Roger Federer and 20-year-old American Francis Tiafoe
Photo: Will Ruseell (Getty Images)

In the bleak winter days of mid-January 2017, Rowan Ricardo Phillips rose before dawn. The Australian Open was underway, and he was hellbent on watching every televised ATP men’s match over the course of the year. Phillips’s obsession with the game turned into total spectator immersion, starting Down Under in January and ending in late November in London, seeing a few live contests stateside along the way. Phillips chronicles his year of uber-immersion, and the experience of being one of a tiny handful of black tennis writers, in his new book The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.

An award-winning poet and a sportswriter for The Paris Review, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, Phillips yearned to find meaning in tennis, to find joy in the most banal matches, to find camaraderie in his lonely pursuit. The son of Antiguan immigrants, Phillips grew up in a tennis-loving North Bronx household, attending the U.S. Open every year around his mom’s birthday. He’s never played the game for anything more than fun, but he treats his role as a fan and a writer as serious business. Due to overlapping WTA and ATP tournament schedules, not too mention the basic human limitations in watching everything, Rowan focused on the men’s game. He watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal claw their way back to the top when it seemed age and injuries might have finally taken a permanent toll.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

As the 2019 tennis season gets underway, black women are dominating the sport like never before, but the upper levels of men’s game, for the most part, remain as blandly vanilla as ever. In a wide-ranging chat with Phillips, he dove into the demographic discrepancies between the men’s and women’s games, the importance of representation, the joy he felt watching American Frances Tiafoe go toe-to-toe with Federer in the 2017 U.S. Open, the parallel pain he felt for Serena and Osaka in 2018, and much more.

Phillips’s intellectual dexterity means conversing with him can feel like a 30-shot rally of references. His mind ping-pongs from Homer to Isner, from Mark Twain to Mark Philippoussis, from Andre Agassi to the Qatar Open, from Serena Williams to her brother Aaron. The Circuit offers the same loose-limbed high-wire act, a labor of tennis love just in time for the 2019 Aussie, which kicks off today.

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You don’t hit it too hard, but there is a sense of foreboding in The Circuit ... it felt like tennis wasn’t just an escape for you, but a bulwark against what was possibly coming.

Tennis is the only sport where the season follows the sun and touches all four seasons. I wanted to dig into pressure points from the beginning of the year through the end of the year, especially as it began in 2017, with a new administration in the White House. I got up at 4:00 a.m. to watch the incredible Federer-Nadal final at the Australian Open. That match took place on the same day as the massive airport resistance movements against the travel ban. We haven’t been able to come up for air since, it’s like living in an action movie where there are no pauses, it’s all beats of carnage. It was a morning of ‘This match is so cathartic, never thought we’d see it again!’ to an afternoon of ‘Let’s go protest!’ The Women’s March was going on while this grand sun-spilled tournament was taking place on the other side of the planet.

I’ve always been fascinated by how much of the world seeps into tennis. I think, in part, because I didn’t grow up playing in clubs. As a child, I played on city courts, where the world was always going on around me.

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Do you remember what drew you to the game growing up?

Family. I inherited the game from my dad, a truck driver for the Teamsters. Carribeans love racket sports. My dad played a lot, so I started out going to his matches and serving as a terrible ballboy. The only thing we watched as a family on television was tennis, Breakfast at Wimbledon was big in my house. I had forgotten about those days, but I am fond of them. I never would’ve written the book without it. Here’s a good example: My dad rarely calls with breaking news, but one day he rang me up and said, ‘Turn on the TV, there’s a tennis poem being read on the air.’ It was Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated encapsulating his time at one of the big tournaments. Dad wanted to make sure I saw my personal Venn Diagram becoming one circle.

What was like playing tennis in ’80s and ’90s, back when New York City was considerably different than today?

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I never played competitive tennis as a kid, so I don’t remember if the courts were in good shape or not. It was like playing hoops on a bent rim—as long as there was something approximating a net, I was good. Sometimes it was an actual fence. I never played tennis indoors until much later, it was all outdoor hardcourts, but I never really considered the conditions. It’s like with my writing, I’ve never been an I need a room with a view type. You feel a white heat about a story, so you get it down. I wanted to play tennis, so I did.

I learned how to handle myself through tennis. To me, the sport is a great metaphor for opportunity. Not just every game, not just every point, but every ball gives you the chance to re-set and get your footing. I don’t want to sound to poet-y, but I do believe in the power of the re-set, even within a conversation, and of repetitions building toward something. It’s a stylistic homage I use in The Circuit, incremental beats and refrains adding up to a whole, which is also how we retain information now, for better or worse. Even with Serena Williams and the U.S. Open travesty, you can see someone carrying with her all of the increments that led her to that moment.

I was going to get to it later, but since you brought it up…

I didn’t write about it at the time because it was gnawed upon by so many writers in so many ways. I wanted to consider the spectacle. So unnecessary, it makes me sad. Sure, what Patrick Mouratoglou did was coaching—although telling Serena to go to the net isn’t exactly cloak-and-dagger stuff—but it felt to me like the conversation was between a man under little distress and a woman under great distress who felt singled out, for something she didn’t feel she did, in a high-pressure situation. To pretend that race and gender isn’t building in that moment is disingenuous. The penalty was solely to silence Serena and get on with the match.

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Let me put it succinctly: If an umpire is going to be lauded on a strict, mechanical following of the rules, then we should automate the chair ump. Machines can say ‘Ready, play,’ call the lines, and assess violations for audible cursing. Umpires don’t have to tolerate being berated, even if it’s Federer, but if they feel their job is not to exercise any humane judiciousness, bring in the robots.

Did you feel Naomi Osaka got lost in the shuffle?

Absolutely. Another thing that bugged me about the episode was we were watching black, woman, and black woman excellence. In 2001, Federer beat Sampras at Wimbledon—he didn’t win, losing to Tim Henman in the quarters—but it was a signal of what’s coming. It was happening before our eyes. Naomi Osaka took the moment to let her tennis speak for her. Instead of letting a natural ascension/secession of the younger-older player, we have an intervention by some guy. Tennis is a river of stories. This was a good one with two wonderful black female players at the center. It’s a shame.

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I took my daughter to the U.S. Open on one of those brutally hot days and when we got there, the only match that had started featured the #1-ranked U.S. Junior girl—

Coco Gauff?

Yes. Damn, you really go deep.

I try to catch as many matches as I can. I watch a lot of tennis. Part of the reason I wanted to write The Circuit is because I was watching the matches anyway. Gauff is amazing, hitting 120-mph serves at 14.

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Black women are dominating the world tennis circuit. There’s never been anything like it and, for my money, they aren’t being recognized enough…

I agree. I don’t think the tennis commentariat knows what to make of it. Case in point, the 2016 U.S. Open match when Osaka coughed up a generous lead to Maddie Keys. I remember the commentary treating Osaka like an unknown when she had been playing in Queens and then Florida for years. It’s profound what these players can mean to people watching in an ethnographic, emotional, sociological way. It’s not how everyone consumes sports, but it matters for those who do. This is a long way of saying: Yes, The domination by female African-American players should be celebrated more.

Another problem is the pre-vetted narrative. Players are presented as what they’re expected to be than what they are. For the past couple of years, Sascha Zverev has been labeled the next great #1 overall player in the men’s game. He’s very good, ranked #4, but he hasn’t shown the same abilities to finish five-setters as three-setters. His backhand is from another planet, but his forehand doesn’t control points like, say, Nick Kyrgios. We’re spoon-fed individual players as being “next.” I worry about that with Goff actually.

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The pre-sold narrative leads to the annoying thing of announcers continually referring to the Maria Sharapova/Serena Williams “rivalry.” It’s 19-3 overall and it was 14 years between Sharapova victories…

Nails have long been the rival of hammers.

You touch on race sparingly in The Circuit, but there’s a great line about the fantastic five-set Francis Tiafoe/Roger Federer U.S. Open match. In describing the speed of the upstart, you say Tiafoe is “A black kid in black being a black blur on Arthur Ashe’s court.” So converse to the women, why have there been so few black men’s American players that have come down the pike? And does it bother you as a fan?

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I was at the Open that night, Tiafoe got the crowd on his side, which is hard to when Federer is on the other side. Tiafoe was expressive and so was his tennis. The moment didn’t get to him. It was beautiful to witness. I would point out that currently, along with Tiafoe, there’s Michael Mmoh and Chris Eubanks, who just left Georgia Tech and went pro. But yes, I can scatter a few names, but there’s no groundswell of players.

America was built on representation. It matters. I remember watching Malivai Washington. You’re heartened seeing players who remind you of yourself. Even if it’s physically, or geographically. Tennis is a numbers game, so very few individuals ever break through. Then there’s the question of resources. I pause to talk about it too much because it presumes black kids don’t have resources, which is a banana peel to avoid.

I would like to write about tennis in the Caribbean. There are a number of great challenger tournaments in places like Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and the Dominican Republic. Along with more African-American players, it would be great to see someone from, say, Trinidad breakout. Look what Monica Puig did for Puerto Rico in winning Olympic gold in 2016. Look at what Ivan Lendl did for Eastern European tennis.

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Nadal ended 2016 ranked #9, Federer was #16, with Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the top two spots. At the outset of The Circuit, there really was a sense that maybe we were watching the two great champions in their twilight. What a difference a year makes, huh?

Writing The Circuit allowed me to take time and think about what the year meant for Roger and Rafa. Going into Australia, they were off the map. As fans, we were preparing to say goodbye and move on. I didn’t want to forget. It’s easy now to say “They’re back!,” but that wasn’t the sense at the time. Federer was seeded 17th. And a generation of kids had grown up with Nadal’s terrifying topspin; I was worried one of his main weapons would be muted, which would be too bad because I love lefties who play lefty. I call the book A Tennis Odyssey, but it’s really The Iliad. You have two great former champions, pride wounded, apart from the battle, and all of these other emerging characters. It doesn’t just follow Hector and Achilles, that would be boring, but it is a long campaign. Here we have these two big hitters putting everyone in their place and finishing out the year ranked #1 and #2 for the first time since 2010. The incredible final they played in Australia put pressure on my sensorium, I knew this story was going to have legs. It was blossoming. I liked writing as things were happening without knowing where it would go.

I love the subtle changes each man made to their game to get back on top. Nadal is now serving with menace; Federer is playing quicker, attacking the net, getting off the court with shorter points to sustain himself. Rafa is underrated as a volleyer, his net game is phenomenal and he’s using it more and more to keep opponents off-balance. Meanwhile, Federer has been grinding out points from the baseline, even using his rival’s patented whiplash follow through.

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You see some Federer in an older Nadal, and Nadal in an older Federer. I like that, it’s the fruit of all their shared match history.

You’re involved in the screenplay for Clemente, Ezra Edelman’s follow-up to OJ: Made in America. How are you enjoying the writing process, and after that could you write the first great original tennis movie?

What’s the saying, “the smaller the ball, the better the writing?” Considering how many movies have been made about, say, boxing, it feels like tennis is ripe for the big screen. I actually think The Circuit and its year-long framework could work really well. There’s been a few. I liked Battle of the Sexes and I thought Andy Samberg’s 7 Days in Hell was amazing.

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Clemente is my first screenplay, but I’m a big movie guy and I grew up devouring scripts. I’m weird like that. I’ve found it edifying because the pressures are different than in poetry. Goals, objectives, etiologies, something that is fundamentally Aristotelian with a beginning, middle, and end. I find thinking about three acts fun, because it’s unlike writing a poem or an essay. That being said, I think poetry and screenwriting have a lot in common. It’s using compacted language to elicit a clear sense of place, character, and emotion.

I didn’t know Ezra; he basically got in touch with me, said he liked my writing, handed me a copy of the David Maraniss biography, and asked if I was interested. It’s a great honor and responsibility. I was born in the jetstream of Clemente’s emergence as an icon and a symbol, especially growing up in the Bronx surrounded by Latin American communities. In school, we sang “La Borinqueña” and celebrated Puerto Rican Heritage month every November. I’ve always held a great affinity for him. I’m incredibly amped.

What did you think of the 2018 tennis year and what do you hope to see in 2019?

The big story was the return to form of Novak Djokovic. I didn’t realize how much I missed him. In the spring, following Federer’s Australian win and Rafa at the French, it felt like nobody was ready to step up and challenge them. Djokovic’s perseverance made the season. The problems he creates for both Federer and Nadal means looking at the draw and knowing either one of them will have their hands full.

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It was great to see Stefanos Tsitsipas make a name for himself because I love one-handers. In 2019, I’d like to see a few guys from the generation that have been playing the Big Three over the years—Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, David Goffin, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—make a stand in the Masters 1000s and the Grand Slams. The generation under them are on their way up, and these great players are getting lost in the thrill of the kids and the enduring grandeur of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.

Correction: This article originally stated that Phillips’s parents are Jamaican. They are from Antigua.