SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This week, in one of the last tournaments before the U.S. Open, the world's number one ranked men's player, Roger Federer, lost to Andy Murray, a teenager from Scotland. Him that the gods may jest with they first make mortal. David Foster Wallace is a celebrated novelist whose books include The Infinite Jest. He clearly admires Roger Federer and has written an appreciation for him in Play, The New York Times sports magazine, September issue.
Mr. Wallace joins us from the studios of KSPC in Clairemont, California.
Thanks so much for being with us.
SIMON: Thank you.
SIMON: One of the points your article makes is that to appreciate the play of Roger Federer, the TV just won't do.
SIMON: To an extent. There's a comparison that the editor thought was a joke, but it's really serious, which is that the difference is sort of the difference between actual lovemaking and watching video porn. Which is that you get a far more clinical perspective on all kinds of things from watching, say, tennis on television, with its slow-mo replays and different angles on the camera.
The weird thing about it is that it can make the viewer feel so privileged that you don't notice that there's something that's lost. And what's lost is this sort of sensuous physicality of it, mainly the pace, the speed with which the ball is moving is the big thing that you notice.
SIMON: Probably not in the most tasteful analogy to use.
SIMON: But if it's apt, it's apt. What do you notice when you watch him play in person? You mentioned the physicality, the rhythm, the pace, the - his placement is something that people just can't get over.
SIMON: He's beautiful. He's really, really beautiful in the way that probably most American sports fans would associate with Michael Jordan, where it almost seems like it's a mutation, or somebody from a slightly different species whose relationship to physical laws is somewhat different. The ball appears to hang for him a little extra time. Or the sheer effortless grace with which he seems to get to everything without ever scrambling or trying hard.
SIMON: Great players often establish a kind of personality. We think of kind of an icy Bjorn Borg. We think of a fiery Jimmy Connors. We think of an almost mechanical, automatic Pete Sampras.
SIMON: I don't know. Federer to me seems more - he's more businesslike. He's not cold. But he doesn't get upset about little things the way McEnroe was able to do and then raise his game as a result of that.
He's not icy and emotionless. I mean, he some - he does sometimes betray emotion. If what you're looking for is sort of the human drama, he might be a little bit dull. But for me what that does is put more attention on the game itself.
SIMON: When did you begin to follow Roger Federer?
SIMON: Oh boy. He won Junior Wimbledon in the late '90s, so his name was sort of being bruited about. I'm not a tennis authority. I'm somebody who played a lot as a kid, wrote one piece of fiction that had some tennis in it. Do I plan to follow every last one of Federer's matches? No. Although if I get a chance to see him live again, I will probably go way out of my way to do it, because it's like watching Baryshnikov.
SIMON: I'm interested - if I could hazard to try and explore - explore a relationship, if you please, between great athletes and great novelists. Do they sometimes see themselves as having to possess some of the same properties?
SIMON: Probably to be a great competitor one has to have a psychological acuity and an ability to kind of empathize without sympathy...
SIMON: ...in terms of one's opponent and what one's opponent is thinking. And there's a certain way you can kind of move in and out of yourself, probably, to win consistently, that maybe a little bit like writing fiction.
SIMON: Mr. Wallace, thank you.
SIMON: Oh, thank you.
SIMON: David Foster Wallace, the novelist and tennis fan, speaking to us from the studios of KSPC from the campus of Pomona College in Clairemont, California. And Mr. Wallace is a professor of English at Pomona.