Cathedral Center Court

Earlier today, Roger Federer came back from being down two sets to one to punch his ticket to a fourth consecutive French Open final. He’s never won it all on clay. On Sunday, he’ll be facing a Swede named Robin Soderling, a guy who before ejecting Federer’s nemesis Nadal from the tournament (in One of the Greatest Upsets Ever), nobody had ever heard of. Now Soderling is likely to be an obscure quiz-show answer in a category called Tennis Greats.

All of this is just an excuse, though, to revisit the wisest meaning-of-religion/pursuit-of-beauty/church-for-the-churchless essay of the 21st century: David Foster Wallace’s August, 2006, classic, “Federer as Religious Experience”. Read it now, footnotes and all. Then listen to DFW talk about tennis on NPR, and hear him say, “He’s beautiful,” and mean it.

A number of things have changed since publication of the essay in (short-lived) Play Magazine. For one, most significantly, DFW is dead. For another, Roger Federer found himself on the losing end of The Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. Federer no longer carries a mantle of invincibility. Now the gods, who dislike human perfection, have once again intervened in our sporting activities to dangle an idea of grace over our cribs.

No, DFW’s stab at beauty in sports does not and will not match The Greatest Sports Essay of All Time, Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. But watch Roger Federer this weekend and let us know if Foster Wallace missed something. After all, as he wrote, “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform…”

Matthew Fishbane writes about foreign affairs, culture and food. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review,, Outside, The Walrus, the Christian Science Monitor and others.