kottke.org posts about tennis

Which of these two displays of athletic quickness is more incredible?Apr 18 2013

The first features TAKASKE, a Dance Dance Revolution player with ballerina-quick feet. Here he plays all eight footpads at ludicrous speed.

Then there's Cara Black, a higly-ranked women's doubles tennis player with a killer net game. Here she's practicing volleys off the wall at close range.

She reels off 115 volleys in 43 seconds, beating the performance of her 16-year-old self.

Novak Djokovic buys all the donkey cheese in the worldDec 10 2012

While you ponder what that might be a euphemism for, I'll just tell you that in actual fact tennis player Novak Djokovic has purchased the entire 2013 supply of cheese made from donkey milk. Only £800 per kilo.

Wimbledon winner and world No 1 Novak, 25, wants the donkey's milk cheese to supply a new chain of restaurants in his Serbian homeland. The delicacy, known as pule, is made in Zasavica, Serbia, and is described as similar to Spanish manchego. Donkey milk is said to be very healthy for humans as it has anti-allergen properties and is low fat.

(via @tylercowen)

Two old, black girls...still holding up AmericaSep 04 2012

As it received high marks from friends, I wanted to like John Jeremiah Sullivan's recent NY Times Magazine profile of Venus and Serena Williams more than I did, but I think Sullivan had so little access to the sisters that it turned into more of a sick Frank story than expected.

The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park -- or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls -- but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. "I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers," Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, "and telling them: 'The girls are going to be professional. We're going to need a lawyer, and we're going to need an accountant.' "

Isha, the middle daughter -- sharply funny and practical, fiercely loyal to the family -- told me: "Life was get up, 6 o'clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis. But it was consistency. I hate to put it [like this], but it's like training an animal. You can't just be sometimey with it." She still can't sleep past 6.

My favorite observation from the story was actually from a behind-the-story piece that ran on the magazine's blog.

One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it's just a way of being in the world. It's a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They'd almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.

The Super Manning Bros anecdote hits because, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in his evisceration of tennis player Tracy Austin's biography, it can be difficult for gifted athletes to talk about why and how they are able to do what they do. But Venus obviously can and I wish there'd been more of that in the main essay.

Two for tennisAug 31 2011

Now that the US Open is in full, wait for it, swing, a pair of articles about tennis. First, an account of last year's epic three-day Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut.

Both players, clearly, were serving well. But their ground strokes were near-perfect, too. They made almost no mistakes. Isner remembers feeling so happy with his game that "it's hard to explain. I never thought about technique. I had no dark thoughts in my mind. I was just swinging away and the balls were going in - no matter if it was a big point, or whatever. It was crazy."

Mahut, meanwhile, recalls an almost spiritual dimension to his play. "When we got into the money-time at 6-6 [he says 'money-time' in English], there was only John, myself, and my team. No one else. I didn't hear the crowd. There was only the present time. I didn't think about the point before, or the point after. I just stayed in the moment. I had absolutely no fear. The level of focus and awareness I had was so high. Normally, you don't keep up for a long time. But that moment - I kept it for a long time."

Mahut's enjoyment, he says, was triggered by more than competition. After the many frustrations in his career, his pleasure came from fulfilling his potential. In this regard, his experience recalls Jean Bobet, the French cyclist of the 1950s, who wrote about experiencing "La Volupte" - the rare and sensual state of perfect riding. "La Volupte," wrote Bobet, "is delicate, intimate, and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness."

How did it feel, to play tennis like that? "It was the biggest moment of my life," says Mahut, gravely. "It was magical."

And then, from Grantland, a piece by Brian Phillips about "the long autumn" of Roger Federer. The once near-magical Swiss, his best days behind him, is now merely the third best player in the world...but is also still really really good, hanging onto his greatness longer than he should maybe?

Roger Federer has spent longer as a "still" athlete than any great player I can remember. You could even argue that it's one of the signs of his greatness. Other top players hit the "still" moment, hang around for a little longer, and then whoosh, they're gone, broken up into memorial clips and Hall of Fame inductions, classic rock bands who've sold their copyrights. Federer, after three straight years of diminished results -- 11 to 12 singles titles a year from 2004 to 2006, then eight in 2007, and four to five every year since -- is ... well, still really amazing. He's still near his best, which means he's still playing some of the best tennis the world has ever seen. If anything, he's improved his serve to compensate for what's maybe been a slight decline in his movement and shot-making -- although, as McEnroe pointed out during the French Open, his movement is "still great." Heading into Wimbledon, historically his best tournament, he warmed up at the French by sensationally ending Djokovic's 41-match winning streak and playing as well as Paris has ever seen him play against Nadal.

But because he's been "still great" for so long -- because we keep seeing the end coming, even if it never actually comes -- Federer has also acquired an aura of weird sadness over the past few years that's hard to reconcile with the way we used to think about him.

Speaking of sports, Grantland, and Federer, Bill Simmons said of Lionel Messi earlier this year that "he's better at soccer than anyone else is at anything". That's a pretty short list but got me wondering, if you expanded the criteria slightly, who else might join Messi on the "better at their sport than almost anyone else is at anything at some point in the past 5-6 years". Off the top of my head, possible candidates include Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, Tiger Woods, Marta, Shaun White, Jimmie Johnson, and Annika Sörenstam. I don't know much about hockey, but maybe Alex Ovechkin? No basketball, baseball, or football players on that list; Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds are the most recent candidates in basketball and baseball (please, don't give me any of that LeBron crap) and I can't think of any football player over the past 20 years who might fit the bill. Barry Sanders maybe? His team never won a lot of games and didn't win championships, but man he was a genius runner.

Slow-motion tennis anyone?Aug 25 2010

This series of videos from the NY Times is called The Beauty of the Power Game and I can't tell if they are cheap & exploitive or beautiful & revealing. They show women tennis players hitting shots in slow motion. The one of Victoria Azarenka is the best by far...the camera pans up her body slowly, showing first her footwork, then the pivot, backswing, intense focus of the eyes, swing, and finally the followthrough.

Novelist versus pro tennis playerJul 09 2010

Novelist Nic Brown plays his childhood friend Tripp Phillips (former ATP circuit pro) in tennis. The challenge? To win a single point.

What I can't do, no matter how hard I try, is win a single point. Not one. "You have no weapons," he tells me two days later, over a lunch of cheap tacos and cheese dip. He reviews the match in this specific analytical way I've experienced with other professional athletes. To them, match review is engineering, not personal nicety. The performance is fact, not opinion. "No matter what," he says, "I was going to have you off balance. And no matter what you did, I was going to be perfectly balanced. I knew where you were going to hit it before you hit it. It's the difference between me and you. But if I played Roger Federer right now, he'd do the exact same thing to me."

That bit reminds me of David Foster Wallace's article on tennis pro Michael Joyce (Esquire, July '96). Specifically, how much of a skill difference there was between Joyce (the 79th best player in the world), the players he competed against in qualifiers, and the then-#1 ranked Andre Agassi.

Federer between the legs shot at US OpenSep 13 2009

This is the most ridiculously implausible tennis shot you'll ever see.

Federer says "it was the greatest shot I ever hit in my life".

Djokovic and McEnroe have a hitSep 10 2009

Novak Djokovic, the clown prince of tennis, did his impression of John McEnroe after a victory at the US Open the other day and McEnroe came down from the booth to do his best Djokovic impression.

Federer's (nearly) flawless footworkSep 01 2009

A New York TImes video explains Roger Federer's footwork and how it helps him be so effective and efficient on the court. Bonus: the creepy CG version of Federer makes him seem like even more of a robot. (via clusterflock)

Nadal: best of all time?Feb 10 2009

It's gotta be weird for Roger Federer. Last year at this time, people were saying that he was the best tennis player of all time. Now, near the top of his game and height of his powers, he might not even be the best current tennis player. And if you look at the statistics, Rafael Nadal may turn out to be the best tennis player ever.

Federer won his first Grand Slam title at age 21 and, by his 23rd birthday, had won two more. Sampras had won four by that age. Nadal is well ahead of that pace, having won his first Grand Slam at the precocious age of 18. The Australian was Nadal's sixth and he will be a prohibitive favorite to capture his fifth consecutive French Open just a few days after he turns 23 in June.

US Open live onlineSep 08 2008

Tennis fan and still stuck at the office? USOpen.org is streaming the men's final (Federer vs. Murray) live. Right now. Go!

Follow the bouncing compression artifactsJul 29 2008

I am powerless against YouTube videos with names like Federer Madness. The video's so crappy that I can't even see the ball most of the time and yet I cannot stop watching. From there, it's federer legendary 10 top shots, Rafael Nadal neat ball trick, and Michael Chang's underhand serve at the 1989 French Open. Send help and Gatorade!

Bill Simmons atones for tennis gaffeJul 10 2008

In his latest podcast, Bill Simmons apologizes (sort of) for his stupid article on why tennis is sucky and boring, calling it "maybe the dumbest column I've ever written". But then he goes on to say that what Wimbledon needs is a retractable roof on Centre Court and lights so that matches can proceed without fear of rain or night. Both of which are totally happening next year, unbeknowst to Simmons.

If you're a sports columnist, it helps if you're, you know, interested in sports. Many columnists are only interested in the big three sports -- football, basketball, baseball -- and treat other sports with a not-so-veiled disinterest or even distain. Competition, both against others and with the self, is at the base of all sports and if, as a so-called "sports fan", you can't find something of that to love about tennis or badminton or NASCAR, maybe you need to look elsewhere for work. Simmons needs to bring himself up to speed on tennis; he's missed a lot.

And if you're writing about a sport you don't know much about and argue that it needs to be changed in such a way that makes it more exciting for the short attention span generation, you should also be prepared to advocate for the 35-game NBA season, the 60-game MLB season, moving the pitcher's mound back to 65 feet, eliminating charging in the NBA, and 11-on-10 in NFL games.

Weekend sports wrapJul 07 2008

1. The Federer/Nadal final at Wimbledon was epic. I was tense for the entire duration of the final three sets, which lasted about 2.5 to 3 hours. After years of sportswriters declaring that Roger Federer is the best player of all time, we might be faced with the possibility that he's not even the best player of his generation. Two data points: 1) Nadal has shown that he can win on any surface, including Federer's specialty, and 2) Nadal's head-to-head record against Federer is 10-5 (although many of those wins came on clay). The match also clearly reveals the idiocy of this lame Bill Simmons article about how tennis needs to change.

2. Joey Chestnut successfully defended his title this weekend at the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, eating 59 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. He needed a 5-dog overtime to hold off long-time champ Takeru Kobayashi, who has lost to Chestnut the last two years. Chestnut weighs 230 pounds while Kobayashi is only 160 pounds.

3. The US Olympic swimming trials are over and Michael Phelps qualified in 5 individual events and will likely participate in three relays as well, giving him a chance to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympics. Overshadowing Phelps' achievements was "41-year-old mom" (that's how they kept describing her on TV) Dara Torres, who qualified in both the 100-meter freestyle and the 50-meter freestyle.

Update: Ok, Nadal can't consistently win on hardcourt. But he's 22...give him time. (thx, everyone)

Djokovic out at WimbledonJun 25 2008

Yikes, Novak Djokovic lost in the second round of Wimbledon to Marat Safin. Many thought Djokovic would play spoiler to the nearly inevitable Federer/Nadal final. (P.S. Euro 2008 semis, Turkey vs. Germany, 2:45 ET today on ESPN.)

Art Grand Slam would be the perfectJan 24 2008

Art Grand Slam would be the perfect name for a web site showcasing the tennis-related art of Martina Navratilova. And so it is.

Almost 20 years since her last grand slam singles title, Martina Navratilova is back in action on the circuit -- only this time she is turning tennis strokes into brush strokes as she helps to create a new form of contemporary art.

In its crudest and, perhaps, most joyful expression, it involves the player hitting paint-covered tennis balls at a canvas, usually marked with court lines and prepared to resemble a playing surface: clay, grass or artificial.

(via quipsologies)

Conservation of concentrationSep 27 2007

I love the idea of conservation of concentration conveyed in this piece about Roger Federer, that we've got only so much intense focus to go around and successful athletes like Federer are really good at saving it up for the big moments.

A couple of times during press conferences, I noticed something kind of interesting about Roger Federer. I'll get to it in a minute, but let me describe the scene first. Players enter Interview Room One, where all of the Rajah's pressers take place, at the corner diagonally opposite from where the players enter. The players come in and turn right, to take their seat behind the microphone on the little dais or stage. Most players look to their left as they enter, just gauging the room and who is in it and how full it is. Federer, though, always keeps his head down and eyes averted, until he sits and begins to answer questions, when he makes direct eye contact with each questioner.

Anyway, a couple of times during his press conferences, someone's cell phone went off, each time with an annoyingly loud ring tone. Both times, everyone turned, first to locate and then to glare at the culprit: have you no shame? And both times, I noticed, Roger kept his eyes locked on his interlocutor, never glancing in the direction of the phone. I'm sure he was conscious, on one level, that there was an interruption occurring, but he had decided to ignore it. Not even a darting of the eyes towards the irritant. Both coming in the room with his head down and refusing to allow himself to be distracted or interrupted seemed to convey the same thing: he chooses to focus selectively, and focuses intensely once he does.

It was difficult to keep the quoting down to those two paragraphs...just go read the whole thing. (And of course, this ties into my continuing fascination with relaxed concentration and the battle with the self as the true struggle in life.)

Great set of infographics that illustrate theSep 25 2007

Great set of infographics that illustrate the differences between grass, clay, and hardcourt surfaces in tennis, particularly with regard to how the ball bounces on each.

Novak Djokovic lost the US Open finalSep 10 2007

Novak Djokovic lost the US Open final to Roger Federer last night but the 20-yo Serb clearly left his -- how do I put this? -- impression on the tournament. Here's some video of Djokovic impersonating Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal at the US Open. He does several other players as well, including a fine Andy Roddick.

Update: In case you're unfamiliar with the mannerisms of the players mentioned above, here's video of Roddick, Sharapova, and Nadal. (thx, flip)

Some Infinite Jest fashion notes: an EnfieldSep 06 2007

Some Infinite Jest fashion notes: an Enfield Tennis Academy tshirt from Neighborhoodies and...

Was the designer of Infinite Jest's book cover influenced by the color palette of the Nikes that Andre Agassi wore in 1991? Compelling visual evidence is available at lonelysandwich.

In critical situations in matches, female tennisJun 27 2007

In critical situations in matches, female tennis players play more conservatively, commit more unforced errors, and serve slower than male tennis players do in the same situations. "While men's performance does not vary much depending on the importance of the point, women's performance deteriorates significantly as points become more important." (via mr)

As a 14-yo, Donald Young seemed likeJun 25 2007

As a 14-yo, Donald Young seemed like a can't-miss tennis prospect. Now, nearly 18, he hasn't missed but he hasn't exactly lived up to all the promise either.

Serena Williams could kick your ass.Jun 03 2007

Serena Williams could kick your ass.

Wiimbledon is a Wii Tennis tournament takingMay 30 2007

Wiimbledon is a Wii Tennis tournament taking place in Brooklyn in late June. I'd come kick your ass, but I have plans that day.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are playingMay 02 2007

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are playing a match today on a specially designed tennis court that's half grass (Federer's specialty) and half clay (Nadal's preferred surface). Story includes a photo of the kooky court. (thx, dalben)

Crazy incredible shot by Roger Federer againstMar 13 2007

Crazy incredible shot by Roger Federer against Andy Roddick. He somehow gets to Roddick's overhead slam and slips it by him on the baseline.

Daniel Coyle travels to Russia's top tennisMar 09 2007

Daniel Coyle travels to Russia's top tennis player factory in search of how to grow a super-athlete. "Deliberate practice means working on technique, seeking constant critical feedback and focusing ruthlessly on improving weaknesses." The article starts off a bit slow but gets interesting a few paragraphs in.

For the first time, Wimbledon will payFeb 22 2007

For the first time, Wimbledon will pay this year's female contestants the same amount of prize money as the male contestants. "The WTA Tour lobbied for years to get Wimbledon to drop its 'Victorian-era view' and pay the women the same as the men."

This just in: Conan O'Brien defeats SerenaFeb 02 2007

This just in: Conan O'Brien defeats Serena Williams at Wii Tennis.

If Roger Federer keeps going the wayJan 25 2007

If Roger Federer keeps going the way he's going, he could one day be considered the greatest sportsman in history.

Update: Via email, a nomination for Pakistani squash player Jahangir Khan, who engineered a 5+ year unbeaten streak during which he won the International Squash Players Association Championship without losing a single point. (thx, abbas)

Update: Also via email, a vote for darts champion Phil Taylor, who has won 13 world titles, including 11 out of the last 13. (thx, krush)

Great composite photo of Andre Agassi playingAug 29 2006

Great composite photo of Andre Agassi playing a point against Andrei Pavel in the US Open last night. Looks like Agassi had Pavel running a bit.

Update: Nice appreciation of Agassi with a summary of his career.

Oh happy day, a new nonfiction articleAug 20 2006

Oh happy day, a new nonfiction article by David Foster Wallace! This one's on Roger Federer. "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war." The footnotes appear on a separate page and almost comprise an article of their own. I love reading his writing about tennis. (thx, stephen)

Update: Here's a short clip of Wallace on NPR talking about Federer. When asked about the similarities between great athletes and great novelists, Wallace suggested that great athletes possess the ability to "empathize without sympathy" with their opponent, something that is useful in fiction writing when putting yourself in the shoes of a character.

Update: This YouTube video shows the Federer/Agassi volley that Wallace describes in the epically long sentence in the second paragraph...look for it starting at 8:10. (thx, marco)

Andre Agassi will retire after this year's US Open.Jun 24 2006

Andre Agassi will retire after this year's US Open.

Slate's Seth Stevenson is liking Martina HingisJun 02 2006

Slate's Seth Stevenson is liking Martina Hingis more since she came out of retirement. I find men's tennis boring because of the "big hitters" Stevenson refers to and I think the women's game has suffered for the same reason of late.

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