I was watching Meet The Press on Sunday, and I think I might know what went wrong with my marriage: I thought I was going to be greeted as a liberator. One tends to discover surprising things about themselves while watching public affairs programs like these. Is it peculiar that I take some comfort in the sturdy, manful tones of David Gergen? Perhaps this goes someway to explaining my relationship problems as well.
Then yesterday I saw Delaware Senator Joe Biden on the news! Man was I astonished to learn that he had launched his candidacy for national office by announcing that Barak Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” For Biden, it was a very early ending to his longshot bid to not completely humiliate himself while running for president. How does a man plan a high-profile political campaign for months and then begin with this remark? And when will be hired to coach the Redskins?
During this Super Bowl bye week, I've been seeing all kinds of things that I don't typically get to during football season. That is of course because between, say, August and late January, there is very little point in thinking about anything else. There are the games themselves, yes, but also the vital matter of consuming endless hours of also clattering pre- and post-game analysis, predictions and punditry. The ultimate effect is something like an extended meditative trance of the sort Julie Christie finds herself in periodically during McCabe & Mrs.
Miller. Yes, football is my opium, but of course this poses the not insignificant problem of what to do when it all ends and the seismic withdrawal of February and March descends. What a strange and emotionally treacherous journey — the nightmares, the crying jags, the irrational fantasies about the free agent market.
It is ritual during this time for those who know me best to begin carefully preparing the “Happy Room” — stocked with “Hi-C,” comic books and hulking sacks of bulk candy — where I will often need to be kept in isolation until at least the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament in March. Up until that time, it's just too dangerous to have me exposed to the wasteland which is the late winter American sports scene. For me, nothing for sheer melancholy measures up to the pallid emotional blankness of mid-season NBA basketball. One look at the T-Wolves engaged in a late-winter tilt with the Golden State Warriors conveys more about the intractable meaningless of existence than any hundred hours spend reading from Beckett or Ionesco. And it's sad that no one plays hockey anymore. I used to like to go watch that game, I think. (Didn't I?)
This is where I found myself heading last week, flipping bleakly through the channels, lost in the brief delusion that maybe I really could get deeply into the World Arm Wrestling Championships on ESPN2. Instead I found relief from my anxiety in one of the two of the very last paces I would have ever thought to look: Melbourne, Australia and men's tennis. I have frankly not thought to pay attention to this first tennis major of the season in many, many years. But some peculiar confluence of events brought me back to it this time around, and both the men's and women's draw provided the sort of compelling storylines and action that could help begin to reverse the fate of the most helplessly craven of hard core NFL junkies.
Mostly, I became the most recent in a long line of American latecomers to be struck dumb by Roger Federer. This year's Australian Open was the first time I had watched him play several matches, and suddenly I have gained an appreciation for how it is the Swiss champion has come to be spoken about in the sort of reverential terms reserved for athletes of a truly mythic stature. Federer's ability to make top-flight athletes appear like flailing amateurs places him in elite company amongst even legendary sports-world performers. An impartial observer with no prior knowledge who witnessed his semi-final match with top ten-ranked American Andy Roddick might well have concluded that this Roddick person would be best served finding another line of work. The Swiss champion's shot-making array so frequently paralyzes and befuddles other players that it is very easy to conclude there must be something terribly wrong with what they're doing. I don't know enough about tennis to speak with authority in a technical sense, but I've watched enough to know that there is something completely astounding about Federer's ability to loop in shots of such force and graceful arc that you would swear the ball was equipped with eyes, wings and the sort of pinpoint technology typically associated with the highest possible grade of weapons technology. Roddick would run left and the ball would sail over his far shoulder and hit the baseline. Roddick would come to the net and the ball would be flipped casually just over his extended racket for a winner. Roddick would stay on the baseline and Federer would whip a backhand winner in the near court at some impossible angle. This experience brought to mind nothing so much as watching a goalkeeper in soccer attempting to defend in a shootout. You pick a side and hope, but 80% of the time you're dead wrong.
While he is a frequently petulant and off-putting figure, Andy Roddick's post-match press conference histrionics seemed weirdly understandable and even appropriate in light of what had just gone down in the semis. "It was frustrating. It was miserable. It sucked. It was terrible," Roddick said. "Besides that, it was fine." Without actually having seen the match I would have chalked this sort of talk up as self-pitying hyperbole. Having actually witnessed it with my own eyes, I think he's basically summed it up exactly. I'm not quite sure what more he could say. This was not the stuff of silver linings and mitigating triumphs. It must be beyond frustrating trying to play Federer — the only person likely to challenge his supremacy in the foreseeable future is probably Harry Potter. “It’s just unreal. I’m shocked myself, I don’t know what to say,” said Federer after the match, a charming display of candor from the rare man who has seemingly failed to make many enemies despite his bewildering on-court genius. As with Tiger Woods on the PGA tour, most professional jealousy seems to have fallen away with respect to Federer, replaced with resignation and awe.
I have an intuition that — following an extended fallow period that dates at least through the retirement of Pete Sampras in 2002, and arguably much longer than that — men's tennis may finally be on the way back to wide popular acclaim in this country. (This statement should be taken with a large grain of salt: I can stare at the headlines of the morning paper and have the wrong intuition about what happened yesterday.) Evolutions in equipment for a time made the game such a slam-bang affair that points were most often over in a matter of seconds, and much of the game's artistry, as exemplified by the McEnroe-Borg classics of the late 70s, had been lost to a brute economy. Now, an entire generation has adjusted to a game with large graphite rackets and 130 MPH serves, and the now the rallies, the diverse stylistic play, and even some of the personalities seem to be back. And Federer is, apparently and by widespread proclamation, the best who has ever played. It's an honor to watch the best. Whatever one's proclivities, you tune in for Jordan, Ali, Woods and Montana. You do it just to say you saw them. I may even skip an NFL game and go to see Federer at the US Open next September.