’t hide from- or choose not to concentrate on- its increasing deterioration, particularly when it’s being constantly juxtaposed with more youthful versions of itself. Because the racquet/bat/stick/cleat/glove isn’t really the tool being used in athletics. The body itself is the tool, and it becomes more useless with every use. Time for athletes is scaled to some kind of abridged dog-year ratio, where the athletes’ lives unfurl on the playing surface, measured in a system wholly different from earthly time – like a scoreboard countdown or the number of bodily movements made before exhaustion – and an injury as innocuous as a knee problem becomes the athlete’s malignant cancer. Which understandably engenders a skewed perception of the sportsman’s age.
Fed is 29. Nadal is 25. I’m 22. Yet Roger has always seemed like an enlightened father figure to me, as if his mastery of his craft gives him an authority that demands your respectful silence – reverence for a being whose knowledge is so complete, you can’t possibly fathom him ever having been without that knowledge. (It might just be his consistent appearance on a television screen for the past decade; TV cameras don’t seem to add weight, but rather age through overexposure). He even comes off as a father figure to Nadal, as if Nadal is the blossoming, pubescent son who is finally capable of beating his old man at sport, and the torch has been cyclically passed from father to son, subtly and without ceremony. But Roger is playing the most impressive French Open he has played in a while, possibly the best French of his career, and you imagine that while admiring the (still flaming) torch atop his son’s bedroom wardrobe in the late afternoon shadows, Roger begins to run his finger along its curves in a nostalgic caress, recalling what it feels like in his hand when clutched and hoisted. Recalling. Re-calling. And acting on a sudden, overwhelming urge that’s not too dissimilar from lust, he has decided to grab the torch around its neck, as if throttling it, to remind himself that the strength still exists within his fingers. Who knows how many more opportunities he’ll have to hoist the torch before the emotional death that is professional athletic retirement. He might rather touch flame to fabric and incinerate the house he lives in before that happens.
Nadal has only ever lost one match here at the French. He has only lost six total sets. At 5-2, Federer lines up a backhand winner to hand him his seventh…but doesn’t, because through super strength or lightning speed or shape-shifting, Nadal reaches a shot that no other player would be able to get within five feet of and then steadies his body enough mid-sprint to hit a counter shot so solid, Roger can only pull his racquet up as a reflexive reaction. The ball hits the racquet face before Roger’s brain has time to send him instructions on which way to turn his wrist, and the ball reflects harmlessly off into the net. This return off a backhand that JohnnyMac described as the best it’s ever been.
The camera cuts to an intermediary close-up of Nadal, just in time to catch some absent sculptor curling his lower lip into a smile.
Winners against Nadal can only be achieved in pairs. Often only in trios. Because shots that would be clear winners when hit against any other opponent, he facilely reaches, and maybe, depending on the amount of energy he’s still capable of exerting within the temporal constraints of the point, if you’re lucky, he pops it back into the air along a parabolic trajectory that lands it somewhere near the baseline, so that you have to execute a consummate overhead slam for a second winner, and if you don’t, then just shake your nonplussed head or kick the ground in aww shucks disbelief, because through some sort of tennis alchemy, he has turned shit into gold, and that gold is soaring past you and bouncing up the line for a backhand winner.
After Nadal wins his serve and then a third consecutive game, it’s 5-5, Roger is hitting wild unforced errors, and I’m coming down from my contact high into the jitters that have defined how I’ve watched Roger’s matches for the past couple of years – a post-prime, nearly tricenarian Roger who is prone to untimely mistakes and shots summoned from somewhere beyond his intent.
Sports are capricious. They generate their power by making their fans crank a lever clockwise, only to have it reel in the counter direction when they become too weary to push. The very nature of sport causes you to instinctively sort your emotional extremes into binary piles and then oscillate between those piles reactively. Let the shades of gray remain on their respective cerebral hemispheres; consistent black-and-white action in sport is what provides spectators their color. And while some sports allow room for emotional treaty, a tennis court’s dimensions and divisions establish a setting for the most adverse pairings, because the same math that encourages companionship also encourages competition. No other sport can pit human against human in the same fashion without some kind of direct physical contact. Tennis is demarcated, observed isolation. Which makes the spectator’s job much easier. Cheer for this one. Hex that one. Compromise is for the kind of one-on-one that gets canned in a well-sealed jar and labeled “companionship.” Empathy with the performer in our distinct square allows us to shamelessly mimic every emotion – disbelief at (un?)just calls, overwhelming desire for vengeance, frustration with failed expectations, incorrigible sadness for bodily limitations – without distilling those emotions through a conscience or any other type of mentally constructed filter. The athlete can do nothing wrong because he is related in willfully crafted, corn syrup blood. We treat the adult we idolize like the child we spoil.
I spare Roger none of this shadowing. When he is in the light, I am behind him, regardless of his direction, projecting every desire that has ever fallen flat in my own recreational athletic achievements onto his upright, holographic figure. And he absorbs and fulfills all of them, possibly because he is unaware of how hollow the hologram I have developed for him actually is, unaware of how self-serving and abhorrently needy his supporters really are. We seem to covet his talent rather than try to understand and appreciate it. It’s a distorted, yet familiar form of empathy. Roger and all the great professional athletes are the high school football stars, and the world of us fans are the Old South grandfathers sitting on a continent-long truck tailgate at a Wednesday afternoon football practice, paired legs dangling like phlegm, while we sip from pyrite colored cans of Miller High Life and stare through donut-glazed eyes at the talent of our respective lithe cherubs as they glide about the field repeating motions until they become beautiful and keeping the Wednesday sunset at a comfortable distance. That sunset is a fool’s gold.
And Nadal’s ahead. Seemingly in the time it took me to type a sentence that I thought was particularly clever. 7-5 for the first set.
Nerves rattle Roger into the second set. Those firing neurons must sound like shotgun blasts in his head, because every shot he takes, he fires through a chamber of chaos, the converse of a silencer, shots that miss their mark clumsily and make a mockery of adroitness. Drunk college boys playing pub darts come to mind. It’s as if Roger is just now realizing that this is the most important match of his career. JohnnyMac’s message has finally reached him. Roger’s official NBC Sports headset has a 71-minute delay.
Nadal maintains emotional composure like the great Stoics, although his flag-waving, face-painted followers in the stands are unable to follow his example, the Mediterranean Sea being just a little too expansive for Spain to feel that connection to Greece. The wiring in Nadal’s brain must resemble a basic closed circuit: consistent, unidirectional transfer of thought to serve one purpose, carrying out a task devoid of mental complexity. Either the light bulb illuminates or the circuit isn’t turned on. The possibilities of short-circuiting or incorrect wiring don’t even exist inside the circuit itself. Only outside sources can develop such preposterous theories.
However Nadal is not entirely mechanical, despite his unprecedented athletic efficiency. At a pivotal moment during a lengthy second set rally, Nadal stands mid-court – a tennis guru’s No-Man’s Land – meaning he intended for the shot he just played to disrupt Roger’s center of gravity more than it actually did, and when Roger remains the locus of his own balancing forces and returns the ball with a passing shot that falls short and lands at Nadal’s feet, Nadal chooses to float the ball up the left line, without spin, like a church-league softball pitch, instead of slamming the ball across court for a characteristic winner. It’s a virtuosic shot, one that reveals its maker does indeed possess a soul. Like jazz music on a racquet guitar, these are wrong notes that Nadal is typically too much of a scale-running traditionalist to play. Roger looks as if he has granted a personality transfusion, and now he stands feebly blanched, post-extraction, on the other side of the net, in dire need of an existential juice box, or at least a cookie.
The depth of frustration on his face implies that the problem lies outside the remedial potentials of a calf-jiggling, balm-rubbing courtside trainer. Fortunately Roger manages to rejuvenate himself, quickly and enigmatically, as if the transfer was maybe just an archaic bloodletting which no one in modern centuries believed would actually improve his condition, but the benefits have set in and he’s clearly better now. Nadal can keep all of that unwanted blood and bile. Roger’s backhand is popping, and his footwork is no longer sluggish. He even breaks Nadal to nullify the service game he lost. The delay on Roger’s NBC Sports headset has been eliminated altogether, and when JohnnyMac mentions to the viewing public that Roger should start slicing more to give himself a rest while allowing Nadal to mess up, he does, and Nadal does. 4-4.
During Roger’s slice spree, Nadal makes one of his predicted errors, a shot that sails long and is called so immediately, yet Roger still reacts to the ball’s bounce, instinctively, and hits the ball behind his back with a flick of his wrist – a superfluous circus shot that won’t even count, but I’m pretty sure it lands on Nadal’s baseline. Roger doesn’t miss a beat, even the ones that don’t appear on the sheet music. They often call Roger’s racquet his wand, but I see it as a baton with which he directs some grand orchestral athletic feat, and the music is classical, possibly sung by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. This has to be his opus. I’m looking for a sign.
Escalating rain. Seemingly out of nowhere, during Nadal’s set point, so that he can’t look up to the heavens for his service without elemental obfuscation. Roger takes advantage of the gift, preserving his chances for at least a few more points, and the players are ushered into the locker room on a deuce. The rain isn’t aggressive enough to summon the ball boys from their perimeter crouches and have them sprint across the clay court with tarp corners in their hands, pulling the sheet snugly to the edges, as if to tuck the court in for an early bedtime. Instead, officials allow the modest rain to fall at will, so when the players return from the locker rooms 10 minutes later with their bags hanging over their shoulders, the court is swampy and still very much awake. JohnnyMac, who often has a difficult time masking his admiration for Roger and consequently spins his commentary with a Rupert Murdoch news corp. bias, announces that the now-saturated court should provide Roger with an advantage for the next hour or so, because the ball will sink and lose much of its bounce, taking away from the heavy topspin with which Nadal laces all of his shots and providing Fed more time to set up his winners.
The half-static, half-dynamic duo head to their respective baselines and resume whacking the ball back-and-forth like machete-wielding, jungle safari guides, without a warm-up or any other kind of acknowledgement of the rainy day interlude. Play is understandably feeble at first, providing each point with the sensation of a riverboat gamble rather than a controlled, methodical battle. Fed continues to prance on the balance beam of defeat, avoids a second set point from Nadal, and breaks once more. The stasis of play inevitably leads to a 2nd set tie break, one in which Nadal seizes four points before the person at home refilling his lacquered and monogrammed snack bowl with Cheetos even realizes has begun. The only positive chi heading Roger’s way in the tiebreak is that porous hope of his fans who think “what if Roger could overcome this four point deficit for a legendary tiebreak that would become a staple of tennis myth,” but know that he absolutely will not. And he doesn’t. Nadal owns two sets. Roger has love.
Over the trajectory of his tennis career, Rafael Nadal has only lost once after being up two sets in a match, and that was at the beginning of his arc, when he was an 18-year-old child at a tournament in Miami. The loss was to Roger Federer.
Roger displays unnecessary, but appreciated, gusto in the 3rd, demonstrating proper sporting etiquette by nearing defeat and then rebounding and tempting victory. Everyone smiles down on him warmly, admiring his feckless persistence, like moviegoers viewing a war film in which the protagonist already knows his fate but barrels brazenly – with his twin assault rifles, ammunition robe, and lit cigarette – into machine gun fire nonetheless, without objection. But those smiles are teeming with vanity, I realize, as I watch a man not trying to control or postpone his fate, but rather treating his actions and fate as separate, yet necessary metaphysical paths that ebb into a dense forest and disappear before we can decipher where they intersect. He displays no indication of hysterics, only signs of someone continuing to play exceptionally – as he’s played the entire match – with an understanding that the consistency of his beautiful actions – actions that weren’t initially deemed successful – will eventually be rewarded by fate. It’s a persistence I’ll never become acquainted with, or perhaps one I wouldn’t even recognize if it made blatant eye contact from behind the window of a subway train departing its platform. The barrier between what we feel inside ourselves observing and what he feels inside playing is as great and insurmountable as that fictional movie screen divide. We are in the dark, oppressed, behind some Berlin Wall of sensation, while the propaganda machine in our brains informs us over a tinny loudspeaker that we inhabit a society of perfect comprehension, one in which we have the right to pity what we observe when it doesn’t clearly follow our projected path for it. We cannot see the distinct paths through our cataracts of observation. We know nothing about rhythmic persistence or nonmathematical ratios or mental twitches or muscular flatulence or the stubbornness of luck. We are reactionary from our facial expressions down to our name-brand sneakers, and you could never realistically pity someone whose emotions you mimic. How dare I shift the chronology of defeat to a tick mark where it doesn’t belong. How dare you mourn something as final as loss before it arrives. The French have a word for this. Hold your bottled water up to a mirror.
During a point lull, right before Roger wins the third set, NBC graces the screen with a comparative graphic titled “Points Won,” and the numbers are 115 to 115. Federer and Nadal have won the exact same number of points in the match, yet Nadal is much closer to victory, because the points he won occurred at moments that matched the cryptic answer key for today’s competition. I’m instantly reminded of a passage from Denis Johnson’s novel “Angels,” one in which Johnson discusses the fate of the main character – Bill Houston – who pulled the trigger on his shotgun during a bluffed bank robbery, killing a security guard and cementing his own walkway down death row:
He watched his trial from behind a wall of magic, considering with amazement how pulling the trigger had been hardly different – only a jot of strength, a quarter second’s exertion – from not pulling the trigger. And yet it had unharnessed all of this, these men in their beautiful suits, their gold watches smoldering on their tanned wrists, speaking with great seriousness sometimes, joking with one another sometimes, gently cradling their sheafs of paper covered with all the reasons for what was going on here. And it had made a great space of nothing where Roger Crowell the bank guard had been expecting to have a life – a silence that took up most of Bill Houston ’s hearing. It was a word that couldn’t be spoken, because nobody knew what it might have said. It was the vacuum no larger than a fist, no more spacious than the muscle of the heart, that drew things into it and unbalanced and set loose all the machinery Bill Houston saw moving around him now…But what Bill Houston couldn’t shake was the remarkable power in the subtle difference between pulling and not pulling the trigger.
Legs are the first to go in a lengthy athletic contest, and once you lose those, the paraplegia spreads to your torso until you’re paralyzed with exhaustion, so that you can’t tell whether your moving limbs are a bionic rotation or a fevered delusion. Roger’s eyes look animated – not alive, but instead cartoon-like in their shape, pupils that could be asterisks or x’s or giant question marks of exhausted miscomprehension. He has pulled the trigger, or hasn’t, depending on who you consider to be fate’s hand-picked loser in a murder, and Nadal wins the fourth set and consequently the match.
The second-place trophy is a silver tray, polished, reflective, so that you have to just look at yourself in it. Roger checks his profile quickly and then looks away into the crowd, having seen the mirror’s revelation too many times and thus fighting the urge to ask questions. Nadal receives the big cup on its weighted base, a trophy he will undoubtedly nibble on in a few moments like an infant chews its Hotwheel, as he has done before every photo-op during every win in the past. Déjà-vuing this sequence of events is difficult, especially if you’re well-versed in the history of the rivalry. Images spring to mind of Roger weeping after the 2009 Australian Open final when losing to Nadal became a routine, standing at the microphone trying to conjure some words while surrounded by expectant tennis legends and suit-wearing officials who were all TV-smiles, opening his mouth only to say, “God it’s killing me,” before being sucked away from the microphone with the force of a hysterical gasp, and me at home crying pearl onion tears in recognition of a very adult moment (still crying them now at the recollection) – his (our) comprehension of an end point. I remember sitting on the edge of my sofa, weight so inadequately distributed that the cushion began to slide down and balance on the edge of the structure like boulder on bevel, watching my emotions conduct themselves through cathode tubes toward Roger as I simultaneously received his until the empathy was out of control and I was unsure which way the emotional current was traveling, like the stream of urine between phallus and electric fence. Some people are better than you, even if you’re better than everyone. Which defies all forms of logic, but leave those forms to the emotionally amorphous. Certain things just can’t be accomplished, and the “You can do anything you put your mind to,” T-shirt platitudes are bullshit, because you can’t do anything, and your mind is often the very entity that sabotages you. Success in athletics always seems to be so concretely in and out of your hands, which may have explained Roger’s petrified, weighted demeanor.
Roger stood on that stage with his plaque etched in every language, a misinformed linguist’s statue of limitations.
There are no tears at this ceremony. The lesson has been learned too many times to remain relevant. Roger gives his concession speech in French, one of the four languages he speaks, routinely congratulating Nadal and thanking the crowd and sponsors for their support. The charmed crowd applauds liberally, even ecstatically, which seems strange considering the rote nature of the statements being given. The applause could be overcompensation, a kind of voluminous insurance policy for their ears that protects them from memories of Roger’s more somber speeches and the possibility of another breakdown hiding visibly beneath the surface, like a corpse’s frozen face under a sheet of winter pond ice. This kind of applause is the adult equivalent of a screaming child cupping his hands over his ears to preserve a world that he prefers as his reality. Or maybe these people are simply capitalizing on the opportunity to show Roger how much they love him, never receiving a better moment than this for their romantic confessions, speaking with their hands to an individual who is deaf to distinct voices in crowd noise.
The applause trickles over to Nadal’s victory speech, as the Spaniard takes the microphone and greets the spectators with a practiced “bonjour,” which is met with expected laughter. (As an interlocutor, crowds tend to possess only the ability to respond in loud bursts of homogenous sound, which naturally makes their responses consistent and predictable.) The rest of Nadal’s speech is an amalgamation of English, Spanish, and translated French, enough to incite an American history teacher to pull out his pantomimed ladle and demonstrate his favorite New World immigration talking points. During his English period, in phrasing laconic enough to make journalism professors dribble in their Haynes, Nadal turns toward Roger after praising his performance and says, directly, “Sorry about today.” He apologizes, not only to Roger, but to the fans – present and absent – for beating him, as if Roger is the only person who has the ordained right to win a tennis match. And you know he’s not mocking him, because Nadal’s personality is completely devoid of petty joke shop pranks like irony. It’s a genuine apology – apparent from the arch of his eyebrows – that Nadal has always proffered after beating Roger, as consistent as the infantile, oral fixative trophy chew. I’ve never witnessed anything comparable to it in sports. For the millionaire majority of professional athletes, the goal of competition is to become the best so that you may boast about it, making your ego super only in that it’s superior to all other egos. Yet Nadal is not those athletes. He has detached himself from his (super)ego, possessing raw ability without true awareness of that ability, and thus seems more surprised with every win, observing out loud how well he played post-match not to inform everyone else, but to inform himself. Nadal is easily the most consistently dominant tennis player of the modern era, yet when he is not playing, he is a shrewd observer, someone who voices his unfeigned reflections on any tennis match, even those matches in which he participates.
Nadal is sorry for beating Roger. He told him so.
And in a brief moment – about the length of a skipped heartbeat or a dream (or a nightmare) – I despise Roger for his general perfection, his well-roundedness, his multi-linguality, his ubiquitous fan support that makes thoroughly benevolent, honest guys like Nadal feel guilty for beating him, like they have sinned against the will of their fathers by achieving something for themselves.
But only for a capricious moment.
A white truck pulls begrudgingly into the parking lot as the sun sets on the Jacksonville recreational tennis courts. The sky dyes its matted tufts pink because – like anyone else – it’s bored with consistency by the end of the day. A man with an actual blue collar steps out of the truck, spits, and mozies over to an electrical box by the fence to turn on the halogen lights. Winged, buzzing spectators are soon to follow. A few players wave to the blue-collared man’s back in appreciation.
I complete the process of folding my bandanna into the proper rectangular band with a war veteran’s meticulousness and wrap it around my forehead, tucking my hair underneath and tying the cloth into a simple knot at the back of my head, where the skull seems to cave in on itself. I pick up my racquet and start hitting old tennis balls with my friend Mark, balls that bounce inconsistently with waning levels of exuberance after having baked like pecan sandies in my car trunk throughout the summer. We are no pros.
Over the past few years, I’ve consistently beaten Mark in our friendly hometown matches with very few memories of loss, one being the night I played while my grandmother was dying in the hospital a few miles away. He tends to be plagued by the desire to hit a professional shot every time, often hitting powerful balls that soar directly into the net. If only they could make it over that net.
Tonight, however, they do make it over the net, consistently, while still retaining that power of will, and Mark is swatting back my shameful attempts with the indisputable authority of constructive criticism. That won’t work. Try more power. The outside line is wide open. Your drop shot needs more backspin.
I don’t know where it came from. Neither of us has played in months. Yet here between these lines, these self-swallowing grids, I have been tossed aside by victory, who has chosen one of my best friends for reasons that have failed to manifest themselves. I can hear the cicadas gossiping as they crawl out of the shadows toward the light of center court. I flick them away toward the fence with my racquet edge, frustrated with my inability to understand them, my inability to understand why victory would change its mind when neither I nor Mark has offered any form of physical persuasion like practice or conditioning. Victory seems especially callous when you become accustomed to – even dependent on – its presence in your life. Like consistency and comfort are counterintuitive to the entire point of victory. Because I think victory, like so many other relatives of fate, might be just that: a point. A diminutive, definite mark – frequently mistaken for a speck of belly button detritus – that can only be touched once and cannot be lingered on, a point that has the potential to be recurrently added to your timeline, however sporadically, until the last one punctuates your pursuits. Your constellation may have any number of dots, but it will never be divine enough to satisfy your longing, because the longing is what keeps it pinned in the sky, out of your reach. Maybe if you could forfeit your overwhelming desire for victory, fate would notice and you would win more frequently. But isn’t that still a ploy to win? Why can’t I overcome the need to preside over something? Is it the third, forgotten instinct in the sanctioned lizard brain theory, sharing neuron space with hunger and sexual desire? Dominance. Conquest. Perhaps the only real tripartite mind is the divided id, Freud’s diagram merely a lofty exponent for priority number I. But what is that missing piece, the fourth quadrant, because three quarters isn’t providing a satisfactory mental balance? It could be a pocket of emptiness that serves as a buffer to make the other three feel more substantial by comparison, while they simultaneously struggle with their impulse to fill that space in, knowing perfectly well that the pocket will remain empty. Or maybe that chamber isn’t empty, but is in fact where fate resides, hidden, invisible, terrified of the infantile hands always reaching out toward it…
And back at home, the torch in my childhood bedroom burns, flames climbing ambitiously, in danger of catching the entire room on fire.