Books: The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey

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ROME - Rowan Ricardo Phillips has made a narrative from the 2017 tennis circuit which functions because it had a shape.  The year began with Andy Murray No 1 and Novak Djokovic Number 2 while the former holders of those rankings, Nadal and Federer, because of being a bit older and injuries, seemed fading stars.  But by the year’s end Nadal and Federer had regained the two top spots while Murray and Djokovic were declining.  It was a surprise restoral of hierarchy, as if the Romanoffs had returned and exiled Lenin and Trotsky.

 This reversal- of - fortunes story is enlivened by Phillip’s in-depth portraits of some protagonists and his understanding of technique such as Federer’s change to a flatter backhand hit ‘like someone opening a shut door’.

 Phillips is an award-winning poet and also sports commentator for ‘The Paris Review’.  He coins vivid phrases, describing Murray when angry being a ‘smouldering explosion…as if a tarp has been thrown over him’ and, when carrying an injury, walking ‘as if in flippers.’

 He loves tennis – watching: it was one of the few activities his family shared in his native New York. He got the idea for his book when, immobilised by a torn Achilles tendon and drugged by pain killers, he lay on a couch  watching televised matches then replaying them several times.

 With the exception of a few North American tournaments, those he describes he saw television.  But being at a match is different.

 The first tournament he saw in 2017 was Brisbane  played under a ‘steamy gauze of heat’ but he was in freezing nighttime New York.  As a result he missed out on describing the city and the setting.  Likewise when he wrote about the ‘historic’ Open in Melbourne.  As its winner is the only one who can gain the ‘Grand Slam’ by winning also the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, it is always decisive.  But Phillips’s calls it historic because the number 17 seed, Roger Federer, won giving him a good story line: again, Roger and Rafa ruled the rankings roost.

 Philips exalts the Australian Open over the US Open won by Nadal against Kevin Anderson.  He attended that one which ‘never took fire.’

 He is amusing and insightful about ‘foolish but not stupid’ Nick Kyrgios.

 He describes the relationship of spectators with Nick as ‘He’s bored, you’re pissed; he’s pissed, you’re bored’.  Bored not by Kyrgios’s often exciting tennis but by his bad boy role.  Phillips points out that tennis has had a long history of bad boys including Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe;  mercifully, he does not mention Bernard Tomic.  He concludes that the role has become tiresome.

 There is an editorial lapse on page 152  where a paragraph on Nadal and Pierre-Hughes Herbert continues about ‘the brown-skinned Australian guy with the Greek last name’ and it is obvious that a transitional passage introducing Krygios have been left out.               

 Phillips says he will write only about what interests him during the year and mentions other events, such as Trump’s election and even, during Wimbledon, a drug conviction in a London court of a 16 year old boy.

 These attempts to anchor the account to the real world show instead that professional tennis is a bubble. However if he had explored the bubble itself further, he could have found that it reflects globalization with ever more professional tournaments being established in places such as Quito, Antalya, Sofia, Marrakesch, Umago, Los Cabos. That means more money.  Reaching even the second round in a big tournament now brings in $US 70,000. But the players want ever more so the winner of a tournament usually staggers to the next whose winner often is not the best but the least exhausted.  Greed and television rights rule the roost in this rave new world. Television has more effects than Philips acknowledges. For instance, despite the obvious conflict of interest, for BBC TV John McEnroe commented on Milos Raonic matches when he was coaching the Canadian and, allegedly, even texting advice to him. The Davis Cup competition has been sold. A Mickey Mouse abbreviated version of tennis is experimented in the Laver Cup with team members hamming it up on the sidelines and Rod participating in the spectators’ Mexican Wave. Traditional tennis could be boring but at its best was much richer than a fast food diet of cheap thrills. Tennis’s governing bodies should be wary of turning the circuit into a circus.

 They are trying to introduce new audiences to tennis and that is one of the aims of Phillips also.  It makes for an odd mixture – his book is also a primer which begins with a glossary explaining terms such as baseline and backhand but also bagel (a 6-0 score ) and breadstick (6-1 ).   It merits are its story line, his enthusiasm and ability to capture the fleeting moment.  

The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 216 pp US Price $26