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No Expectations 007: Break Point
You should watch tennis and listen to Yukihiro Takahashi. Plus, ‘The Last of Us’ is pretty good.
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“high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty”
I’ve been watching a lot of the 2023 Australian Open, which kicked off over the weekend. The AO is the first of four Grand Slams in the yearly men’s ATP and women’s WTA tennis series where, in singles tennis, 128 men and 128 women go head-to-head across multiple rounds until January 29. It’s a big deal. Because it takes place in Melbourne, a city 15 hours ahead of Chicago’s central time zone, watching more than just the earliest games means some very late nights. Longtime veteran Andy Murray defeated young gun and #13 seed Matteo Berrettini over five grueling sets to end after 2 am my time while last year’s finalist Daniil Medvedev easily dispatched American Marcos Giron in the first round around 6:40 am cst. (I only stayed up for the former).
I’m not recommending pulling all-nighters for first-round tennis but there is no better time to get into the sport than now. For pretty much the past two decades in the men’s game, three guys have dominated: Roger Federer, who retired last season, as well as Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, who are both still playing great tennis but are 36 and 35 respectively. The trio boasts a combined 63 Grand Slam singles titles. On the women’s side, the best player of all time and winningest competitor since Margaret Court, Serena Williams, retired after last year’s U.S. Open. ATP or WTA tennis has never felt more wide-open with so many fascinating and fun-to-watch younger talents. (Two of the most promising newer talents 2022 U.S. Open winner Carlos Alcaraz, who is 19, is missing this tournament due to injury while four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka is out because she’s pregnant). While Djokovic is the clear men’s favorite there (the only match he’s lost in Australia since 2018 has been against the country’s immigration board and defending champ Nadal lost in the second round), it’s truly anyone’s game this year.
Besides basketball, tennis was the first sport I ever loved by virtue of taking lessons at seven years old, realizing then that it’s actually really satisfying to hit a ball with a racquet, and not be terrible at it. I still try to keep up with watching it now because unlike any other sport besides NASCAR, golf, or boxing, tennis is the best reflection of an individual person: sure, the NBA has characters and outsized personalities but at the end of the day it’s a team sport. In his 1969 sportswriting classic Levels of the Game, writer John McPhee put it perfectly. “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play,” he writes. “If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.” Though these sentences are over a half-century old, they’ve remained true throughout tennis’ history: Borg vs. McEnroe, Sampras vs. Agassi, Federer vs. Nadal, etc.
McPhee’s book, which first appeared as multi-part pieces in the New Yorker, was about one match, a semifinal at the 1968 U.S. Open between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. It’s a pioneering work of sports reporting for the ways McPhee is detail-obsessed, mapping out almost every individual point in the match, getting the two players to tell him what they were thinking during each important moment, and even going so far as counting out the number of times the ball hits their racquets. McPhee’s book was not just an account of a single game but a deeply reported and thoughtful profile of two disparate people from different backgrounds with diametrically opposed philosophies and who underwent vastly different struggles. Ashe, then an amateur player, was black and grew up poor while Graebner was white and rich and had the nickname “Superboy” thanks to his good looks and “facial bone structure that suggests heroic possibilities." Again and again, McPhee details how this one match is the result of these two guys’ entire histories, personalities, disciplines, and psychologies.
This sort of thing plays out all the time in tennis and a new Netflix docuseries is trying to show how. It’s called Break Point and it’s by Box to Box productions, the same company that made F1’s Drive to Survive that catapulted the Euro-centric sport to mainstream U.S. success and tangible domestic TV ratings. Hoping to piggyback on Drive To Survive introducing audiences to a new obsession, Break Point highlights some of the most charismatic young athletes. In its first five episodes (the second batch should drop sometime in the summer), the show focuses on Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios (mimicking Drive to Survive with its early season focus on charming Aussie driver Daniel Ricciardo), Spanish star-turned-mental-health champion Paula Badosa (who dropped out of the 2023 Australian Open), handsome Italian contender Matteo Berrettini, Tunisian powerhouse Ons Jabeur, and others.
The show works as a solid introduction to the loneliness of being a professional tennis pro as well as the charms of the younger, new generation of talent. (Though, sometimes this comes at a cost: you would have expected the recap of last year’s AO to focus more on the visa and vaccine drama surrounding Djokovic instead of just a couple of minutes). But while Drive to Survive succeeded thanks to pandemic boredom, exotic locales, and immense wealth on display constantly, this show is darker and more existential. One pro’s hotel room is littered with discarded tennis gear in such a way the “you live like this?” meme is more than applicable and no one seems especially happy living out their dreams. You realize as you watch that you have to be some sort of psycho to want to devote your life to this. A particularly compelling episode about Greek star Maria Sakkari shows the ways in which physical and mental toughness can backfire into overpreparation in pivotal moments. While I’ve loved her game, the show made me a fan and now I really want her to win a major title in 2023.
Where Drive to Survive is arguably more entertaining than waking up early for an F1 race, Break Point, while worth it as an introduction, doesn’t come close to how rewarding just watching tennis can be. Just take Frances Tiafoe. At #14 worldwide, he’s the second-highest-ranked American man and one of the most electric players in the field. He thrives on crowd energy, is a total ham, and can use his impeccable fitness and powerful serve to grind out hours-long five-set matches. His run to the U.S. Open semi-finals last year was incredible (he beat Nadal in a thriller) and more transcendent than anything in this docuseries (though, I’d imagine they cover it in the second batch of episodes). The same goes for WTA players like Anett Kontaveit, a promising Estonian who is getting better and better, and Leylah Fernandez, a Canadian who made it to the U.S. Open final in 2021 and is absolutely ferocious despite being only 20. Even lower-ranked players make the sport worthwhile: American Reilly Opelka (world #40), a 6’11 guy from Michigan, uses his 137-mph serve as a way to make enough money to buy art (he’s the only player on tour to be sponsored by an art gallery) and sport Thom Browne at fashion events.
There are too many sports docuseries. Break Point, which follows the Drive to Survive formula, enters a crowded field with Prime Video’s All or Nothing series that follows teams from the NFL, NHL, Premier League, College Football, and more, HBO’s influential Hard Knocks, Peacock’s excellent but buried NASCAR: Race for the Championship, as well as Netflix’s Sunderland Till I Die, Race: Bubba Wallace, Untold: Breaking Point, and several others. While I wish Breaking Point highlighted more of the players (only closely following 5-10 in a field of hundreds feels like a missed opportunity) and showed more of the gameplay, I hope it brings the sport to a new audience that decides to pick up a racquet instead of a pickleball paddle. Tennis is compelling enough on its own that you can really choose your adventure: want to root for underdogs who always put on a show? Look up Frances Tiafoe and Ons Jabeur (or American Mackie Macdonald who just took down defending champ Rafa Nadal in the AO this year after I wrote this?). Want Americans to achieve Grand Slam success again? Taylor Fritz and Jessica Pegula are your best bets. Want to follow the next generational talent? Carlos Alcaraz, Holger Rune, and Coco Gauff are very special. I could go on!
This isn’t just about finding a player you relate to and going from there: you need to be prepared for the games. Even though it’ll be a lot of fun, this sport will break your heart. Your favorite tennis pro will undoubtedly lose it for a match or more and play miserably. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a great player become their own worst enemy on the court, getting inside their head, and letting nerves ruin their ability to keep the ball in play. Here’s McPhee: “Confidence goes back and forth across a tennis net much like the ball itself, and only somewhat less frequently,” he writes. “If two players are on about the same level, no matter what that level is, the player who experiences more minutes of confidence will be the winner.” The AO second-round match between Maria Sakkari (world #6) and 18-year-old Russian Diana Schnaider was a great example of this. Schaider won the first set thanks to both great playing and capitalizing on Sakkari’s unforced errors: You could see the better-ranked player becoming more and more frustrated even as she rallied from a set down to win. While she’s one of the best players in the world playing a relative unknown, it could’ve gone either way.
Sports have a fundamentally aspirational appeal. At one end, it’s “here are the people we’d like to be.” You witness the chiseled athletes, the mental warriors who are able to adapt to whatever obstacle they face, and the physical marvels who refuse to succumb to the pressure or the most grueling parts of the game. The other more universal aspect of its draw is “here are the experiences we’d like to have.” Sports are about the time you put into it, the community it represents, and the shared joy that winnings brings thanks to these individual and collective exploits. Being an early fan of Federer and Serena brought on some of the most incomparable sports-watching memories of my entire life: the way their tenacity, poise, and talent led to phenomenal matches and dozens of titles. Watching Tiafoe’s deep run in the U.S. Open last year, even though he didn’t win, ranks just as high due to his sheer joy and its improbability. I’m so excited to see where my lifelong fandom of this sport takes me next.
Letter of recommendation: Will Sloan’s Ebert Tweets
Ebert gave the original Top Gun a 2.5 star rating, so I’m not sure I agree with this 100%. (I also think he would’ve given RRR a perfect score). But, Will Sloan’s Ebert “crystal ball” series is one of the only truly great things on Twitter.
RIP Yukihiro Takahashi
At the risk of sounding like Eric Alper’s Twitter account here, a fun conversation starter to try out on your music-obsessed friends is this prompt: “What’s the most individually talented band ever?” Sure, the Traveling Wilburys seem obvious but that was a latter-career supergroup (only Dylan and Petty would go on to make albums that rank as their best). Other answers like the Band and the Beatles will eventually come up too. My go-to with this hypothetical is Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of the most influential bands of all time. Composed of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, and Yukihiro Takahashi, their music collectively and respectively is so adventurous and so impossibly ahead of its time. Between those three, there are absolutely vital recordings and albums that traverse so many genres from rock, electronic, city pop, experimental, classical, and more. It’s unreal. You’ll find it impossible to hear modern music without recognizing them as some of its biggest pioneers after diving in.
Yukihiro Takahashi, YMO’s lead singer and drummer, died last week at 70 after complications from pneumonia. It’s a really sad and too-soon loss but it’s a bittersweet opportunity to celebrate his incredible solo career, his groundbreaking work with YMO, and his GOAT-level outfits. While Hosono and Sakamoto now get most of the attention (Harry Styles name-dropped the former as the inspiration for his latest LP Harry’s House while the latter became one of the world’s most acclaimed composers), Takahashi feels like the heart of YMO and the member with the most universally accessible solo catalog. If you haven’t explored his catalog yet, please fix that soon. Below, I’ve compiled a playlist of some of his best early solo cuts to help you take the leap.
What I listened to:
Arbor Labor Union, Yonder
Atlanta’s Arbor Labor Union have called their blend of indie rock, post-punk, and jam, “transcendental twang,” which honestly rules. They cite Neil Young and the Allman Brothers as well as the Minutemen and Lungfish as reference points for their latest LP Yonder and it really hits the spot throughout. The LP answers the question of what would happen if a bunch of former hardcore kids became Grateful Dead converts. January is always a slow month for new music but this is by far the best thing I’ve heard this year and something I won’t forget even as we’ll undoubtedly soon become overwhelmed with 2023 new releases. A gem of a record.
2023 Favorite Tracks - So Far
My annual playlist of new music is now live. 34 songs before January 20th might be a new record and might mean that 2023 is going to be an all-timer.
What I watched
The Last of Us
I’m not really a video game guy: the last one I really immersed myself in was Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018. I was extremely underemployed and very depressed but I had the best time of my life spending a week or so playing a cowboy in the Old West. In 2013, when I was right out of college and living with a pair of roommates, I watched them make their way through The Last of Us, a zombie game. I remember there being a lot of sneaking behind grotesque-looking monsters and a pretty compelling story. HBO has reportedly spent upward of a hundred million dollars making this game a prestige TV show starring Pedro Pascal and Catherine Called Birdy standout Bella Ramsey. And you know what, it’s pretty good.
It’s hard to remember what happened in the game (it’s been a decade and I wasn’t even playing it) but there are scenes in The Last of Us that I recall being directly faithful to the game. The whole vibe feels like a cross between Children of Men, 28 Days Later, and Annihilation, which is definitely a strong zone when it comes to post-apocalyptic world-building. While I doubt it’ll hit the heights of any of those reference points, it seems like a much smarter and much more affecting series than something like The Walking Dead or really any video game adaptation that came before. The cold open in the premiere was basically perfect.
What I read
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (50 Writers on 50 States)
I am running out of space for my books to the point where I am actually reading what I already own and haven’t got to yet without buying anything new. I can’t believe it either. I don’t remember purchasing State By State, a post-9/11 pre-Obama essay collection that boasted 50 writers taking on one of the 50 states in an essay, from a Borders (the store sticker is still on my copy), but I do know the reason I picked it up is that Dave Eggers and Anthony Bourdain contributed. I know. It’s fascinating as a document of aughts liberalism and how writerly sensibilities have shifted since then—you’re not going to see many serious essays from serious writers talk about going to boarding school or how their dad worked for the NSA—but every two or three essays you’ll find a great voice and actually profound revelations on home, displacement, and the history of a given state. It’s a mixed bag though but I really dug Susan Choi on Indiana and Barry Hannah on Mississippi.