I’ll say this: Pete Sampras can still serve.
I was in the Verizon Center last Friday, watching the HSBC Tennis Cup, a exhibition-slash-leg of a tennis seniors tour. The four players (Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier) have kept a lot of their shotmaking, but you can tell that the speed, the power, the endurance have all been slipping. It’s hard to admit, of people who were larger-than-life back then, but they looked . . . well, old at times.
(It was a little disquieting to be reminded that Michael Chang won the French Open 23 years ago. 23! To steal a line from a Friends episode, his French Open title is old enough to drink!)
What’s more terrifying is, of course: they’re not actually old. Chang is 39; Sampras is 40; Agassi and Courier 41. And yet, as top-level competitive athletes, they’ve been over the hill for almost a decade. In virtually every other endeavor, they would be just hitting their peaks. If they hadn’t made millions of dollars playing tennis, they’d be mid-career. (I wonder what your mid-life crisis looks like when you’ve already been a millionaire world-famous athlete.) But does any of us know when we hit our tipping point, if we already have, or will we just recognize it once we are far past appreciating it in the moment?
I’m glad they’re still playing; it was amazing to see their skills in action, even if they’ve lost a step. But entropy really does go just one way, doesn’t it?
I was thrilled to see Grantland republish David Foster Wallace’s epic profile of Roger Federer at Wimbledon. It’s probably my favorite piece of sportswriting, and among the best pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read. I recommend it without reservation, even if you don’t watch or play tennis; Wallace puts the kinetic sense of watching tennis onto the page in a way that seems impossible until you read it.
The springboard of the profile, and its most important observation, comes six paragraphs in:
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
Certainly true, but doesn’t this go even further? The aesthetically impressive creeps up whenever a practical endeavor is pushed to its limits. Think of Joseph Welch in the McCarthy hearings. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” It belongs in the heights of American political rhetoric, but it was said purely in service of a client.* What Welch did during that hearing is what thousands of lawyers do every day; defend a client against an overbearing opposition. That he did it so masterfully, and on such a public stage, elevates it from workmanship to higher aesthetics.
I think this is what we all hope for in our careers–the opportunity to briefly elevate our work to a higher level. Like Roger Federer and tennis, that elevation is not the goal of our work, per se, but we aim for those moments of transcendence. If you find a job that gives you those moments of transcendence on a more than occasional basis, grab like hell onto it and never let go.
* Okay, you got me, all political rhetoric is intended to achieve an end beyond the rhetoric itself. The Gettysburg Address was more than just an attempt to say something that sounded good. But for memorials, convention speeches, etc., the ceremony demands an attempt at beauty. It’s a prerequisite, something that is strived for intentionally, even if not strictly a goal.