Book Review: Strokes of Genius

Wimbledon is my least favorite tournament. I hate the all-white rule. I hate that the grass gets cut up and causes injuries nearly every year. See also Bethany Mattek-Sands. It starts late, and the players don’t play on the middle Sunday. It rains. All. The. Time.

That said, I literally watched Strokes of Genius four times, so I thought it was time to read the book. Author Jon Wertheim is an entertaining commentator, and while he covers all five sets of this final, he fills each with tidbits about tennis, the All England Club, and about the players themselves.

The most interesting parts for me: Hawk-Eye is named for its creator, a 30-something (at the time) Brit named Paul Hawkins. The system employs 10 evenly spaced high definition cameras and projects the probably path of the ball to within 3.6 millimeters.

Federer does not have “tennis parents.” His father Robert worked for Ciba and traveled to South Africa, where he met Roger’s mother, Lynette. There are no great athletes in the family, and Wertheim describes Robert as 5’7″ish with sausage fingers. Lynette comes across as the bigger force when she takes an 8-year-old Roger to the local TC Old Boys club and says, “Here is Roger. I think he can already hit many shots. Maybe you can train him.”

Since they travel so much, appear worldly, and are usually only asked about sports, it’s easy to forget that professional tennis players don’t always have a lot of formal education. Roger left school at 16. Roger had a tendency to break racquets and throw things on court when he lost but says he gained confidence after winning his first grand slam.

Rafa, by contrast, was never allowed to throw racquets and Uncle Toni stressed that the shoes and equipment he was given were expensive and to be treated with care. Roger didn’t initially employ an agent and negotiated a poor initial Nike contract. Mirka took over the reigns of the Fed empire and now manages his interviews and appearances and helped design the RF logo.

Wilson spent more than a year designing Roger’s new racquet. Rafa will almost literally play with any AeroPro Drive you give him. Babolat describes him as the perfect pitchman. Wins a lot of matches. Isn’t very picky. Rafa plays with Babolat because that’s what Carlos Moya used. Moya is also from Mallorca and is currently Rafa’s coach. Rafa plays in very tight shoes because that’s what soccer players do. Not sure what to make of that one.

Strokes of Genius is an interesting and fast tennis read. My copy is going to a sports obsessed fellow traveler. It is available at the library. The movie is very different, so go ahead and watch that too.

The Circuit

I wanted to read The Circuit, Rowan Ricard Phillip’s book on the 2017 ATP season, since I heard him on the Beyond The Baseline podcast. Phillips came up with the idea for the book while recuperating from tearing his achilles on the basketball court. An accomplished writer and poet, the Manhattan-based Phillips would watch all the majors and travel to some while writing this exquisite book suitable for tennis nerds everywhere.

So what were the stories of 2017? The resurgence of Fed, whose surprise Aussie Open win that year was followed up by another Wimbledon title. 2017 was La Decima for Nadal at Roland Garros, and he also picked up the US Open title in an easy walk past Kevin Anderson. It was also a good season for Sasha Zverev and young American Frances Tiafoe, who took Fed to 5 sets in the first round of the Open. Phillips doesn’t cover Jack Sock, who is ranked as high as 15 during 2017 but would fall off to a subpar singles ranking in 2018. It was a disaster of a season for Murray, who started the season No. 1 but struggled with his hip injury all year. Nole, likewise, ended his season early with an elbow injury.

Phillips has some interesting reporting on Alexandr Dolgopolov, who suffers from Gilbert’s syndrome, which causes sudden exhaustion. He adjusted his style of play to limit his time on court. Phillips also has a soft spot for the diminutive Goffin, a player I barely follow.

Phillips saves some of his best pages for the talented and temperamental Aussie Nick Kyrgios. “Kyrgios is clearly bored. He’s not bored when he plays Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray. Adrenaline, opportunity, and pride run through the veins then. But aside from that? He loves basketball, he’s passionate about it. He ended up being better at tennis. Let’s leave his parents out of this and say tennis chose him. He hates to train. He hates to travel, the alpha and omega of being an elite tennis player; but let’s just say tennis chose him. He and tennis are at odds. And he lashes out at it. There’s not much in the way of sympathy or empathy that comes his way from people who have paid to see a proper match and, let’s be honest, aren’t inclined to root for him anyway because he’s brown, and recalcitrant is not what people pay to see at a Grand Slam or Masters 1000. Foolish but not stupid, he must sense this, because it looks like he carries this dark cloud often to the court with him.”

Besides the 2017 season, Phillips has a nice chapter on the creation of the clay court. You can find it as a stand along article in Paris Review here. #recommended

The Secrets of Choke

I learned about Choke through a Freakanomics Podcast that featured author Sian Beilock. Since the episode centered heavily around sports, I was hoping to learn more about keeping my cool during a tennis match when I purchased the book. However, in reality, there are all sorts of high pressure situations that are ripe for choking – musical performances, business presentations, public speaking, and test taking to name a few.

One of the most interesting concepts was on awareness of negative performance stereotypes. If you remind women that they’re bad at math before they take a math test, even women who are good at math will score lower. 

Likewise, if women see other women in leadership roles, they’re more likely to say that women are capable leaders. This same research was done with African Americans around the election of Obama. In short, diversity in leadership matters because it inspires others.

The pressure of a clock tends to degrade tests scores for those with demonstrated ability in a topic. In a world where tests determine who is “in” and who is “out,” that’s a real problem.

What can you do to avoid choking? Distract yourself. When I play tennis, I sometimes focus on my feet and the pressure of the court surface. Don’t slow down. Don’t give yourself too much time to think. Practice under stress. This way the moment will be more familiar when it comes. Don’t dwell. See your failures as a chance to learn and improve. Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics. Thinking about your arm when swinging a racquet or putting can cause you to seize. Think about where you want the ball to land or something outside your body. Find a key word. A one word mantra can keep you focused. Focus on the positive. If you focus on the negative, you’ll feel out of control.

Choke by Sian Beilock

Steal Like an Artist

Another book sale find, Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon is a charming advice book you’d give to a special friend or a new graduate and hope they read it a few times. I placed it on my “to read” list after seeing a reference in another book, whose name escapes me.

The book has some lovely illustrations and is printed on coated paper that feels smooth and special. Kleon’s book is centered around artists but applies to all – get a side hustle. Do good work. Stay focused. Copy those you admire. Get to know those who are more talented than you. Learn from others. Make friends. Channel your free time creatively.

Kleon’s best advice is worth repeating. Enjoy captivity. You need space and time – a space to work and some self-imposed exile. “I always carry a book, a pen, and a notebook, and I always enjoy my solitude and temporary captivity.” Put the phone down. Ignore the free wi-fi, and create.

Steal Like an Artist book
A charming little advice book for the artist in your life. Read it a few times. Keep it close. Do good work.

 

Deluxe

When I was 18, I left the part-time, amusement park job I had since I was 14 and moved to greener pastures – a job at a Coach outlet store. At the time the company was owned by Sara Lee Corporation, which then funded a college grant program that sent me through college and grad school loan-free. I also met some amazing people that are still my close friends. Not a bad gig.

While I was initially mystified at the devotion of Coach fans, I would quickly become one of them. I didn’t buy many bags then, but I’d acquire them in thrift stores and garage sales for decades after.

Soon after I left, the company was sold and the brand moved in a different direction – off-shore production, canvas materials, gaudy linings, and logos everywhere. I hated them. The book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster explains what happened to Coach and many other high end brands.

Most luxury brands are today owned by large conglomerates, who slowly acquired what had been small, family-owned companies and brought in new management, rung efficiency from every corner, advertised relentlessly, and moved production to lower cost regions. They introduced starter products like perfumes, scarves, and handbags to get first-time buyers to splurge on the brand. The assembly line efficiency meant major dollars in a category with already enviably high margins.

Author Dana Thomas covers every angle from handbags to perfume production to silk production and counterfeiting. Hermès bags are  still made largely to order and by hand. Chanel No. 5 is the company’s most valuable scent, and unlike many perfumes, it contains over 70 ingredients. Chanel contracts one entire farm in France for just one ingredient in the formula. Many of the companies mentioned were founded in the 19th century in France and Italy and family-owned and operated. Hermès began by making saddles. They still do. Counterfeiting luxury goods is a lucrative business largely tied to organize crime, so resist the temptation to attend a purse party or peruse Canal Street and buy one. #recommended

 

 

 

The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol 2

I found this volume at a book sale in May. Cobbled together from obscure sources like The Big Ugly Review and some familiar ones, like Harper’s, by editor Lee Gutkind, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, this volume was worth the $2 I paid just for the story Moby Duck, which is about a shipping container of children’s bathroom toys, all 28,800 of them, that was lost at sea.

The boat in question was traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma on January 10, 1992. The toys slipped overboard at 44.7 degrees N, 178.1 degrees E. Shipping containers are stacked like legos on a boat deck, but if said boat rolls more than 35 degrees, then the containers can break lose and sail into the open sea. The water pressure will crack the casing as the container sinks.

About 18 months later, the toys started showing up on beaches in Alaska. The author traces the toys through small newspaper ads and beach combing community publications. The toys – a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck – would be bleached and changed by their time in the ocean but still recognizable as toys.

Throughout the story, the author explored the rise of popularity of the rubber duck (thanks Sesame Street), the evolution of children’s toys, and, especially, the huge amount of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, which is larger and deeper than the Atlantic with current patterns that form a dead zone where winds fall below 10 knots and lost garbage collects. The North Pacific Garbage Patch encompasses one million square miles of ocean.

Best Creative Non-Fiction, Vol 2
The garage sale price tag says $1, but I paid the $2 price tag penciled in the front. The sale benefitted the Lancaster Public Library.