I can't say I know much about David Foster Wallace. His name was only vaguely familiar to me. I had heard of his book Infinite Jest, but not much more than that.
Wallace had been a junior tennis player; his parents were academics. Although he found his full expression as a writer, he never lost the love he had for tennis, especially the players that would never become the best, that toiled as journeymen. This might have been the life Wallace would have had for himself, but his life took him a different direction.
Wallace wrote a piece for the New York Times two years ago, just before the US Open, waxing rhapsodic over the elegance of Federer. You knew he preferred the effortless smoothness of Federer over the bullish Spaniard, Nadal, who, while effective, doesn't evoke beauty as much he does toughness, whippy shots that spring from his muscled physique. He has a cyborgian like quality that doesn't match his shy, deferring personality.
Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008. As a tennis observer, he had to know that his favorite player to watch, Roger Federer, had been having a down year. Federer had had mono at the beginning of the year. Despite this, he reached the Australian Open semifinals in January, losing to Novak Djokovic.
He had plenty of losses, many more than he was used to. He lost decisively to Nadal at the French, then lost in five sets that was punctuated by rain delays, and darkness, in what many proclaimed as the best match ever played at Wimbledon. He lost early in some tune-ups to the US Open, to Gilles Simon, then to Ivo Karlovic. He went to the Olympics and lost to James Blake in the quarters, whom he had never lost to before.
He had gone from a shoo-in to break Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam events, which Sampras mostly feasted at Wimbledon and the US Open, to a player that looked washed up. This was washed up after reaching one semifinal (the Australian) and two finals (the French, Wimbledon). Most people would consider that a successful year. But not for the dominant Swiss. Had Nadal passed him by? Had Djokovic?
Federer was simply losing matches by making mistakes. Now, Federer always makes mistakes, far more than most players of his caliber. While Nadal is parsimonious with errors, Federer is a gambler, going for high risk to get high reward. When he's on, he looks sublime. Even when he's off, he's often quite competitive and still wins. But this year, he would inexplicably toss several errors in a row, and lose games he had no business losing.
The one respite from all this came from an unusual source. Federer not only represented Switzerland in singles (he was again, flag-bearer) in the Olympics, but also doubles, where he teamed up with Stanislas Wawrinka, who had cracked the top ten that year. Wawrinka wasn't exactly a great doubles player, but he serves well, had a decent backhand volley. They upset the Bryan brothers of the US in the semifinals, quite a feat, considering the Bryan brothers had been number 1 and have played doubles for years, where Federer plays sparingly.
The team then captured gold over Swedish team of Thomas Johansson and Simon Aspelin. Johansson had won an Australian Open back in the cusp between the decline of Sampras and the rise of Federer, when lesser players like Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick were laying claims to number 1.
Although Federer is first and foremost a singles player, this doubles win seemed to thrill him. The casual camaraderie, the winning, all lead to smiles for Roger who never thought winning in gold in doubles was possible nor that it would bring him that much joy. Federer's likely to be a little too old to win Olympic gold in 2012, when he'd be 31, but it's not outside the realm of possibility.
Emboldened by his victory, he came to the US Open a bit of underdog. With his perennial rival, Rafael Nadal, having won Olympic gold, most people felt that he was the odds-on favorite to win in New York. There were a few other names mentioned. Djokovic had beaten Nadal in Cincinnati, and fell in a close match to Nadal in Beijing. Andy Murray, the Scot and the great British hope to win Wimbledon, had beaten Djokovic twice.
Yet, the draw worked so that Federer had to play Djokovic in the semis on one side, and Nadal would have to face Murray. Djokovic and Nadal were the favorites in both matches.
The men's semifinals were moved early in the day with Hurricane Hanna threatening to rain out Saturday play. The rains somehow moved up the east coast and west of New York until rains fell around 2 PM. Federer played his match at 11 AM, and playing as crisp a tennis as he has in a long time, dispatched Djokovic, whose game seemed off-kilter after an ill-advised post-match comment against Roddick where he voiced his disapproval of Roddick claiming he was faking his injuries, lead to a rash of boos. Djokovic tried to recover, but already the fickle crowd was against him.
He tried to play without complaint, without resorting to timeouts, and it lead to a strangely muted game, just as Federer was finding his timing, and playing like 2007 instead of 2008.
Although Federer expected to play his longtime rival and Nike co-endorser, Rafael Nadal, Nadal's exit from the Open came at the hands of the wily Scot. Murray had gone on a regimen of building up his fitness and muscles to compete with Nadal. But it was his brain that was on display, as he moved Nadal around expertly, mixing up pace, alternately hitting hard and soft, forcing Nadal, a man whose style requires a great deal of energy, a man who had spent many weeks trying to be at the top of his game, a man who was spent after his victory in Beijing, and crafted a strategy that lead to a win.
It didn't help that Nadal, who likes his routine to be just so, everything nice and predictable, found his schedule all jumbled up, as he and Murray had to take the court several hours early to try to get in a few games prior to Hanna hitting New York. The normally energetic Nadal came out a bit lifeless, while Murray came out dominant, taking Nadal to task early in the first set, and holding his advantage to win a second set in a tiebreak.
Even a rain delay that interrupted play for the entire day just as Nadal had gone up a break of serve in the third set, a delay that should have helped Nadal regroup, wasn't enough. Although Nadal came out far more animated on Sunday than he did Saturday, and took the third set, and it looked as if Murray had no chance to recover, Murray then managed to recover a break, a break that came easily after Murray himself had so many chances to break, and eventually clawed back to win the match in four sets.
Murray came out to try to take it to Federer, a guy he's had good results against, despite a paucity of meetings. Somehow, Murray expected an error-prone Federer, and chose to play off-pace shots, hoping to entice errors out of the masterful Swiss. Roger was having none of it. He attacked and played as crisply as he did against Djokovic.
When Murray plays junk ball, it can be tough for him to get out of it, and start hitting with more power. He tried to alter his game, and was getting some success when a key point early in the second set when a ball that should have been called out, but was not, lead to deuce and eventually a Federer hold. He would go on to hold that game, and eventually secure a break and take the second set.
After the second set, Federer really let it all hang out. Drop shotting, coming to net, playing fast and loose. He was having fun, and Murray, clearly dejected, was letting Federer do what he pleased.
And so when Federer won his 13th Grand Slam title, quite improbably, all the while trying to tell the public that he still had enough game to challenge for the titles, telling people that his losses had not gotten to him, that he was this close to getting back to where he was, and finally--finally, people believed him.
David Foster Wallace, who had to be following the travails of Federer, surely was thinking that, despite his depression, he was going to live long enough to watch the US Open, live long enough to see if the Swiss maestro had it within him. And when Federer hoisted that trophy above his head, perhaps Wallace savored this victory as much as Federer, a victory of beauty and grace over guile and power.
And he savored it until that Friday.
And then he was no more.
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