Entrance Hymn

May 28, 2018

I think a lot about that time when, during the 2009 French Open final, a man burst from the crowd and tried to put a hat on Roger Federer. The moment felt far too delicate—Federer, finally with a chance to play for the title against someone other than the Immovable Wall, to win the last match he would ever truly need to win, and then this guy appears like a glitch. The man could have had a knife; it wouldn’t have been tennis’s first time. Before security ran him down, he had time enough for several attempts at yanking the hat down upon Roger’s ducking head.

 

We don’t think about this now because Federer won. He finally got his Roland Garros title to complete the career Grand Slam, and it mostly ended the conversation over whether he was the greatest male tennis player of all time. But in that moment, this was not foregone. Once he'd taken a few seconds to collect himself after being attacked by a stranger in front of thousands of people now as agitated as he was, he still had to beat Soderling.

 

You’ve probably forgotten about Robin Soderling too, and that’s fine. He mostly exists as a trivia answer by now, for what he did a few days before this match with Federer. He had played mind-numbing and math-shattering tennis to defeat Rafael Nadal in Paris, the only blip in an otherwise undefeated decade for Nadal here. That match had been a fever dream. Soderling had stared down the most impregnable combination of opponent and arena any sport has ever seen and very casually put it through a shredder. He took Nadal’s looping strokes on the rise and hammered them like railroad spikes; he ended points from disrespectful, amateurish court positions; he somehow did this steadily for four sets. None of it made any sense, the sheer audacity of it, and you could see both men felt that way as it was happening. It was like watching someone realize he could levitate. It was maddening and hysterical in every sense of the word. Let’s not talk about it anymore.

           

Back to Federer, days later, facing not Nadal like he expected but instead this strange circus act that had beaten him. And now a man from the crowd was pulling a jester’s hat onto his head. The match paused for a couple minutes afterward while everyone regrouped, which was more bad news, because Federer had just solidly won the first set while Soderling looked overwhelmed by the stage. He was rolling. But Soderling did not look shaky after the delay, which had been handed to him like a gift. His shots flattened out again, his too-aggressive forehands started finding lines, and you could see belief creep in the same way it had for him against Nadal. It felt comedic in that sad and cosmic sense, watching Federer try to refocus post-harassment as Soderling gained steam. I don’t care how great he is; after years of nightmares on this court and having things become bizarrely complicated now over the course of just one unscripted minute, he was almost certainly pleading with a whisper telling him, here we go again.

           

The thing to understand is that tennis is not fun. The game at that level is a tight rope over a bottomless pit of nerves even when it’s going well. The relentless, gnawing anxiety rides right along at breakneck pace with the other energies and heat of the summer—through Europe on clay, into Britain, over to Canada and into Arthur Ashe Stadium by September—and we’ve seen plenty of instances of what happens when players let it catch up. Hingis quit. Henin quit. Marion Bartoli, shortly after winning Wimbledon, retired at age twenty-eight with relief flooding her face. Young players we expect to break out over the course of the summer vanish by mid-July and we often don’t meaningfully hear from them again.

           

And all of it seems to hinge on a countless set of delicate moments that get forgotten when the next one appears. This forgetting will only happen more with the world looking like it currently does, because it can feel far too trite to focus on the pristine tulips lining Court Phillipe Chatrier when it feels like we’re racing toward the eschaton. But I think we should try. We should agonize all summer over whether Sasha Sverev can play—and I mean really play, the way you have to when you win Masters-level events throughout spring and you find out once you’re a set down on a side court in Paris that no one actually gives a shit—and we should watch Venus Williams serve and volley as a thirty-seven-year-old with the same delicate footwork she had when she was fourteen. Who knows, maybe we’ll find something.

 

That critical second set between Federer and Soderling went to a tiebreaker, which is a bad thing to get into with someone capable of defying all tennis logic like Soderling had that tournament. But Federer held him off; it is certainly not the most spectacularly he has ever played but for my money, those minutes at the end of the set are his bravest. Then won the next set, and the match, and when he collapsed to his knees it looked very much like, more than joy, he felt relief that things did not go the way they very plausibly could have. He had kept his footing on the wire. It was done and he had won, and in the ensuing years he would win many more things, and here we are, what feels like a second later.

 

Because that’s tennis: repetitive points that blur together until they add up to how we remember a summer, or a year, or a decade. Perhaps this feels familiar. Groundstroke after groundstroke until the crowds that hissed slurs at Serena Williams begged to have her return, until some player at some looming point in the near future finally breaks the stranglehold at the top of the men’s game and it all makes sense in retrospect. I think that’s why we’re here, tennis or otherwise. To not let those points blur quite so quickly, to try to understand what’s happening as it happens so that when it does we're less alarmed. This is a pipe dream; the shocks will still come. But we'll do what we can.

           

Welcome to The Draw. It will be a long summer that will be gone before we know it and if that weighs on you too, I am glad that you are here.

 

 

 

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