“Those Federer Moments”: Sports, Sex, and the Gender of Grace

Roger Federer in 2012.

In “Federer, Both Flesh and Not,” his essay about the 2006 Wimbledon Men’s final, David Foster Wallace suggests that one reason we watch sports is to experience a specific kind of beauty:

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is a human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

He continues in a footnote:

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits—every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously—it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (’I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!’), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important—they make up for a lot.

Wallace takes the idea that out-of-shape losers watch sports for vicarious glory and ennobles it: we watch sports, he says, to participate in the beauty of our own bodies, forgotten (or unknown) though that beauty may be.

In other words, while it’s obvious why young tennis players want to watch someone like Federer in his prime, Wallace wants us to think about the 40-year-old bartender who forgets his work while staring at highlights on the overhead TV. He wants us to think about the woman in the nursing home who never misses a match. Why does she watch? What does she get from the experience?

Wallace pays special attention to the match’s honorary coin-tosser, a blond, seven-year-old boy who “contracted liver cancer at age two and somehow survived after surgery and horrific chemo.” When Wallace first brings him up you think it’s as part of the essay’s scene-setting, but by the time Wallace returns to the boy in his final footnote you realize that the essay is much about the meaning of his body as it as about Federer’s. The awful ways our bodies fail, Wallace says, make great athletes like Federer—who at 34 just climbed back into the second-place ranking in the world, and who will compete for his 18th Grand Slam title when the US Open starts on Monday—that much more necessary.

“One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque,” he writes. “But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at that down there. Look at that.”

Wimbledon that year was a religious experience, Wallace says, a kind of grace, an experience of another, better world. And the thing about grace is that it’s inherently good; it’s never inappropriate, even when it springs from a flawed source. For all of the problems we can find in modern sports—and Wallace’s essay touches on the commercialism, the inane interviews, the fact that sports don’t materially benefit anyone except for the genetically gifted .001%—Wallace finds value in “a thought that’s also a feeling.”

But not like that

As much as I like Wallace’s essay, I get caught on this sentence: “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms.” I mean, he’s correct that the beauty he’s describing isn’t about sexual desire; but it is absolutely connected to sex and cultural norms. Because cultural norms have—for most of history—limited both that understanding of this beauty and its experience to one sex. (Too often, this understanding has been limited to one race, too, as Claudia Rankine points out in this week in an essay on the unacknowledged grace of Serena Williams.)

Historically, women haven’t been supposed to have those dreams. Historically, a woman watching a men’s sporting event was presumed to have a different relationship to what she was seeing than the man sitting next to her. She wasn’t supposed to see herself in Roger Federer, Herschel Walker, or Geoff Hurst (the only man to score a hat trick in a World Cup Final).

Conversely, men haven’t been trained to have those dreams about women. I mean, we’re supposed to dream of women’s bodies, but not like that. What could we learn about our own greatness from someone with breasts and hips? When a man watched women’s sports, his interest was understood to be elsewhere. Either it was something sexual (and thus not the experience Wallace describes), or it was a sort of condescension–Oh, look: the ladies have their own league. It wasn’t supposed to be deeply personal, a dream of a better self, like what Wallace says he experienced in watching Roger Federer.

We reached the pinnacle

Another thing about grace is that you have to learn to see it; often, you have to be taught. That’s why Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day can see it in every breath we draw, but most of us can’t. And it’s why Wallace talks about those “Federer moments” when, in his words, “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.” It’s ostensibly why the spouses are in the other room in the first place. It’s not that the beauty is there for one person and not for the other; it’s that one person knows what to look for and the other doesn’t.

I’ve had some “U.S. Women’s National Team moments” since I started watching women’s soccer at the 1996 Olympics. The most obvious was the goal against Brazil that staved off elimination in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup: in the final minute of extra time, Megan Rapinoe perfectly placed a long cross onto the forehead of a perfectly-positioned Abby Wambach, who powered the ball into the near corner of the net. Given the timing, the stakes, and the absolute perfection of both the pass and the finish, it is—by far—the most amazing soccer play I’ve ever seen.

Another moment came in the sixteenth minute of the most recent final in Vancouver. This one was less about the stakes and more about one player’s Federer-like command of the occasion. I mean, Carli Lloyd’s third goal, the one where, breaking free from a defender near midfield, she looked up and, noticing that Japan’s goalkeeper was stationed too far forward, sent a shot over that goalkeeper’s hands and right into the goal. You never see a play like that; it indicated that, in that moment, Lloyd was so dialed-in, so far above her peers, that she could do anything. It was like when, after an easy semifinal win, Federer joked that the tennis ball looked “like a bowling ball or a basketball.” Wallace writes:

Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.

That’s how Carli Lloyd played those first twenty minutes in Vancouver.

Her performance came with a different context, though, than any I had experienced watching the USWNT. I was sixteen during the 1996 Olympics. My grandmother, who lived in Atlanta, let me borrow her car to drive up to Athens, Georgia, where the soccer games were being held. I remember the electricity in the stadium for the women’s final, but I also remember knowing that very few people outside of the stadium cared. Not only was it soccer, it was women’s soccer.

Even the 1999 World Cup, celebrated though it was, was treated as a victory for America’s girls. And it was: some of those ponytailed soccer players watching Mia and Julie and Brandi grew into the Alex Morgans and Lauren Holidays of the 2015 team. But Wallace tells us that sports are supposed to offer even more than that.

You see some of that same language in the reporting on the 2015 team. Barack Obama, for example, told the team, “You inspired a whole new generation of young women.” But there was also this amazing story from CNN about the ticker-tape parade in New York. Yes, it includes comments about what the team means to young girls, but it ends with a quote from a 56-year-old man who says, “Soccer is the greatest sport in the world, and we’ve finally reached the pinnacle. It’s my first parade, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

We’ve reached the pinnacle. That “we” is unearned, of course. He wasn’t practicing with the team, or performing with them under the pressure of seven games against the world’s best players. But all grace is unearned, and the striking thing is that this man claims it, that he sees himself as having a stake in the women’s national team.

The kiss

There was another moment in Vancouver that caused jaws to drop: the cameras followed Abby Wambach in the post-game celebration as she ran over to kiss her wife, Sarah Huffman, in the bleachers. Part of me hesitates to write about that, because, as great (and as sweetly personal) as the moment was, I worried about how it would be received. Great, I thought. Now everyone will have to take sides. Women’s soccer will become another political thing, like Duck Dynasty or Chick-fil-a. 

But we have to talk about the kiss—another moment of grace, I’d say—because it’s inseparable from the grace of Lloyd’s play. One moment couldn’t have happened without the other. Not just because Lloyd’s play made Wambach’s celebration possible, but because both are manifestations of the mass of cultural changes that picked up pace in the middle of last century and which we now collectively call the “the sexual revolution.”

Writers on the left were quick to link Wambach’s celebration with the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, which came down days before the game, and which was publicly celebrated by several of the team’s players, gay and straight. At that very moment, writers on the right were bemoaning Obergefell as the natural endpoint of the logic of the sexual revolution, which Rod Dreher said was premised on “erotic liberty,” and Russell Moore called “a fantasy of autonomy and self-creation.”

What happened at the World Cup undercut their post-Obergefell arguments. These writers were telling us that the sexual revolution meant a lack of commitment to anything beyond the self; they told us that it caused us to exchange who we’re supposed to be for who we want to be.

But what was on display at the World Cup was something entirely different: not women rejecting who they were meant to be, but women living (in a fleeting, mortal way) at their fullest capacities—women being exactly who they were meant to be. After Obergefell, the right demanded that America answer for the sexual revolution. The US women’s team did, with grace, by making us proud for a moment to be bodies moving through space.


  • acemagic5@hotmail.com' Anthony Nuccio says:

    Thank you for a well-written and thoughtful piece, Franklin.

    As one who has competed athletically in several sports (football, cross country, and track and field), I certainly find it fascinating and incredible to watch athletic performances of all types and kinds. The human body has become an aesthetic machine with other humans as spectators to events that in some ways can transcend our bodily limits (here I am thinking of contact sports such as American football).

    One thing I find interesting about viewing the human body through an athletic lens is how the varieties of athletic performance can compliment one’s notion of God as the creator: all bodies should be viewed as a the gift of God, but we admire the successful and graceful bodies of athletes instead of our own bodies.

  • claynaff@yahoo.com' claynaff says:

    I’m with you in most of the essay, but as a one-time English major who left literature for science I find it amusing that when it comes to Wallace’s statement about the beauty of sport having nothing to do with sex or culture, we both object … for opposite reasons. You think it’s nothing to do with sex but that “cultural norms” kept women out for millennia. I think that sport is essentially a mating ritual — another form of lekking, a fitness display with biological roots entangled with those of rutting rams and bison. In a biological domain that evolved around female selection, showing off comes naturally to males. Sport is a cultural adaptation of that instinct plus the instinct for war that we have gradually modified and, through the hard-won *cultural* norms of gender equality, extended to women. That, at any rate, is how I see it. — Clay Farris Naff, Science and Religion Writer

  • fishmanlm@guilford.edu' AriaKittan08 says:

    Very interesting article. I was actually at the U.S open this past weekend and watched both men and women play. Being a tennis player and athlete myself, I don’t recall feeling differently watching a man play as a women then watching another women play. I remember thinking to myself both the matches (man and female) were both just incredible tennis. I wish I had read this article prior to the experience.

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