Soccer Highs and Lows and a Tennis Epic

John IsnerJohn Isner        

Sports Saturday

“It’s incredible!  You could not write a script like this!”

So proclaimed the announcer in the U. S. – Algeria World Cup match when Landon Donovan netted a stoppage time goal to avoid elimination and send the Americans forward to the next round.

In other words, a sports announcer’s ultimate compliment is that narrative can’t do the event justice.

Meanwhile the same search for adequate language was going on at Wimbledon.  What do you say about a match that lasts over 11 hours as two men push themselves relentlessly for game after game with neither willing to concede defeat?  What do you say about a game in which the final set is won 70-68 and in which there are 114 aces (112 by John Isner, 102 by Nicolas Mahut).  Struggling for words, one announcer went minimalist and opted for a one-word literary analogy: epic.

You know it’s an unusual day in American sports when two second-tier sports (in American eyes) push everything else off the sports pages.

Actually, a script, or at least a novel, has been written that touches on what transpired at Wimbledon.  In the Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W. P. Kinsella (who also wrote Shoeless Joe/Field of Dreams), there is a baseball game that goes on for 2000 innings, many of them played in the pouring rain.  The players eventually learn that the game is being influenced by one of their teammates, a giant Indian named Drifting Away who sees it as an act of penance (he wants to be reunited with his wife).

The novel captures the mythic, dream-like quality of such a game.  Isner said that at times he felt he was hallucinating, and the way he staggered to the service line seemingly half dead, only to then straighten up and boom in ace after ace, made him seem not quite human.  Was he a robot?  A zombie?  It felt like being in one of those nightmares where nothing ever seems to progress.  One both wanted and didn’t want the game to end.

Writing about sports perfection two weeks ago, I quoted a line from a Bruce Cohen poem, “If it were not for failures, no game would ever end.”  Cohen is talking about baseball but he could have been talking about Wimbledon fifth sets, where the tiebreak system is not employed.  I appreciated Cohen’s hypothetical when I read his poem.  I just didn’t expect to see it tested.


And now, back to the never-say-die American soccer team.  It’s not that one couldn’t write a script like this since Hollywood turns out such scripts all the time.  In our blockbuster sports movies, we expect our heroes to come storming back in the closing seconds to pull out a thrilling victory when everything is on the line.  For an example, look at the film version of The Natural, which takes Malamud’s death-of-the-American-dream ending and transforms it into a story of redemption that confirms the American dream.

In truth, the soccer announcer was really saying that the game resembled a Hollywood script too closely.  All that was missing from America’s victory was that it didn’t occur in the World Cup final.  When such moments occur in sports, they expose Hollywood movies as shallow artifice.  It also makes it hard to absorb the moment.  After all, from having seen so many of these movies, we expect to see the impossible, teams coming back from two goals down (as occurred in the Slovenia match) and scoring winning goals in stoppage time (as was the case against Algeria).

Put another way, it’s as though movie sports cheapen the miracle when it actually happens.  We watch through a gaze that has been shaped by the movies so it doesn’t seem real.  I wonder if that is why, in some ways, the Wimbledon marathon seemed to hit a deeper chord.  It had the feel of a Bergman movie (say, a dream sequence from Wild Strawberries) or an indie film, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster.

And now, having talked about a soccer high, I must mention a soccer low, painful though it is for me to do so.  In the World Cup I always root for two teams: the United States (of course) and France.  France because my father is a French professor and French was my first language. 

French soccer, unfortunately, has been a disaster ever since it saw its leader, Zinedine Zidane, receiving a red card for a head butt in the 2006 World Cup finals against Italy.  Maybe that started the bad karma that appears to have been operating ever since.

Consider this: from that moment, despite having some of the best players in the world, the French soccer team has experienced one disgraceful moment after another.  It flamed out of the European championship.  Then it qualified for the current World Cup (against Ireland) only because it scored a goal on a blatant handball that wasn’t called.  Then it learned that three of its players had slept with an underage call girl.  Then it had one of its leading strikers thrown off the team for cursing out the coach after the World Cup loss to Mexico.  Then it refused to practice on a critical practice day in response.  Then it lost 2-1 to South Africa and finished last in a group that it was expected to win.  Then it saw its coach refuse to shake the hand of the South African coach.

No matter how poorly other teams have performed—defending champion Italy also finished last in its group—they can always say, “All least we’re not as bad off as the French.”  I suspect that “les Bleus” have sent the world’s Schadenfreude into overdrive.

I have known for a while that the French were troubled, and I was determined not to fall in love with them this year.  But no sooner had their first game commenced, against Uruguay, then I found myself experiencing all of the agonies of fandom once again.

My son Toby, who just finished up a Thomas Hardy course, said that I was like Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd.  I know that Frank Troy is no good and that I should walk away—I can see that he will leave me in the lurch—but time after time I fall for him again.  And sure enough, there I am with my heart broken.  Being a fan is like “l’amour fou.”  Mad love.

I’m not asking for sympathy here.  After all, I’m one of the lucky ones.  France won the World Cup in 1998 and was the runner-up in 2006.   I could be a fan of Spain, whose great players have been underachieving for decades.  I’m just using my situation as an occasion to look at fandom, “fan” being short for “fanatic.”  Fandom makes you vulnerable to deep feelings, most often misery.  But misery, like joy, lets you know that you are alive.

At least the French have a rich literary tradition that covers misery.  There is Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s novel Voyage to the End of the Night, which describes a descent into madness.  (Through a pun, the title can also be translated, Voyage into the Mud of the Night.There is Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, one of the great novels about existential angst.  The French make a specialty of turning anguish and despair into poetry.   Which is a healthier coping mechanism than many alternatives.

So if you’re a fan of France or Italy or Switzerland or Denmark or Cameroon or Ivory Coast or Nigeria, if you had high expectations for your team and now see it jetting home, try embracing your despair.  It means that you have opened yourself to the experience.  Sartre would point out that your feelings are authentic, not some Hollywood movie.  They are who you are.  As the narrator says at the end of Sartre’s novel, “The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I.”

We suffer because we make ourselves vulnerable.  And because we suffer, the occasional moments of joy, the winning goal scored in stoppage time, seems all the more miraculous.  They are not some predictable Hollywood ending. Both the high moments and the low give meaning to life, which otherwise resembles the Isner-Malut marathon where we stand toe-to-toe with the world, hitting and absorbing shot after shot after shot.   And unlike Isner and Malut, we receive no special commemorative trophies after it is all over.

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