Tom Perrotta: On Tennis, Writing, and the Greatness of Roger Federer

The Australian Open starts on Monday and we’ll have coverage of the tournament throughout the fortnight from my favorite tennis writer, Tom Perrotta.

Perrotta writes about tennis primarily for the Wall Street Journal, but has covered the sport for just about every publication in America that pays even the slightest attention to the game. He is, alongside Peter de Jonge and David Foster Wallace, one of a handful of greats essayists to have been bitten by the tennis bug both as a player and a writer.

I emailed with him recently about Federer, Nadal, tennis, and the writing life.

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Jonathan V. Last: You write about tennis for a living. I honestly can’t think of anything better in the whole of the world. How did you get here? Why tennis? Why writing?

Tom Perrotta: First, thank you for saying that. It’s true—no matter what I’m doing when writing about tennis, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s fun, pretty much all the time, which is why I look to do as much as possible. How did I get here: Very random, and very good, luck.

I was a reporter for a legal journal in New York City when the New York Sun, a daily newspaper, came alive. They loved sports and I loved sports, having watched them since I was a child. Two dear friends worked there and they gave me a tryout in writing about tennis, which I had played since I was 10 years old (I was number one on my high school team, but we were a low-ranked team and I’m not much of a player). The Sun was a part-time job, and I loved it—I always wanted to be a writer (I majored in writing in college) and I loved tennis, so it was the perfect combination. The Sun is long gone, but I’ve somehow been able to keep up with tennis by writing for others. The Wall Street Journal has been a remarkable place to write and I still love it like I did when I began in 2009.

JVL: The Australian Open starts soon. Where does the Aussie rank for you? And if you were going to advise a tennis fan and who had a chance to go to just one major, which would you tell him to go to?

TP: The Open is a wonderful tournament and it has improved immensely since the first time I went, in 2007. There are fancier courts, more attractions, and still great seats for the major stadium, which is the perfect size. It’s hard for me to rank the tournaments overall, but in terms of relaxation and happiness—with summer replacing winter—the Australian is on top. The place has a friendly, pleasant feel, which has a positive effect on the players, too.

But if I had to advise a tennis fan who has a chance to go to just one major, I’d recommend Wimbledon. No offense to Australia or the others, but there’s nothing like grass courts, and the design of the place in general is remarkable. They have somehow modified it while saving its historic, old-age look and feel.

JVL: Back when professional tennis was less professional, the tour used to have a lot of characters. Today it seems more industrialized and homogenized—guys like Spadea or Tipsarevic are awfully rare. Who’s the most interesting character you’ve been around in the game?

TP: My favorites have been Janko Tipsarevic and the tall (and funny) Ivo Karlovic. You’re right about the personalities—though it’s not that these players don’t have personalities. It’s that they are instructed to keep it all inside, so they can control their coverage. I will say this about tennis: As much as they try to do this, players don’t succeed as much as they do in team sports like the NFL. The game is full of individuals and the rules are broken often, so it’s still worth trying to have real conversations with them.

JVL: Okay, so you’ve made a bet with a James Bond villain and put a million dollars on a single set of tennis. You can have any player in history, in their prime, playing the set for you. Who do you pick? One man and one woman. Go.

TP: Easy answer for the women: Serena Williams. Her career has been astonishing. She’s made comebacks. She has dominated years at a time. And she’s still going at age 36. I’d be shocked if she doesn’t eventually tie, and likely break, Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles (Williams has 23 at the moment).

As for the men, several years ago I would have chosen Rafael Nadal, but now I say Roger Federer. What he has done in his mid-30s is remarkable, and that includes beating Nadal a bunch of times in a row. He’s so good I won’t be surprised at all if he gets to 20 Grand Slam titles and beyond.

JVL: Obligatory Federer question: For me, the biggest mystery—possibly in all of sports—is Federer’s transformation in 2003. He spends his first four years on the tour as a guy who’s obviously talented and looks like top-20, maybe even top-10 material. Then he wins Wimbledon in July of 2003 and embarks on the most dominant 48 months in the history of the sport.

It’s like a switch was flipped inside him and I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before. Our most dominant athletes always show it early: Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods by age 10. Jordan was Jordan from his third game in the NBA. Sampras won the U.S. Open at 19 and was already so good it looked like he’d never lose another set.

What do you think happened to turn Federer from a nice, promising player to the GOAT, basically overnight?

TP: It does look like it happened overnight, but it really didn’t.

When he was younger, most everyone looked at Federer as a potentially dominant player, but his mind wasn’t right. He got frustrated too soon in matches and mixed up his wide variety of shots too often. That’s often the problem for players who have amazing talent, and some never recover from it. By Wimbledon in 2003, he had, very slowly, changed and become a more calm and consistent player. The most impressive thing was how from there he started winning all the time. People predicted a lot of wins, but no one could have predicted how this ended up for so many years.

JVL: Or is he the GOAT? Where do you fall on the Federer-Nadal question?

TP: I lean on Federer, largely because he has more Grand Slam titles and he began beating Nadal in his mid-30s, which no one expected. Last year’s Australian Open final against Nadal was remarkable. Federer trailed 3-1 in the fifth set and didn’t lose another game. Against Nadal—who is the most consistent player you’ll ever see—that’s unheard of.

JVL: Do you have a favorite match ever? I mean, aside from Isner-Mahut. Though if you have thoughts on Isner-Mahut, I’d like them, too, since it’s one of the greatest sporting contests, ever.

TP: My favorite match is Federer and Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final. It had everything. There were long interruptions from rain (which can’t happen anymore, because the court now has a roof). They each made few mistakes and, at first, Nadal looked dominant, winning the first two sets. Federer, remarkably, won the next two sets. And they were both near-perfect in the fifth set, which Nadal won 9-7 just before the match would have been canceled because of darkness.

From start to finish the match had everything. I’ve never see a better one.

JVL: What’s the biggest open secret in the tennis world right now?

TP: That the sport needs more stars—women and men—and needs them soon. The big-name players are older, especially the men, with Federer and Nadal still leading the way. The young ones haven’t delivered, and in women’s tennis, when Serena Williams isn’t there, anything goes.

This will change and it’s not something to be afraid of. But no one knows how long it will take, that’s the problem. Your guess is as good as mine.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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