The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey

The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey



The Pequod Review:

Rowan Ricardo Phillips has been a sportswriter for numerous publications (including The Paris Review and The New York Times), and with The Circuit he has written a full-length profile of the 2017 tennis season, from the Australian Open in January to the U.S. Open in September. It should perhaps be no surprise that Phillips picked a year that featured the resurgence of the sport's two most popular players — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would each win two Grand Slams — however he respectfully profiles Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, David Goffin and many other players too. Phillips occasionally falls into some lazy play-by-play descriptions of specific matches, and his political asides (e.g., lamenting the inauguration of Donald Trump) are distracting and unnecessary. However, his book has intelligent details on how the tennis ranking system works, the structure of seeding in tournament draws, and the relative importance of various tennis events over the course of the year. Here he describes the prestigious Indian Wells tennis tournament:

With apologies to the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Indian Wells is the second great American showcase of tennis... Indian Wells has managed to distinguish itself: it draws more spectators than any tennis tournament outside the four majors, and among permanent tennis stadiums only New York's Arthur Ashe is larger than the Indian Wells Tennis Garden's 16,100-seat main stadium. The tournament is casually referred to in tennis circles as the fifth major. This is noteworthy in no small part because the four majors are long-standing celebrations of the metropolis, while Indian Wells was incorporated into a city just fifty years ago and the 2010 U.S. Census put its population at 4,958 inhabitants. Tech billionaire Larry Ellison bought the tournament and the grounds on which it takes place in 2009 for $100 million. Since then it has grown -- bejeweling itself with such trappings of wealth and lavishness that approach rivaling tennis's temple to consumerism, the U.S. Open. This includes sprawling versions of both Spago and Nobu on the grounds, the former with table-side views of the main court. Both restaurants are open for just the two weeks of the tournament.

If you compare the size of the main stadium to the size of the city, it quickly becomes clear to you that the tournament is a destination event. I was struck by the number of people in the place who walked around the area -- which includes Palm Desert and Palm Springs -- with rackets and racket bags. They were at the airport, on the streets, loaded up in cars, gathered in hotel lobbies, and on the grounds themselves, where they could take lessons or even get a game in on one of the practice courts. It is a Shangri-la for the tennis weekend warrior and the tennis-loving retiree. It dawned on me that the city is a tour stop as much for the fans as for the players themselves, that the interest shared between fans and players here reaches the peak of shared intensity. In this sense, the tournament at Indian Wells is a mirror of its community, or at least the community it most wants to project out to the world: unlike the great urban tournaments, Indian Wells is a celebration of the sporty resort and of the way of life that keeps it running; tennis being both flattering mirror and stage for performers who play the roles of younger, better-playing version of the audience...

For all of the sport's beauty and grace, the perfume of Narcissus exudes from tennis crowds at matches of this level. They tend to love what they see when they can think that, if they squint long and hard enough, they see themselves. And the epitome of this is Roger Federer.

Tennis fans will enjoy this book a great deal.