Game Plan

Nashville’s stormy spring is as dan­ger­ous as it is beautiful. 

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.

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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.