A Tennis Odyssey

Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Teju Cole

In Conversation

In The Circuit, award-winning poet and Paris Review sports columnist Rowan Ricardo Phillips chronicles 2017 as seen through the unique prism of its pivotal, revelatory, and historic tennis season. The annual tennis schedule is a rarity in professional sports in that it encapsulates the calendar year. Phillips paints a new, vibrant portrait of tennis, one that not only captures the emotions, nerves, and ruthless tactics of the point-by-point game, but also places that sense of upheaval within a broader cultural and social context. The Circuit will convince you that you don’t leave the world behind as you watch tennis—you bring it with you.

Phillips joined Blind Spot author Teju Cole in conversation at Book Culture for an event moderated by Paris Review editor Nadja Spiegelman. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Teju Cole: Very nice to see you all. It’s good to be here with you. I’m trying to read the crowd here, see if I can distinguish between friends of Rowan, people who love tennis and will go to anything tennis related, people who love poetry and who are surprised Rowan also writes prose, and people to whom I owe money.

Rowan, is this number four for you?

Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Book number five. I turned in a new book of poems to FSG this fall.

Cole: Very good, congratulations. We know you largely from the poems and from a little bit of literary criticism. Then, sort of out of nowhere, you’ve written not just a tennis book but a seriously good book about tennis—about the sport, about sporting life, about watching tennis and participating in it. So, maybe we should start from the beginning. Where does this begin? Tennis and you.

Phillips: One of the things I like about tennis is that there are so many different ways to carry the sport with you. My parents have always been tennis-crazy. It’s something I’d forgotten about because I haven’t lived with my folks for a long time. But if anyone here in this audience plays tennis in the city then she or he likely has a sense of how many Caribbean people play tennis. There are so many Caribbean tennis instructors in New York City and in Florida. Caribbean people, particularly Anglophone Caribbean people—they love tennis. My dad was one of those guys. Tennis whites, classic one-handed backhand, loved McEnroe, and all that. So as a kid we watched matches, but it wasn’t really made out to be a big family event. It was just kind of what we did. And my dad really loved the WTA. So I grew up actually watching a lot of women’s tennis. Watching Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Zina Garrison and Gabriella Sabatini, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf was a formative part of my childhood, no doubt. There are ways in which the experience was an extremely personalized one in that tennis was what we would sit around and watch as a family. We weren’t a family that would sit around and watch things together, but we did watch tennis. At the same time, I recognize the experience as very much a cultural phenomenon, although not one served on a platter for everyone to see—you don’t see it if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But I take my folks as being very typical tennis-loving Caribbean folks. If you spend any time in the Caribbean and really talk to the folk you’ll see they love racket sports.

Cole: So this was a grounding, and then there was some kind of break somewhere? A moment at which you came back into it on your own steam, for yourself. College? Or when was that?

Phillips: No, the opposite, actually. In college, I lost my connection to tennis. Everything I just told you about, I’d actually completely forgotten. Which is, I think, what makes the writing seem fresh to me. I didn’t play competitive tennis at all. And I’ve never been a very competitive person. I’ve always just liked to mess around with friends. I got to college and that is where I really learned about the rest of the world. I went to Swarthmore College. And I really had to leave New York, because I was the type of kid who’d see a starry sky and go, “Wow, it’s just like the planetarium!” I needed to learn more about the pastoral life, more about the stuff out there. But there’s also a kind of tennis culture out there in the world and it’s where I kind of stopped doing certain things I had up until then loved to do. I stopped playing guitar, and I stopped playing tennis. Perhaps it was a natural sacrifice or transition I needed at the time in order to make the full on commitment to being a reader and writer that happened while I was in college. Anyway, I’ve come back to these things now, both tennis and the guitar, as (dare I say) a full-fledged adult. But by then I’d let go of tennis as a public love. I kept it very private. Even my wonderful wife Nuria didn’t know that I loved tennis, or that I played tennis, up until I started writing on tennis because I tore my Achilles. Two summers ago I tore my Achilles in half, which is where the book starts.

Cole: She didn’t realize the depth of your obsession with it until two years ago?

Phillips: That’s one of the great things about tennis. The book begins with tennis in Australia, and how you can have here in the States, particularly in the Northeast, a real, almost hidden affair with tennis when the matches are playing at three in the morning, five in the morning.

Cole: You talk about how for many of us it’s once every four years. We, the other Americans, wake up at funny hours and troop to bars and pubs and viewing centers once every four years because the World Cup happens to be in Korea or some other distant time zone. And you say for the real tennis fan this is every year.

The muscle memory I had developed watching tennis came back to me and I wasn’t ready to get into how or why.

Phillips: You’re watching the Shanghai Masters, you’re getting up and you’re watching matches at five and things like that. And this is one of the wonderful things, or the one of the great weaknesses, of technology—not only is Nuria the love of my life, but I also have a writer’s schedule. And she’s had a designer’s schedule. And we have spent a lot––and I mean a lot––of time together. But I’ve also had this great passion that I would indulge in on my laptop alone. (That doesn’t sound the way I meant it to sound but anyway…) I would be working and I’d have something on one half of the screen and a tennis match on the other half. It wasn’t about trying to keep a secret, rather it wasn’t really something I wanted to bother her with. It was more like the muscle memory I had developed watching tennis came back to me and I wasn’t ready to get into how or why.

When I tore my Achilles, I had to stay home alone. We go to Barcelona every summer: our other home. Nuria had already left for there with the girls, and all of a sudden back in New York I’d torn my Achilles. I was stuck. I couldn’t do anything. And Wimbledon was on. And I was on a lot of oxycodone. And I was just watching Wimbledon over and over. I was watching matches again and again. And when Wimbledon ended, I watched the Hall of Fame tournament in Newport. Then I was watching the City Open. Then I was watching the Swedish Open. I just kind of fell down this beautiful rabbit hole of imitation.

Cole: I have a tennis connection, myself. Maybe about fifteen or twenty years ago, I was drifting a little bit in my life. This was after I’d dropped out of medical school and my dad was a little bit concerned that I would not make anything of myself. Anyway, in a lighter moment, when my parents were not actually freaking out about how I was going to sort out my life, I remember my father asking, in a very intent way, if I had, by any chance, discovered in myself a talent for tennis.

Phillips: Just like that he came at you?

Cole: Just like that. And I said, “I’ve been on the court a few times and have not noticed anything special, why?” He said, “Oh, no reason, just that my father was crazy about tennis.” And my grandpa, in a small town in Western Nigeria, was crazy about tennis, in the 1940s and the 1950s. I said “Well, yeah, I like it well enough.” And my father said, “Well, what about chess?”

Phillips: Those are similar.

Cole: Right. And we can actually get to the diagrammatic aspects of tennis in a minute. Chess, nope, nothing special there either. And then finally he asked, “Choral singing?” These were my grandfather’s passions. My grandfather died a year before I was born and I never met him, and my father, like many Nigerians, myself included, believes in subtle forms of reincarnation and repetition. So, he was just checking. Choral music, love it, but I’m no serious singer. Tennis: nope. Chess: nope. And I hung my head and left my father and we went our separate ways in great disappointment. So that’s my tennis story.

Phillips: You know, not only do I love that story for itself, and because I haven’t heard it before, but there’s something fundamentally, I think, related to tennis in that. One of the glories and, I think, terrors of tennis has to do with genealogy. I always keep in mind that you never know if a tennis player’s out there because they love tennis or because of their dad. There’s the rare tennis player who started at nine—I think Madison Keys started at nine after seeing Venus in a dress she loved. But you know, most high-level professional tennis players—if you don’t have a racket in your hand by the time you’re four or five, you’re already behind. Tennis is almost always a sport that brings in genealogies. We can name twenty baseball players and basketball players who are the sons of ex-athletes, right? Ex-star athletes, even. With tennis that never happens, ever. Bjorn Borg’s kid now is looking to make something of himself, but he’s really just starting.

Cole: Why doesn’t it happen?

Phillips: I think Agassi and Steffi Graf are happily married and have lovely kids and their kids are not going anywhere near the tour. And Serena said the same. It seems that when pro players make it, they’re happy that they’ve made it but . . . it’s complicated.

Cole: They saw how narrow a pass it was.

People carry the ghosts and the antagonisms, the joys and the failures of their parents, on tennis courts. Like we do in everything else.

Phillips: Sure. And you see that not just with pros but you see that on any high school court or any pickup court. People carry the ghosts and the antagonisms, the joys and the failures of their parents, on tennis courts. Like we do in everything else. The painters—Picasso was the painter that his father couldn’t be. Mozart was the musician that his father couldn’t be. And Beethoven was the Mozart that his father wanted him to be.

But there’s something a little scary with the pros in that often their folks kind of, well, stick around. It’s not like, all right now, go do your thing. You look in a player’s box and their parents are often still there. So I find myself asking—especially writing this book about a year in the sport—why do you go for forty weeks from place to place to place, where you’re basically earning your meals? A lot of that has to do with the wonders and the horrors of living out the dream of your parents.

Cole: But then you make it to the second round, merely to the second round of a grand slam, and that’s seventy grand in your pocket. So there’s also real money. I mean, you lose the Australian Open and you win how much? You lose the Australian Open, and you win three million dollars.

Phillips: But you’ve got to get there, you’ve got to pay your coach, you’ve got points to protect.

Cole: I don’t want to get too far in the conversation without me saying this: This is a really beautiful book. If I wasn’t friends with Rowan, if I didn’t know his work, maybe I wasn’t going to say, “Oh, a book on tennis in 2017! That’s what I’m going to read next.” But I’m so glad that I know you, and therefore read this, and wow, am I really glad I read this. One of the really serious marks of reading, as a writer, is that you’re either reading like, “OK, well, that’s fine,” or you’re reading like, “Damn, that’s good, I wish I had done this” or “How can I apply part of what’s happening here to what I do?” And I really felt that with this. I felt its writerly charge.

Phillips: Surprised you, right?

Cole: You surprised me. I didn’t underrate you. But you still surprised me.

Phillips: I’ll let that pass.

Cole: Random page: “Watching the match live was like watching your blender slowly break down a chunk of ice.” That’s Nadal and Federer grinding each other down.

Rowan watches a lot of matches on TV and goes to this tournament live. So, we’ve got this beautiful mix. And it’s not about tennis in general, it’s about one season of the ATP. It’s just one year. It could be 2015, 2016, 2017—how do you make that interesting? It starts in January, ends in December. (I did not pay any attention to tennis in 2017 because I was too busy having a nervous breakdown.) You make sure we all know what the most important tournaments are. And you really made it interesting. So it’s a primer, but the part of it that I really understood on a very deep and instinctive level was to say that we are writers and, when you’re a writer, the world is interesting. And if you can’t write something and make it interesting then you’re not an interesting writer. And this book was interesting because you were interested, and you are able, like any good player, to control the speed of events. And so we have great rallies that go on for three pages, and entire tournaments that fly by in a paragraph. And it’s really beautiful to watch. And to bring home that point, it’s called “a tennis odyssey.” That’s a misdirection. I mean, sure it’s Rowan’s odyssey, but he’s at home for most of it and that’s not really how an odyssey works. But it is an epic work, but instead of one guy who’s lost trying to find his way home, it’s about the grinding conflict between groups of warriors that just goes on and on and on, in a highly episodic way. It’s an Iliad!

One of the things this book is trying to grapple with is not just who’s good and who’s not good, but how it suddenly turns: why does the spirit leave someone? Why do your talents suddenly fail when you were two sets up? The psychology of all that. Can you say a little bit more about tennis as this infinitely relative activity where collapse is always available? Or the sudden appearance of sheer imperiousness, pure winningness? It seems to me it’s so technical, but it’s also incredibly emotional.

Phillips: I was actually thinking about the Iliad a bit. The thing about the psychology of tennis that fascinates me is that if you take Martina Hingis—have you guys heard of Martina Hingis? She used to be the number one player in the world. She won her first grand slam when she was sixteen. Well, her mother named her after Martina Navratilova. Her mother was a coach. And her mother said to her, when Martina Hingis was five years old, “You don’t have to be in school; the tennis court is your school.” So she put in a nine-to-five schedule on the court—which isn’t a very European schedule, it must be said—from the time she was five years old. Why would you ever, then, miss a shot? Why do you ever miss a serve? Why do you ever double fault? One of the things that fascinates me about sports, now that I’m getting older (I turned forty-four two days ago) is that you’re watching people who do things—some of you I know, and I know what you do for a living, and I don’t think that you were doing that thing at seven, right? We don’t typically do the work we do as adults as children. But when you watch an athlete you’re watching her or him do the same thing that they’ve been doing since they were a kid. And I can’t imagine that, because I’ve never had any illusions of being a professional athlete. But when you see a tennis player, they’ve spent not the majority of their life, almost all of their life hitting hundreds of thousands of balls and I don’t know what that’s like, what the psychology must be like, to then fail. Or see failure approaching. You don’t have any teammates. You have no one making a bad pass to you. It’s you and the physics of a spinning ball, and especially now you don’t have a wooden racket to let you down, you can get your string tension perfect, you can get exactly the type of strings that you want. And there’s still failure always, all around. Yet when you fail—and everyone has to fail because only one person can win a tournament, a singles tournament that is—you pack up your bags and you go to what’s next. So for the players who aren’t Roger or Rafa or Serena or Novak or Andy, if you are the five hundredth ranked player in the world, if you lose in the qualifiers, you’re checking your schedule to see what other tournament is available and taking players that you can jump on. It’s an incredibly improvisational life, with a wild regiment.

So The Circuit is a controlled variable. The control is a year. And it’s kind of like everybody’s a concentrate. What happens if you shake the glass and take a look? The year 2017 was really important for me and for tennis for this reason. I can’t tell you how many people I knew who, in January of 2017, were embracing the Australian Open as a form of tennis therapy. Because people couldn’t sleep. They were anxious. They were agitated. And to see Serena and Venus, to see Roger and Rafa playing in the finals again, was comforting. But also, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Roger and Rafa played that final in Melbourne in the Australian Open in 2017 on the same day that the executive order for the Muslim ban went into place. If you remember that day and you actually watched the Australian Open, there was this weird blend of tennis matches at five in the morning where people were really psyched, followed by hundreds of thousands of people pouring into airports afterwards for protests. I found myself really curious about how much of a permeable membrane there is in tennis, how much of the real world seeps into tennis. And the more I wrote the more I wanted to see if the concept would hold.

Nadja Spiegelman: One of the things that I love about the way you write is that you bring such a poet’s sensibility to character motivation, emotion, soul, to the story in a way that I feel I have been trying to do with politics in the past few years. What is this character’s motivation? Who are these people that I so deeply do not understand? What is America’s psychological problem? And I wonder, when you’re talking about a permeable membrane, and having used tennis as a way of escape, if there are ways in which it seeped in the other direction. Are there ways in which tennis sort of reflected back on politics?

Phillips: Yeah, I think that’s certainly true. I think less politics and more sociopolitics, right? Issues, certainly, of gender and class play themselves out in tennis. I went to Indian Wells, which was one of the tournaments I wanted to go to because—well, because it’s Indian Wells in the Coachella Valley and there’s a lot of history there with the Williams sisters and everything like that—and came to the realization that tennis is the perfect sport for late capitalism. I don’t think that people think about the sport in an overtly political way. I think people think that they’re escaping politics when they embrace Roger Federer. But they’re totally rooting for capitalism, right? There’s such a commodified way to be a Roger Federer fan. You know what I mean? It comes with all the accessories, and they’re expensive.

Cole: This is a book about loving something that has a kind of mathematical beauty to it. I think about certain painters I really love, people like Piero della Francesca or Richard Diebenkorn, who seem to have some mathematical games afoot in their work. I’m attracted to that in photographers as well. And that is very much part of the appeal of tennis. The orderliness of the game can be hypnotizing. For instance, in one sentence you ask, “How do you solve for Federer?” Not, how do you solve a problem like Federer? But, “How do you solve for Federer?” You have to find an equation so that you arrive at him. And get past him somehow.

This is a book about loving something that has a kind of mathematical beauty to it.

Later on that page you do something very peculiar. You mention your editor Jonathan Galassi. Had you mentioned him before in the book?

Phillips: No.

Cole: That was a really gangster move. I love when a character shows up who’s not been previously introduced. Some qualifier has suddenly dragged Federer to the brink. And everyone is losing their shit, and you write, “Jonathan roars along with everyone else; amid all the cheering I only hear one word he says: heroic.” And Jonathan never shows up again.

Phillips: But he’s all through the book. We go to the U.S. Open together. He’s very, very happy he’s in the book. And I am, too.

Cole: I noticed it right away, and I just thought it was such a lovely touch of generosity. Later on in that passage, when you write, “Tennis is a kinetic and rather lonely kind of problem solving,” this is at Wimbledon, which Federer goes on to win that year. So I guess he’s Achilles. He’s come out of his tent and he’s just destroying enemies.

Another lovely grace note: In the middle of these Wimbledon matches, you introduce the story of a young man in a legal court, a sixteen-year-old with this long stream of misdemeanors and some violent crimes. And I was like, “OK, wow, you’re really going to weave this in, connect it.” And then what? What happened, he attacked a player? What did he do? He tried to rob the box office? What happened to him? Nothing. It simply happened, in some other part of London. Because that’s life. That’s what happens when Roger is on center court. It’s what happens while the grass is being fixed. There’s some kid whose life is destroyed before it has begun. It’s effective as a literary device because it doesn’t connect, it’s effective because you do it only once; it’s a total surprise.

I could feel your confidence and your joy throughout this book. Like saying, “I’m going to make this book an account of what it was like.” And that particular moment was cinematic. It’s like when a great filmmaker cuts away from the action and suddenly rests his camera on a painting that has nothing to do with the action.

Phillips: Bingo! And here I was waiting for you to mention the John Lavery painting. But that would have been too on the nose for you.

Cole: Thank you very much. There’s actually a close reading of some photographs and of a painting, and that account of the invention of the clay court. It’s a very variegated matter. But, above all, it somehow replicates the feeling of a match. It’s a rally, there’s an ebb and flow to how things are really arriving.

I just thought of one more thing. It all began with Rowan in January and he popped his Achilles tendon. I keep telling you, it’s an Iliad! Your. Achilles. Tendon. And so your Achilles tendon is gone, and what do you do? You sit in your tent and sulk. And you refuse to go out and join the battle. It’s a tennis Iliad.

Phillips: But then, once I got better I picked up my racket.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of Heaven (FSG, 2015) and The Ground (FSG, 2012). His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Currently, a visiting scholar at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, he teaches English literature and creative writing at Stony Brook and Princeton.

Teju Cole’s most recent book is Blind Spot (Random House, 2017). His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Hemingway Award. He teaches creative writing at Harvard.