You won’t catch me watching the Indian Wells men’s final between Federer and Isner. My boy Nadal was knocked out by Fed last night, 3 and 4, a rain-delayed match played in swirling, comparatively cold conditions that recalled Fed’s five-set, two-day long, U.S. Open quarterfinal victory against Andre Agassi in 2000-whenever. Props to Fed, though; commentators got it wrong before both these matches: Nadal’s high-percentage spin and Agassi’s training in windy Vegas were for naught. It was Fed who was not only more adaptable but also more aggressive, his supreme footwork on display. Crazy wind’s always a factor but generally Fed moves so fluidly to the ball it’s as if he’s not playing in the same wind as his opponent, and his willingness to accept the tough conditions refutes Mats Wilander’s assertion that he’s not a fighter, or mentally tough. Of course he is. And when Nadal lifted his game in the first set to level things a 3–3, Fed was there to kick him back down the ladder; when the Spaniard awoke at 2–5 in the second and he started to roll again, Federer lay out a speed bump. Match. The great points were scintillating and the Swiss seems committed to flattening out his crosscourt backhand whenever Nadal cheats to his own forehand side. Has Fed welded the chinks in his armor? With the Big Three playing at this level, the French Open could be truly extraordinary.
Still, the match of the tournament for me was Isner’s win against Djokovic. His gargantuan gifts aside, there’s no greater pleasure in sport than to see a game plan perfectly executed and unquestionably Nadal could learn a lot about how to beat Djoker from this match. We’ll forget Isner’s inimitable, freakish serve, which is absurd in all sorts of ways (angle, pace, consistency, bombs delivered by a guy with a great pitcher’s canniness and a kicker that, twice, jumped over Djoker’s head) and concentrate, instead, on his unflinching commitment to 1) an aggressive return of serve 2) a willingness to come into net whenever he hurt Novak and 3) a willingness to crack forehands whenever the opportunities presented themselves. In short, he played a perfect match. And then Fed thumped him in straights. What a time to be a pro. What a greedy bunch are Fed and Nadal and, now, Djoker. Thirty-seven Grand Slam titles between the three of them, and there’s the Gentle Giant, trying to get his. My heart goes out to him.
My heart goes out to Maria Sharapova, too, who must look across the net at Victoria Azarenka and see an opponent who does almost everything better than her except maybe serve, and it’s been a long, long time since Maria has controlled a match against a top player with that shot. In the final, Az seemed to have all day to find open court, not that she needed it. With the possible exception of Kim Clijsters, no one in the women’s game redirects the ball better. I said it’s a great pleasure to see a game plan perfectly executed; a close second is to see great talent fully realized and I couldn’t help but think about Az in Oz several years ago, a set up against Serena having nearly blown her off the court in two, when suddenly the pressure mounted, the heat went to her will and psyche, and suddenly she was stumbling around like she’d been shooting vodka on the changeovers and ultimately had to retire from dizziness. I’ll make a bold prediction: if Az stays healthy, I swear, she’ll win The Grand Slam this year. I don’t even think either of the Williams sisters could play with her at this level.
It has been a terrible reading year for me so far—I’m talking sheer numbers—this having nothing to do with the quality of the books I’ve tackled. Thoroughly enjoyed Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and would have followed that exuberant Geek-Spanglish voice anywhere. Re-read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned before hearing him read/speak at Vanderbilt. The man can write a sentence and is a complete gentleman in person. I’ve already mentioned Alix Ohlin’s upcoming Signs and Wonders, a wonderful story collection by a writer who combines quicksilver storytelling ability, sheer narrative dexterity, with an almost spooky emotional intelligence. Am currently slogging through Mann’s The Magic Mountain (there’s a movie?). Got no gripes with Mann, by the way. It’s amazing how he anticipates Thomas Friedman’s flat world, for instance:
“Technical progress [Settembrini] said, gradually subjugated nature, by developing roads and telegraphs, minimizing climatic differences; and by the mean of communication which it created proved itself the most reliable agent in the task of drawing together the peoples of the earth, of making them acquainted with each other…”
But all my energy has been going into my novel, Playworld, and I’m fried by day’s end. Have made some real breakthroughs after several months of blind alleys and dead ends. Some moments of deep despair. Writing: You need serious guns to do it. Also Stephen Colbert’s sense of humor. At the suggestion of Jedi-master (and stupendous novelist and short story writer) Steve Yarbrough, I did, however, read Alice Munro’s much anthologized story “Carried Away” from Open Secrets. Dear Tolstoy: Eat your heart out. Any fans of her work should read her Paris Review interview: she’s a pure writing animal. I have inside information that her new collection, due out this spring or summer, is remarkable.