Rafael Nadal as Religious Experience?

July 7, 2008 | 2 2 min read

In August, 2006, a few months after the first FedererNadal Wimbledon final, David Foster Wallace publishedRoger Federer as Religious Experience,” in the New York Times, a lengthy footnoted essay describing the sublimity of Roger Federer and the elements of top-flight tennis that can only be captured watching it live. The essay is not only the best piece of tennis writing I have ever read, but the best piece of sports writing, period. There are countless parts that merit reading out loud to whomever’s nearby. One among them:

At least not entirely. TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy. Television’s slow-mo replays, its close-ups and graphics, all so privilege viewers that we’re not even aware of how much is lost in broadcast. And a large part of what’s lost is the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting.

Yesterday’s Federer-Nadal final reminded me of the piece, and, as I have done every year around this time for the past three, had me emailing it out to all my friends, beseeching them to read it, because this time, it really is worth it. It has become a fixation of our manic media culture to instantly assess a just-completed event’s place in history. And in the same way that it drives web traffic and sells newspapers to inflate the significance of a “gaffe” by a presidential candidate, rarely a week goes by without some game or another receiving the brand of “classic” status on ESPN. But every now and again the genuine article comes along, making it obvious that all the other hyperbole was just that. Yesterday’s Wimbledon final was that kind of event. I imagine DFW was watching. I hope he writes about it.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. Great comparison, Kevin. I was thinking about the same essay while watching the final yesterday. DFW's experience in the game lends him a passion that other writers lack, making his writing far more experiential and interesting. The match also got me thinking about his two other prominent tennis essays, the Michael Joyce essay and "Derivative Sport…", along with the obvious comparisons to the detail-driven tennis passages of Infinite Jest. If only other sportswriters could bring such talent and passion to the rapidly decaying craft.

  2. DFW must be very disappointed. If I remmeber correctly, he rather dislikes Nadal. I was of the same camp for the past three years, mostly,I must admit, due to DFW's article. But this man is maturing fantastically. Sad to see Federer lose his edge, his cool and his ability to deliver a perfect shot almost every time. But, whew, what a final.

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