Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.
David Foster Wallace wrote that in 2006, in a 6,500-word piece called “Federer as religious experience” that he penned for The New York Times’ Play Magazine.
I can’t remember who recommended the article to me, but it was sometime in the last year or so, more than four years after Wallace took his own life. I’ve always been fascinated with Federer’s strangely un-superstar-like persona, and with Wallace’s ability to write, though I hadn’t paid as much attention as I’d have liked to either giant. Here was a two-birds’ chance to catch up a little bit.
I printed the article as soon as I found it, and put it in a spot on two different desks where I’d see it all the time and not forget to set some time aside for it. It sat for a long time, though, many months, crossing over at some point from something I couldn’t wait to get to, to something I couldn’t wait to get rid of.
A couple nights ago some friends invited my wife and me to play a little tennis, something I don’t think I’d done since before kids, since before the Rangers had played in a single playoff game, since before I was out of law school. But it sounded great.
It was a blast. I think I probably have some sort of addiction to sports muscle soreness, and I got a heavy dose Sunday night that ought to carry me all week.
I’m not sure when the last time was that I’d flipped on a tennis match, but I woke Monday morning and watched Nadal-Brands and then Berdych-Monfils while I got some work done.
And I finally grabbed the Wallace article.
And kept thinking it could have been written about Yu Darvish.
These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.
It’s a brilliant article by an exceptional writer, and it made me wish Wallace were alive, sharing his gift with us still. I know he was a big tennis guy and doubt he’d have invested himself that way on a baseball subject, but I bet he’d have been able to recognize that Darvish is different, to see the beauty and genius of his game.
I’m a huge fan of John Perrotto’s “Scouts’ Views” feature in his “On the Beat” series for Baseball Prospectus. A couple weeks ago he shared this comment on Darvish from an unidentified big league scout: “For me, he’s the best pitcher in the game now. I’ll know I’ll get my share of arguments, but he’s downright filthy and throws seven different pitches for strikes. He’s made the cultural adjustment, and he looks a lot more comfortable than last year. He was pretty good last year as a rookie, but he’s dominant now.”
In 11 starts this year, Darvish has only twice allowed more than a hit per inning (six in five innings once, seven in six innings another time, both Darvish victories). Only two times has he fanned fewer than a hitter per inning (six over eight frames in his 130-pitch win over Detroit a couple weeks ago, and five over six frames the next time out, a 1-0 loss to the A’s). Three times in 2013 he’s struck out 14 batters: His first start, when he was very nearly perfect against the Astros; on May 5, in just seven innings of a 4-3 walkoff win over Boston (his first no-decision of the season); and last night, his only other no-decision this year. Darvish is now 7-2. Texas is 8-3 when he gets the ball.
Roger Federer didn’t always win, either, even at his peak.
Perhaps because my brain is incapable of working in any other way, as I watched Rafa Nadal battle back to dispose of his opponent Monday morning, the mild physical resemblance to the similarly short and left-handed Martin Perez made me think about the afternoon game to come, Perez’s season debut at the front of the doubleheader in Arizona. Perez is never going to be the career force that Nadal has been, but the talent is there to be the best guy out there on a given day.
It wouldn’t happen for Perez yesterday.
Or for Darvish, who set 14 Diamondbacks down on strikes without issuing a single walk. The first-place Diamondbacks, owners of one of the best team OPS’s and one of the lowest strikeout rates in the National League. Arizona brandished some first-inning Darvish Kryptonite (his first-inning ERA this year is 9.00; it’s 1.99 in innings two through nine) and then got a shocking two-run bomb from rookie Didi Gregorius (the only D-Back starter not to strike out) in the eighth. Otherwise, Darvish was fantastic, as usual, but it wasn’t enough as Texas felt it had to rely on Jason Frasor in a ninth-inning spot when you’d rather have a more reliable reliever available.
One of the most depressing things about losing that game, maybe even more so than the fact that it sealed a doubleheader and series sweep for the other team and resulted in the Rangers’ first three-game skid of the year, at a time when the A’s and Angels are at their hottest, was that it came on the one day out of five that Darvish gets to pitch. Hate to waste those.
Kinesthetic virtuoso or no, Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that’s said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.
The other time that Darvish punched out 14 and walked none was in his season debut, when Marwin Gonzalez hit a fastball through the box to break up his perfect game with two outs in the ninth. It came on Darvish’s 111th pitch.
The fastball Gregorius hit over the fence last night in the eighth: Darvish’s 111th pitch.
And at that point, though the game was merely tied, the ultimate result felt inevitable, given the load the bullpen had carried in Sunday’s 13-inning game before the flight from Washington to Arizona for yesterday’s twinbill.
Brutal result, but that’s baseball.
Darvish will get his next chance this weekend at home, against Kansas City, before which Roger Federer will take on Somdev Devvarman in the second round at Roland Garros.
Maybe they’ll both lose, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The thing with Federer is that he’s Mozart and Metallica at the same time, and the harmony’s somehow exquisite.
I didn’t see Federer’s first-round match on Sunday, but I’m going to make an effort to catch this next one. He’s not what he was in 2006, but there’s still some Mozart and Metallica in him, and for all the similarities between him and Yu Darvish that I can’t stop thinking about, there’s that one big difference – that while Federer is arguably on the downside of an extraordinary, virtuoso career, the arrows are all pointing in one very different direction for Darvish, poised every fifth day to be delivered 100 times with an eel-like all-body snap, lithe and uneccentric, equal parts Mozart and Metallica, and though I missed most of Wallace’s career in real time and, frankly, Federer’s too, I take great comfort in knowing that I’m going to be right here for Darvish’s entire Texas Rangers career, experiencing every first-rate, kick-ass turn religiously.