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The Eighth Wonder of the Learned Alchemists


Monte Carlo Masters 2014: A round-about wrap-up & some psychology.

Near the middle of the day, near the middle of last week, I opened my internet browser to the news that Gabriel Garcia Márquez had died at the age of 87.

Aww, no,” I exclaimed to no one in particular.

A colleague—a fellow psychologist who happened to be within earshot—responded to my expression of disappointment with concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Gabriel Garcia Márquez is dead.”

Aww, no,” her expression was resonant with compassion. Therapists learn, almost without intention, to pack our monosyllabic murmurings with rich, affirming emotion. I felt immediately understood, and my colleague and I shared a moment of heavy silence as I pondered the impermanence of all things, including authors (and also my lunch, which I’d forgotten on my kitchen counter before work that morning). But, as the sad seconds ticked by and my colleague continued to honor my feelings with quiet empathy, I decided I ought to say something to lighten the mood. After all, it’s not like the Nobel-Prize-winning author was a friend of mine. 

“Truth be told,” said I, “until this moment I wasn’t aware he was still alive.” 

“Well,” said my colleague, “truth be told, until this moment, I’d never been aware of him at all. Who is he?”

It’d been one of those days at work. In fact, it’d been one of those weeks— one of those months. We were both tired and worn-down. The sudden, mutual realization that my colleague and I were sharing grief over the death of a man neither of us had known was alive…well, it was just too much. We burst into fits of irrational laughter. Then—once I regained control of my capacity to inhale—I told her I thought she’d enjoy Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, she replied that maybe she’d give it a try, and we got back to work, both of us feeling much lighter at heart than before we were saddened by the death of one the literary world’s greats.

Rafael Nadal’s straight-sets defeat at the hands of David Ferrer in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals took place in the middle of the California night, and I slept straight through it. When I woke up to news of the loss, I was both surprised and not. My reaction was more Hrmm than Aww. Whether it’s mental (as Nadal says it is), or physical (as he might prefer not to discuss with the media), or both (as the two are often intertwined), whatever is going on for Rafa is familiar. We’ve been here before. Nobody rises from the ashes quite like Rafael Nadal, but once he’s risen—once his muscular wings are fully spread, with Nike microfiber plumage shining in the sunlight as he perches at the summit of a mountain made entirely of ranking points and the broken racquets of his shattered opponents—he gets a tad bit uncomfortable. From where I sit, on the summit of my sofa pillows, it seems that something (a significant something) inside Nadal’s psyche prefers to fight the powers that be rather than be one— or at least, prefers not to be World No. 1.

Unfortunately for (what I am assuming is) Nadal’s conflicted relationship with his own greatness, Novak Djokovic, the current World No. 2, has a wrist injury that looks to keep him sidelined for no small amount of time. The Serb’s injury is a real shame, considering the stunning performance Djokovic delivered in the Miami final. He looked, then, as if nothing would suit him better than an extended, dusty turf war for the No. 1 ranking.

For now, unless Djokovic’s wrist manages a miraculous Easter recovery, Rafael Nadal is stranded at the top. Unless the King of Clay is suffering physically, or unless he has an abiding desire to abandon tennis for the gambling table, I expect Rafa to be able to convince himself—if not the tennis world at large—that he’s not the favorite to win every title contested on the dirt, thereby freeing himself to do just that. He might even get things sorted this week in the relative shade of Barcelona’s 500-level tournament. Or, the process might take months and he won’t run the metaphorical clay tables again until 2015. Either way, I’ll leave him to it for the moment and turn my attention to the No. 3 and 4 players in the world, who also happen to be the Swiss No. 1 and No. 2.

[3] Stanislas Wawrinka def. [4] Roger Federer 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2

During the 2014 Monte Carlo final—which began very early in the California morning, and spanned three sets containing many brilliant points and scintillating shots but never quite constellated into a beautiful match—and as I watched Roger Federer fend off a break point in the third set with a threaded backhand down-the-line followed by a fearsome overhead smash, I was suddenly moved to pull my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude down from its resting place on the bookshelf in my living room. It’s probably been fifteen years since I last read the novel, but a passage in the opening paragraph brought much of the story flooding back: “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” It’s a passage that lets the reader know the story will begin at the very beginning—in an Eden of wonder—and move in circles from there. What is old is also new. It’s also a sentence that made me think of enraptured tennis fans at a Federer match.

What Roger Federer does, he’s been doing for well over a decade, but when he does it well, it still feels impossible to replicate. It’s still so new—so recent—that it’s necessary to point. And to gasp. And maybe even to exclaim in an elongated monosyllable resonant with deep emotion. Toward the end of the first set of Federer’s semifinal win over Novak Djokovic, while Federer was struggling to hold his nerves together and Djokovic’s arm was beginning to fall apart, the commentators opened the familiar chapter of the unresolvable GOAT debate. Can Roger Federer truly be called the greatest of all time, or even of his time, since he doesn’t hold a winning record over Nadal or Murray? 

A half-hour later the Swiss could boast an 18-16 record over the Serb, but he’s still 10-11 against Murray, and 10-23 against Nadal. There was a silence in the booth as those numbers sank in, and then somebody—it might have been Nick Lester—said, somewhat sheepishly, “Aww, I still think he’s the best.” And everyone else agreed with him. Because he’s Federer; and because they know how it feels to watch and to be reduced to wordless gestures, when what you’re paid to do is talk. Márquez’s fascinating gypsies from Solitude might put the Swiss right up there with the invention of magnets, which, they tell us, were originally known as “the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists.” He is a little bit magic.

Still, as supernatural as Federer’s tennis can be, and as healed as his back appears to be, he’s still struggling with the reality of closing out big points, and big matches. If you spend any time at tournaments with avid Federer fans—something I’ve done on multiple occasions already this year—they will be able to tell you the very instant the typically aggressive Swiss player goes passive. But they will not be able to tell you why. Instead, they will probably ask you, or, if they’ve got a powerful set of lungs, him: “Why didn’t he follow that ball in?”, “Why did he chip that return?”, “Why does he approach to Nadal’s forehand? He’s going to get killed doing that!”, “Why?!?” I don’t know. Maybe he truly believes it’s a good idea to approach Rafa’s forehand, or to remain passively in the backcourt. Or maybe he’s busy thinking about how quickly his daughters are growing up; or whether his capped shirt-sleeves mightn’t be a bit preppy, even for him; or the fact that he’s about to be father three times over; or about the tragic impermanence of the lunch-hour. It could be a thousand things. All we can do is guess. So here’s mine: 

At the trophy ceremony after the final, Federer told the crowd that he hoped to be back in Monte Carlo for “many, many years.” Thirty-two is by no means old, but there’s no denying that Federer is nearer the end of his career than the beginning, probably much nearer. One day, hopefully many, many, many years from now, when Federer is well past 87, someone will read the news and say, “Aww, Roger Federer died today.” And someone else will respond, “Aww … Who is he?”

Recognition—the experience human beings crave most— is an impermanent experience. It shifts and alters, as we do, even if you are the most wonderful attraction of the tennis world has ever seen. And when we struggle against accepting inevitable endings and limitations, we start to get confused about what we can control in life and what we can’t. We panic. We try to stem impossible tides instead of focusing on making good decisions about where to place an approach shot, or when not to get too cute with the drop shots. We try to tell ourselves we have all the time in the world, while we secretly freak out that our time might have already come and gone. From my vantage point—again the sofa cushions—Federer looks to me like a man trying to win titles without falling into a mind-twisting pothole of panic. He does just fine, as long as he doesn’t catch a glimpse of the abyss. But, I think it’s possible that if Federer can let go of the need for “one more great run” he’ll have one. Or several. At the very least he’ll stop fading away in deciding sets. Federer might not have “many, many years” left on tour, but he’s got time. And he still inspires plenty of wordless, gestural wonders.

If trying to prevent the inevitable is a task doomed to failure, then attempting to recover from it is another story altogether—which is why Stanislas Wawrinka’s week at Monte Carlo had the psychologist in me thrilled to her fingertips. There’s little that is more fundamental to life (and therefore tennis) than loss. We all lose in the end. For those of us interested in infant attachment theory (or biblical studies, for that matter) we lose in the beginning, too. But when were able to survive these losses—whether it’s a five-hour, five-set loss to the World No. 1 on center court at a slam; or a seven-hour Davis Cup defeat; or 13 losses to the Eighth Wonder of the World; or a brief loss of dignity along the way to your first slam victory—that’s when change becomes possible, if only we’re helped to keep at it. (Please, somebody tell Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to consider a cozy stay at Magnus Norman’s academy in Sweden.)

For the most part, substantive change happens gradually, intermittently, with great effort, and only eventually, with easy grace—which pretty much sums up the trajectory of the Monte Carlo final for Stanislas Wawrinka. He started off tense, making easy errors, and losing the first set to the combined force of Federer and his nerves. But, gradually, intermittently, and with a few effortful bellows, Wawrinka began to recover. Watching him clear a channel for his talent to flow was an almost palpable experience. Essentially, this is the kind of stuff I spend my days helping people do. I help people learn how to learn. Yet, whenever I watch somebody integrate intention with action, or insight with experience, becoming more himself along the way, it’s like I’m seeing it happen for the first time. I’m enthralled. 

By the time the newly made Swiss No. 1 arrived at the third set he was standing well within the baseline, powering through the court with one audacious forehand after another. His serving was equally imperious (if my count is accurate, he dropped only four points on serve in the third set), and his backhand potent. In breaking Federer in the first and third games of the final set, Wawrinka played very much as he had when he nearly bagelled David Ferrer in the semifinals, or when he did bagel Marin Cilic in the second round — which is to say, wonderfully well. 

Fittingly, Wawrinka closed the match, earning his first-ever Masters title, on a forehand winner. It was this shot that Stan used most aggressively all week. Also fittingly, Roger Federer gave his younger countryman a warm hug and congratulations at the net. A moment of recognition from one learned alchemist to another.

Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis

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About Arienna Lee

Arienna Lee is a psychologist and storyteller in the Northern California. She writes about tennis and the psychology of tennis. She likes long walks on the beach, fist-pumps, and one-handed backhands. You can contact Arienna via: admin@tennisfrontier.com
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