Brian Phillips, master of the personal essay, captures the intangible draw of Wimbledon
by Mr. Sheehy
I like watching tennis; though I wonder how much of the pleasant feeling that overcomes me when discussing the sport has to do with the sport and how much has to do with fond childhood memories of being at my friend Rickey’s house and Wimbledon playing on the TV in his little sun-room. Until I met my college roommate, Rickey and his family were the only people I knew who were serious about tennis. They taught me how to understand it (Rickey was too advanced to enjoy playing with me), and forever more the grass-surface tournament became a yearly fascination. I’ve never watched any other tournament–what other grand slam event took place while I was on summer vacation and dominated network TV coverage?–so for me Wimbledon is more than just the pinnacle of tennis, it is the whole of tennis.
I know now that I am not alone in my strange attachment to the great lawn tennis tournament. Apparently, if Brian Phillips’s recent essays are an indication, many of us have grown attached to Wimbledon and England for myriad and personal reasons. Phillips is a far greater writer and more intelligent sports fan than I ever considered being, and in a series of five “dispatches” has attempted to articulate something about his own romantic but powerful attachment to Wimbledon. The essays, taken as a whole, are about as perfect an example of the personal essay as I might find. In sending links to friends I have had trouble determining which paragraphs are the best ones. Some are great for their insight into sport. Take, for example, Phillips’s explanation of the unified experience of the spectators at a tennis match:
Tennis, while still being pretty complex from the standpoint of physics, gives you virtually all the information you need to understand the action at first glance. Tennis draws you in. You can see, when Julien Benneteau is charging down a Roger Federer drop shot, how fast he’s moving versus how fast the ball is moving, whether or not he’s going to get there, what his options will be if he does, whether he’ll have to play another sliced drop shot or will get the angle to smack the ball cross-court. You can perceive, with a few omissions like degree of spin and sun-and-wind conditions, almost exactly what Julien Benneteau can perceive; you can play the shot with him in your imagination. And then you can play the next shot with Federer. And I think that’s just huge in terms of how tennis crowds act, why they seem so happy and friendly, etc. Some people want Federer to win and some people want Benneteau to win, but both sets of fans are jumping back and forth, imaginarily, from one guy to the other throughout each game. The fans are drawn together, with each other and with the players, because they’re all sympathetically sharing the players’ mental space. And if that sounds like nonsense, then I encourage you to come to Wimbledon, get seats anywhere on Centre Court, and wait for the first drop-shot gasp, that astonishing collective oooohhhhh of 14,000 people reacting as one to a shot they just barely saw coming. I submit that the drop-shot gasp is one of the most purely magical sounds in sports. It’s my favorite part, easy, of sitting on Centre Court.
Other paragraphs are wonderful for their complimentary and amusing insights into people. These kinds of paragraphs accomplish something few comedic writers accomplish today: they make the reader laugh at their subject even while they endear that subject to the reader. In this way, I think of Phillips’s description of Pam, “a funny, plump, Scottish ‘assistant sound person'”:
And the other thing I wanted to tell you about was Pam. Pam and I were in different booths (why not, when we had so much room?), so I could hear her but not see her, and let me tell you: Pam was not kidding about cheering as much as we liked. Her characteristic cheer, whenever Murray won a point, was this sort of raucous, piratical “yrrrrrrahhh!,” as though she’d just clean-and-jerked, say, 400 pounds successfully. I was rooting for Federer, who’s my favorite tennis player ever, but rooting for Federer tends to be an exercise in, like, 19th-century sensibility; it’s a quiet, abstract, inwardly transported sort of state. Pam was pounding the table and roaring “Andy!!” and urging “C’mon, Muzzah!!” and, when he started losing, saying stuff like, “He’s done sew well. I’m prewd of him. Just, what can you do when Federer’s playing like that?”
I liked Pam so extremely much, and her responses were so emphatic, that it was hard not to get carried away. When Murray gave his tearful speech after accepting the silver runner’s-up plate … well, again, I couldn’t see Pam. But there were some pretty wrenched-sounding squeaks from her booth, and I’m pretty sure those were Pam sobbing.
By the time I’ve finished these paragraphs, I wish I had been there to meet Pam. The paragraphs honor her and laugh at her, all at once, and the way Phillips does it doesn’t make the situation feel like a paradox.
The articles are built on these kinds of soft and kind observations: life is an interesting compilation of romantic assumptions that run up against real difficulties but also tangibly beautiful moments. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, I’m a sports reporter and that is supposed to be why I’m here, to write about this sporting event, but really I admit I’ve been drawn here by my own romantic notions about England and tennis and Wimbledon and now that I’m actually here, it’s just so wonderfully poignant and surreal that I want to share it with you.” This sentiment is often captured best in simple transition sentences. In one, he follows a quick recap of the mens’ singles final with a move to something totally different: “So — since I’m hardly out to bore you by recounting stuff you already know — what I want to tell you about is the sound of the tennis balls.”
Yet it’s not all poignancy. Humor is a constant companion to much of Phillips’s insight. I love the opening of Part 2, describing an overheard conversation involving two security guards, and the joke is played even better when he returns to it to as part of an observation about the ball boys. Also amusing throughout the essays are the situations and images involving the double decker buses and his own redundant assertion that “Everyone was very nice.” Yet if I had to pick a favorite moment, it might be the opening of Part 3, describing the toilets:
The toilets at Wimbledon are spectacular. Like all American sports fans, I grew up knowing sports-stadium bathrooms as sites of almost unimaginable psychic trauma, humid chambers crammed with alingual, porcine men pissing savagely into troughs. Places whose stained and broken floor tiles exerted a viscous, ropy stickiness. Places where civilization, properly construed, did not exist. Well, I’m happy to report that you can leave those preconceptions at the door when you book your ticket to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Yes, sir. The public men’s room outside my little, disused commentary booth at Centre Court would not be embarrassed to show its face at the United Nations, or in a restaurant that sold wine by the carafe.
I’m talking wood stall doors that go all the way down to the floor. Burnished steel. Big, high-fauceted, mathematically hemispherical sinks.
Like I said, the essays are wonderful. This link will take you to the fifth article, which has links to all five. Read them in order, read them all, and read them at a leisurely pace. They’re worth it. I’m going to piece them all together and assign them as reading for my advanced English 11 students. One hope I have for the year is that at the end of it students will be ready to take the AP composition and grammar exam, if they choose. What better way to begin a conversation about essay writing than with these five articles? Simply by asking the basic question that has consumed me: “Which paragraphs are your favorites?” I suspect we’ll have ignited a discussion about what makes writing interesting, insightful, and memorable.
Thanks for reading.
- Wimbledon 2009 Centre Court panorama on Flickr by: E01