Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Circuit

A Tennis Odyssey

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Break point. Match point. Brisbane.

The first tournament of the year. The first day of the first month of 2017.

I had been waiting for this moment since last summer—my summer, in June; not this January Australian summer—back when my Achilles tendon tore in two and I was confined to life on a couch. I watched every single match of Wimbledon in 2016 prone and mostly alone, my family already in Barcelona when I broke myself. I was stranded but for the kindness of my neighbors and occasional visits from a few family members and friends. Unable to do much of anything else but tread through the day in a soupy haze of painkillers, I watched tennis all day, every day, to pass the time away. Singles, doubles, and then replays of the day’s singles and doubles, with nowhere to be and nowhere to go, drifting in and out of sleep. As the weeks went by, I discovered that I had changed in some way that I couldn’t quite describe. Following the ups and downs of players as they followed the sun from tournament to tournament, seeing them find their groove and lose it, sometimes from one venue to the next, sometimes from one match to the next, sometimes in the middle of a point, to watch someone lose something that no one among the thousands or millions watching could see but all can feel, as though the gravity’s been turned off around that player and that player alone. To watch her float into a negative zone, pulled by a phantom thread into a black cloud bank of bad results. Or, sometimes, the welcome reverse: a golden period where everything feels right, everything falls inside the court, once-impossible angles suddenly simple and seen, a reserved pocket of power found, that moment when the game becomes less about backswings and string tensions and follow-throughs and almost entirely about the feet, and eyes, they see everything early and take you there effortlessly; that moment when even the net seems on your side and bows ever so slightly as the ball you send its way passes over its thin white line. This book, in its essence, is about the things we can never quite describe but should try to because they’re fleeting. I couldn’t describe the tennis I was watching despite having all the time in the world to do so and oh so wanting to make sense of seeing Federer fall, a beatable Serena, Nadal all but vanish into thin air, a mojo-less Djokovic fall down a rabbit hole, and Murray finally make it to the top of the mountain. I made myself the promise that someday I would. Someday, when I could walk again and my mind wasn’t saddled with sedatives, I would focus on a year and, like the players, follow the sun from beginning to end.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the 2017 that happened was not the 2017 you expected. You and me both. Who could have imagined that we’d end up there? It was some strange admixture of the past and a future we weren’t quite prepared for. And that this holds true for the world apart from tennis and for tennis itself is part of the power and the glory and the problem of both. As my head cleared and my body healed, I found both worlds to be, as Wallace Stevens once put it, more truly and more strange.

* * *

Break point. Match point. Brisbane.

The first tournament of the year. The first day of the first month of 2017.

I want to open the moment like a gift. The heat of January, relentless summer, the steamy gauze of the midday haze. This is the only show in town. Despite the open-air roof overhead, the heat has made everything much more difficult. Both men look like they have just emerged from a river they had accidentally fallen into. Deciding set, down 2–5, the goal now is simply to survive. To see one more point and take it from there. Bounce, bounce, think but don’t think—play the percentages: find the backhand. But the serve wants to do its job too well, or the legs and mind are too tired at this point to inject any risk, and so it sets off on its launch path obedient to direction but rolling off the racket too politely. It spins safely over the net and into the service box, where the ball lands softly and, before bouncing back into the air, pauses for so long on the sweltering court that you could walk onto the court and slowly sign your name on the worn yellow felt. You were here. Finally, the ball rises and arrives to the waiting backhand return, which is dispatched back hastily and inquisitively, tit for tat to the backhand of his opponent, Elias Ymer. Let’s see how he likes it. A serve to the backhand? A return to the backhand. A test? An answer. A call and a response. But they knew that the jig was up. That final serve had told them so. And so, in search of a lifeline in the form of Jordan Thompson’s backhand, Ymer instead watches his own backhand sink him. His shot clips the net and doesn’t even feign possibly going in. It drops as though it’s run into a wall, tumbling to the court, and falls down through the O in WORLD of ATP WORLD TOUR painted across the net. The crowd cheers. Game. Set. Match. Thompson, 6–3, 6–3. In ninety minutes. The world goes on. Tennis goes on. There will be more of both. But not how anyone would have expected. It’s day one of 2017. And here I am, as it happens. Still in the final, lagging American hours of 2016, hurtling toward the future as the circuit begins.


The top four seeds at Brisbane were, in order, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Dominic Thiem. By the end of the season, only one player on that list would even be active. But for now, in the first week of the new season, they enjoy their automatic byes into the next round, one of the more perfunctory perks of having a high ranking in smaller tournaments.

The fifth seed, in this respect, was out of luck. He would have to pick up his racket and play that extra early-round match along with the wild cards, qualifiers, and others. It was none other than Rafa Nadal. He hadn’t played since October 2016, when he was upset in an early round in Shanghai by Viktor Troicki, after which he announced he was taking time off to let his sore wrist recover. Going into this new season, uncertainty swirled around Nadal. He had turned thirty in June of last season and his results indicated he was in decline, as did his increasingly creaky body. Now the iconic long hair of his heyday had been replaced by a sensible, almost businesslike cut. He was less Samson now and more Mr. Samson. Brisbane was the first step into whatever new world this was, in which there were four top players at a venue and he wasn’t among them. This despite the fact that neither Djokovic nor Murray nor Federer were here. Nadal himself usually sidestepped Brisbane as well. What was he doing here? Since 2009, he had spent every year starting things up in Doha. He won there in 2014 and had been a finalist just last year in 2016. Doha was a fixture on his calendar: he even won the doubles title there a record four times. The 2017 prize money at Brisbane was $461,333; the 2017 prize money at Doha was $776,000. Perhaps Brisbane was to be the freshest of fresh starts for him. What would it have meant to him, superstitious like few others, to start this new uncertain journey in opulent Doha, where the last time he walked onto the hard court there he lost to Novak Djokovic in a nightmare of a match for him, 6–1, 6–2, and then proceeded to get knocked out in the first round of the Australian Open in heartbreaking fashion against his fellow countryman Fernando Verdasco? If 2017 was going to be a reset and a renewal, then the man who abhors change had to change. Some of the past had to be burned away. Roger was in Perth at the Hopman Cup. Let Novak and Andy slug it out in Doha. Rafa would have Brisbane with the also-rans and Stan.

He stepped out into the evening to warm applause dressed in a vivid burst of tangerine-and-white shorts. It was almost 10:30 at night. Unlike the worn-down and tenuous figure he cut throughout most of 2016, he seemed vigorous, deep in thought, dangerous to touch. He went through all of his routines. The ones he begins in the locker room with a last-second cold shower and close-quarter calisthenics, a few violent leaps straight into the air just before exiting the tunnel that leads to the court, his bag placed in its chair just so, the ID tag of his bag placed just so, his towels placed down just so, a few sips of refreshment just so, the bottles placed on the floor in front of his chair just so, just the way he likes it, no, just as it has to be, there is no other way, there’s only just so. He begins to feint a sprint or two, following his routine to millimetric precision until he has to acknowledge the chair umpire and the player on the other side of the net. Then he returns to the match already being played in his mind as he warms up, his massive arms and thighs leading his thick trunk back through the epic pattern of preparation that used to strike fear in other players. But now? One wonders. He hadn’t won much of anything off of clay in some time. And a younger generation of players were emerging who grew up playing with and against the type of extreme topspin Nadal had patented with his thick-framed, ultra-light Babolat racket and poly strings. Had what made him so difficult to play now also become routine? Still, there was something singular about Nadal. A lesser physical specimen would look like a walking Creamsicle in what he was wearing, but he had somehow managed to spend a lifetime making outfits no one should be able to look serious in seem full of intent. He strutted around center court like a starburst.

As much as Rafa feeds off routine, his first-round opponent, Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov, feeds off its absence. Neither quite old nor young now, he has for years been a connoisseur’s delight on the tour. His game is like the band you think no one has heard of, the one with too many or too few people in it, your guilty pleasure. There are the players for whom the racket is a cello. For Dolgopolov, it’s a bass; he is a practitioner of arts largely distant from the highest levels of the circuit; where others try to construct, he deconstructs; he is a disciple of the School of the Chaos Point. There’s a technical term for it: he has funky game.

Sometimes it looks like he’s given up on a point, unwilling to submit himself to the discipline of riding out the undulations and give-some-get-some nature of difficult rallies, the kind that test your patience as much as your footwork and groundstrokes—the alpha and omega of Nadal’s approach. But things are so often not what they seem. Dolgopolov suffers from Gilbert’s syndrome, a chronic condition that affects the liver’s ability to produce bilirubin, which is the natural by-product of the hemoglobin in our red blood cells when they are broken down by the body. While it’s non-lethal, it causes sudden and extreme exhaustion. Things that exacerbate it include constant travel and physical exertion: basically, being a tennis professional. When he was diagnosed with Gilbert’s he was already a promising youth player. He ignored the doctor’s advice to scrap any idea of playing at the level his promise suggested he was destined for. Instead, he cultivated a game over the years to correspond with his unpredictable reserves of energy. He tries to end a point as soon as the first glimpse of an opportunity presents itself: an early, unexpected drop shot from an unlikely position on the court; a low-percentage forehand down the line when a safe crosscourt shot is begging to be hit; a backhand slice seeking out an ambitious, eye-popping angle. When it works, it’s oohs and ahhs and cheers from the gallery. When it doesn’t, crickets. Sometimes it’s champagne stuff from him. Other times, when the muse has abandoned him, a Dolgopolov performance can be tough to swallow. Don’t let the big swings and bellowing grunts fool you: tennis is a sport of deception and surprise. The more disguise you can manage into your groundstrokes and your serve, the more chances you have of robbing your opponent of that vital fraction of a second. In the bigger picture, tennis remains the same.

He’s been ranked as high as thirteenth in the world on the back of a scintillating 2011 when he appeared to announce himself as the next great talent in tennis at age twenty-two. He entered Brisbane and the start of 2017 mired in a cloud of bad results and ranked sixty-second in the world, descending to a level he hadn’t seen his name near in close to seven years. He warms up a little more languidly than Nadal. Everyone does. The racket in his hand is clearly a Wilson Pro Staff, but it’s missing the familiar W stenciled on the strings. Bad results have left him a free agent: a player without a racket sponsor. Later in the year, a gambling watchdog unit will wonder about some of the statistical outliers in his matches (going a whole match without seeing a break point, for instance) and the even stranger betting lines that followed him around from tournament to tournament. His results will pick up on the heels of it as though he were chased into good form: a final in Båstad, Sweden, at the Swedish Open in July; a good run to the round of sixteen at the U.S. Open in August; a final in Shenzhen, China, at the Shenzhen Open in October; he’ll end the year ranked thirty-eighth. The child of a professional coach, he started playing the game at three years old, coached then as he is now by his father: you’ve heard the story before, you’ll hear it again.

He is in his late twenties, just under six feet tall, with an angular face and soft expressionless eyes that contradict his hollow cheeks. He sports a ponytail and a hair band to keep his hair out of his eyes. No goatee tonight, he is relatively clean-shaven, wearing a white crew top with thin sky-blue lines across the front, a thick sky-blue racing stripe along the sides and sleeves, and matching solid sky-blue sneakers and shorts. Tonight, he can’t get a first serve in and Nadal feasts on his compromised second serve, dispatching him in straight sets: 6–3, 6–3. True to his playing style, Dolgopolov started as fast as he possibly could. He broke Nadal’s serve early and had tallied eleven winners by the time Rafa registered his first. But Dolgopolov cooled off as quickly as he had started hot. The unforced errors swiftly began to pile up. Shots that at the start were dropping inside the court began to betray his racket. He finished the match with fifty-six errors, thirty-two of them unforced. At one point during the match, Dolgopolov, angry with the world, stormed off the court and returned having changed his shorts. It didn’t help. He was twisted up, his funky game flat. How much was it him, and how much was it the man on the other side of the net? For, while Nadal had never been a player to rack up a huge number of winners, his anemic numbers were, despite the final score, startling—a mere six winners total: two aces, two from the backhand side, one smash, one volley, and not a single one from the forehand. Yet, his serve showed more promise than it had in some time. It was almost as though he had inverted his strengths. Only time would tell.

Regardless, you wouldn’t say that it was vintage Nadal, for how he played or for the context. Now he was like the other twenty-four players obliged to play in the first round of this relatively small tournament—there were thirty-two spaces in comparison to the 128 for the majors (i.e., the Grand Slams), 250 points instead of the 2,000 at stake in the majors, 1,000 in the Masters. The top four got a day or two off as a gift for showing up. But the others were the players who had to grind from day one. We know now that Nadal hasn’t yet fallen into that category, but as Brisbane 2017 began, the world wondered what to make of the Bull in winter. And we were left without a clear answer, as two nights later Milos Raonic took a punch from Nadal before answering back by winning two straight sets with all the robust confidence one would expect from the higher-ranked player: 4–6, 6–3, 6–4. Murray and Djokovic, the number one and two, we’d grown accustomed, slowly, to seeing have Nadal’s number. But now Milos Raonic? The Clark Graebner we didn’t ask for but deserve? Is this where Nadal is now? Where are we?

Step back from the ocean-blue Plexicushion hard courts of the Queensland Tennis Centre, and you’ll discover yourself to be not in Brisbane but rather in Tennyson, a tiny suburb named after the English Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson—“Lawn Tennyson,” the “gentleman poet,” as Stephen Dedalus refers to him in Ulysses. Step even further back—from Australia on New Year’s Day, cross the Pacific, climb to the equator—and you will find yourself not in the summer of Down Under but in the northern hemisphere’s winter.

Playing before a home crowd, Thompson fights his way to the third round by beating perennial overachiever and former world number four David Ferrer of Spain before meeting his baker in Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who whipped him up a breadstick for each set, 6–1, 6–1 (a breadstick is one game won in a set, a bagel is zero games won: they are signs of dishonor). Ranked fifth in the world at the start of 2017 and a consolidated top-ten player for a couple of years, Nishikori was set for a run at the things he had yet to accomplish on the circuit: a ranking in the top three (he’d been as high as fourth) and a title in a major (he was a finalist in the 2014 U.S. Open). The 2016 U.S. Open was almost as kind to him: he lost in the semifinals after defeating Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. It would prove to be the last time Murray would lose a match in 2016. Short in stature and lightning-quick, gifted with a two-handed backhand that could absorb and redirect his opponent’s pace on the short hop, but somewhat held back—from the very highest heights of the game—by his capable but unreliable forehand, serve, and fitness, Nishikori was a smaller prototype of the mold that made Murray and Novak Djokovic, the top two players on the circuit. He had turned twenty-seven on the twenty-ninth of December. In the new logic of tennis, where teenagers fight for scraps on the lower Challenger circuit, he was entering his prime. In the semifinal of Brisbane he squared off against the player who beat him in the 2016 U.S. Open semifinal, Stan Wawrinka, who went on to win the tournament and notch his third major title in three years. Nishikori would get a measure of revenge on Wawrinka in November of that year by beating him in sixty-seven minutes in London at the ATP World Tour Finals. These types of minimum-resistance capitulations on non–Grand Slam stages had become par for the course for Wawrinka, who, by this time in his early thirties, had become a player who reserved his considerable gifts for the major tournaments and, as a rule, offered far less resistance anywhere else. At Brisbane, after losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Nishikori wins the final two sets by a whisker. Wawrinka pretends to be bothered, but his mind is really on Melbourne and the Australian Open. What’s important at this point for Nishikori, however, is the scoreline. He needs results; they’re proof that he can handle the few players on the circuit ahead of him and, rather crucially, that his body can handle the pounding of going deep into tournaments and not betray him as it did in 2016 in Wimbledon when he had to forfeit mid-match due to injury, and not for the first time. What to do when your Achilles’ heel is your body, all of it?

On the other side of the Brisbane draw was the number one seed: the Canadian Milos Raonic. He started the year with a career-high ranking of third in the world and had won Brisbane the year before, defeating Federer in the 2016 final. Later in that same year, Raonic played a key role at Wimbledon when in the semifinal he defeated Federer once again, half by the blunt force of his game and half by being smart enough not to get in the way of a clearly hobbled Roger getting in the way of himself. Raonic’s game is one part serve and one part ambition. The other parts are still works in progress, but he speaks with such certainty that sometimes it seems even he forgets that they are. “I am by no means done,” he told the press in the media room after his victory over Federer on Wimbledon’s famed Centre Court. He was done, though. Two days later, he delivered one of the more tepid performances of a Wimbledon finalist that you’ll ever see. Facing the local favorite, Murray, and finally in position to fulfill his promise, he wilted. But, like Nishikori, he regained steam at the World Tour Finals, where this time he pushed Murray, who was again playing before a home crowd, to the brink.

Despite not winning a single tournament in 2016, he spoke of himself as a top player on the tour, and the ranking of third going into 2017 seemed to satisfy his sense of himself and his tennis. On the third day in Brisbane, he faced the ninth-ranked Rafa Nadal.

If Raonic was ascendant, what, then, was Grigor Dimitrov? A player graced with such precocious, easy-on-the-eye gifts that he was given the nickname Baby Fed, he nevertheless showed up at Brisbane already a bit of an afterthought on the men’s circuit. Having reached the top ten in the summer of 2014, he almost immediately thereafter went on a mysterious descent of form that ended with him falling to fortieth in the rankings by July 2016. Of the three great promises in their mid-twenties, Dimitrov, unlike Raonic and Nishikori, didn’t hold form at the very-good-but level; he sank. Quietly, however, the late summer and a new coach brought better results. By Brisbane he was ranked seventeenth. He was talked about less than his peers, all of whom he had peaked ahead of. He’d had his time; now was theirs. Dimitrov’s first big challenge of 2017 was to reestablish a pecking order that had him somewhere, anywhere, in it. On the third day of Brisbane, he beat the player talked about now as he once was: the twenty-three-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, ranked eighth in the world and the fourth seed of the tournament. Then he turned Raonic over in the semifinal, winning the first-set tiebreak 9–7 and then running away with the second set 6–2. The next day, he beat Nishikori in three sets. The first champion of the 2017 season was Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria. He’s widely considered one of the nicest guys on the circuit. Blessed with balletic movement and easy power, Dimitrov is the prototype of the stylish player. He has a long, powerful forehand and sweeping one-handed backhand. The strong traces of a tennis era gone by that you see in Roger Federer’s game are the residue of the tennis he loved as a kid. And the strong traces of Roger Federer’s game in Grigor Dimitrov’s game are the residue of his love of Roger as a kid. As Grigor was breaking through the top ranks of the main circuit, the similarities between the two players were so unmistakable that thanks to them Dimitrov ended up carrying a burden no young player should have: he was given that blessed curse of a nickname, Baby Fed. His results in recent years were such that the nickname’s days were numbered. He was no longer a baby and he wasn’t any closer to winning Grand Slams. But if the end of 2016 was promising, beginning 2017 with a title was the chance to consolidate his potential from week one of the new year. Like Nishikori and Raonic, Dimitrov wasn’t among the youngest generation on the circuit. But his story was still there to be written with his racket if he was up for it.

Was he Baby Fed again? Or had he evolved? Was he in sync with his past, or had he broken free headlong toward the future? Whatever it was to be, Brisbane was now part of the answer.

Copyright © 2018 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips