SB Nation wishes to see the depths of imagination, making the cup of absurd sportswriting runneth over and flood the interwebs with speculative fiction. Okay then. The ball is in Inside NU’s court. 50/50 is the fiction/nonfiction split.
The ball is in Strong Kirchheimer’s court.
It is the morning of July 10th in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois. The Winnetka Challenger, has spun its web of lines and brimstone into the tennis fans not watching Manic Monday at Wimbledon and instead viewing the equivalent of a Triple-A tennis match. The ATP Challenger Tour, the minor leagues of tennis, travels to exotic locales like New Caledonia, Uzbekistan, and Medellín in search of funding for its tournaments featuring subpar tennis players (at least it outranks the Futures cricuit). Winnetka, Illinois is today’s exotic locale.
The NORTHWESTERN CONNECTION: The player, he stands there, on the far baseline from the camera and he is from Northwestern, he is a Wildcat, he is one of us. He is Strong Kirchheimer from Cary, North Carolina, and he is here thanks to a wild card from the event organizers. His ATP ranking sits at 961, as he has been busy playing his heart out for the Wildcats over his pro career. It’s a good tradeoff; instead of making no money in Futures and Challengers, he’s having a solid NCAA career and getting a degree.
I assume that’s the tradeoff he’s making. It’s the tradeoff that most NCAA tennis players make, to avoid the pro circuit from 18-22 in exchange for something. If you are not the best of the best, college is the way to go. Many foreign-born players who aren’t quite good enough yet come to the United States to play college tennis. For example, one of these graduates, South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, a former Fighting Illini, is currently playing a quarterfinal match against Sam Querrey on a shoddy grass court at Wimbledon.
But Kirchheimer has been called up to the big leagues this summer. Unlike 2016, in which Kirchheimer proved his talent by defeating Challenger regulars like Tennys Sandgren and Blake Mott, Strong has yet to win a match in 2017. Hopefully this will be his first.
The fans in the stands check their phones. One fan begins to read a description of the baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers. It will take him the entire day, as the game story has been reduced to a semi-fictional novella involving the trout fishing exploits of Cleveland’s Carlos Santana. Does Carlos Santana fish? Is he really the center of a complicated love triangle involving the woman (named Carla) who sells him live bait at the Bass Pro Shops and the woman (Joanna) who operates the cash register in Section 119 at Citi Field? The journalist said so. The journalist said so, said the journalist.
I first began noticing the shift in sportswriting around 1970 when Hunter S. Thompson penned “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, a longform piece about the Kentucky Derby that wasn’t actually about the Kentucky Derby. Sportswriting without actual sports, what a novel concept! It has begun to bleed into this world, this absurdity, this lack of tact. The literary types have seized the means of production, and there is no going back. It is a world of Bois, Phillips, EDSBS, and utter pointlessness.
I am no English major. I am a real Medill Man, sitting here in the McCormick
Tribune Foundation Center with my three (3) other Medill colleagues. We sit here, debating the finer points of copy-editing and source checking, while the world behind us burns. We also bitterly complain about every single facet of our existences. Despite our lack of accreditation and shattered facades (metaphorical, the building is still perfectly functional), the Medillionaires shall reign over this media landscape as the plow reigns over the farmlands of Indiana. We are the farmers. Give us the tools.
The beginning of a tennis match feels like the start of a long dinner. The first bites of the bread or the appetizers are hardly satisfying, but they stick with you. You remember them, at least until the main course comes out. The first game is critical. I am here doing a real game story, a real detailed gamer with flair and with panache and reality. There is another media member here, one of the absurdists, and his pen is moving furiously because unlike us Medill Men he refuses to use Twitter and keep up with the times. I love Twitter. A retweet from the 175 journalists still on the social network makes my heart sing.
Kirchheimer serves at 0-0 and the sparse crowd takes notice. His first serve is well out, but he spins the second serve in and his opponent, Luke Saville, misses badly on the return. Kirchheimer has just finished his senior year with Northwestern men’s tennis. He stands at 6-foot-1 and generates a surprising amount of power with his first serves. Unfortunately, his serving accuracy, on this day, is poor. In the match, he will miss 51 percent of his first serves and double fault five times. Kirch’s first double fault and a brilliant shot by Saville bring the game to 15-30. Kirchheimer loses another point and then loses the game.
Luke Saville, the favorite in this match, is the opposite of Kirchheimer in terms of pedigree. The Australian-born 23-year-old has won two Grand Slam Juniors titles. He was, and perhaps still is, a “top prospect”. But tennis remains especially cruel to its junior champions. Winning a Boys’ Title in a Grand Slam means nothing, absolutely nothing. So what if he beat Dominic Thiem and Lucas Pouille in his junior career. Those wins mean nothing, sadly. Saville has had a disappointing career thus far, with just two wins on the professional tour.
What if Luke Saville peaked at age 16 as a professional tennis player? What does that mean? Would you rather be Luke Saville, the talented junior with hype, or Strong Kirchheimer, who probably spent the summer of 2011 in North Carolina with his friends rather than winning a Wimbledon Juniors’ title? Kirchheimer was nothing then, but he’s a real person now, standing on the other baseline. In the end, they’re playing each other in an Illinois suburb with no one watching, and it looks just about even as Saville throws in a horrendous service game while up 1-0. He goes down 0-40 to Kirchheimer with two awful unforced errors and a failed passing shot. While Saville does manage to get back to deuce, he loses a game point and then gets broken by Kirchheimer. Kirchheimer starts making his serves and gets an easy hold. Changeover.
The SPORTSWRITER: I see him, the Other sportswriter from the House of Habitual Half-assery, that arrogant disciple of the Theatre of the Absurd. They call him Nielsen, if that is his name, and not an ironic jab at the superstructure of society, or whatever they teach at the small school of 2,000 people in upper New England that he probably attended. Nielsen, a name for some Swedish psycho, some villain from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I have not read this book) who pumps out absurdist content about the nature of reality...and tennis. The nerve of some people.
Saville’s first point of game 3 is atrocious as he blasts a forehand wide, and the rest of the game is a perfect example of mental fragility. He missed forehands, backhands, and easy volleys, while Kirchheimer fought hard and won another break. Well, won is an overstatement, as Saville handed the Wildcat a break with his second double fault of the game.
Suddenly, Kirchheimer is dominating, despite seemingly trying to miss his first services. He makes just 33 percent of his first serves in first set, and yet Saville is content to hand him the set anyway. With Kirchheimer’s decent groundstrokes and excellent movement, Saville’s slight lack of effort and poise becomes an avalanche of points for Kirchheimer. After another 10 minutes, the score is still 5-2 in favor of Kirchheimer. Saville serves at deuce and Kirchheimer hits a fantastic return into the corner to force an error. On the next point, Saville hits a simple forehand long and Kirchheimer breaks for the third time and wins the first set 6-2.
In the break between sets, I chat with Nielsen, the other sportswriter. He looks bothered by something—I think his cheap Bic pen is struggling to draw ink—but he responds to my queries with simple answers full of grief. He tells me he is writing something about this match being told by a pair of young, anthropomorphic, aliens that are zooming here from Venus to observe this Challenger. The socks only eat Swiss chard and various Middle Eastern fare, bagging their dates with too much stuff that has no use for the curiosity of the times.
I have no idea what Nielsen is talking about. I tie my shoelaces and adjust my socks to avoid having to make any more eye contact with him.
Kirchheimer serves first in the second set and holds easily. Saville, finally looking focused, responds with a few big serves and evens the second set at one-all. Then, in the third game, Kirchheimer starts to lose the plot. It’s not how I expected the break whatsoever; Saville reads Kirchheimer’s first serve with ease and crushes some returns. Kirchheimer continues to move well, but a lack of power and conviction on his groundstrokes allows Saville set up two break points at 15-40. The break point is just stunning stuff from the Australian. Kirchheimer hits a first serve, whips a cross-court forehand, and prepares for an extended rally to break Saville down. But Saville doesn’t play to script, hitting a ridiculously good backhand deep into Kirchheimer’s right corner that skips in for a winner.
“Irreality, reality, irreality, reality, MELVILLE!” Nielsen shouts. His head is lying upon the desk, his pen is on the floor and blowing in the wind. He is screaming into the table and stomping his foot imprudently. This is the future of American sportswriting, everyone. Prepare for a long article series involving fictional renditions of Derek Jeter’s personal diaries involving Alex Rodriguez as a literal centaur. Prepare yourself for long, rambling pieces on the nature of college football and its relationship to existentialist philosophy. Prepare for pseudo-intellectual bullshit given to you through the medium of sports. If the short, informative article is dead, and the shortform video is all that’s left, then it is merely the Cathedral of the Absurd that awaits us all. If the millennials won’t read real journalism, the least we can do is give them complete nonsense.
The Field of Dreams...it beckons to Nielsen, it beckons to all of us as every ESPN article shivers with allusions to books that most Americans will never read. The sportswriters shall only cater to those who read most.
After a first set that was all about returning, the second set becomes a serving exhibition. Saville starts the fourth game with an ace and holds easily. Kirchheimer struggles through his next service game, but relies on an improved first serve percentage to survive. Both guys can really whip some serves in, although to be fair they probably wouldn’t play at the ATP level just yet. Saville, resplendent after breaking Kirchheimer, cuts out all the errors and continues to dismiss Kirchheimer’s returns.
With Saville serving for the set at 5-4, he quickly builds a 30-15 lead in the game. Then, some nonsense occurs. Kirchheimer gets a great return and plays a solid series of groundstrokes, but one of the ballgirls drops a ball and forces a let call. The point is replayed. Kirchheimer proceeds to shank a backhand off of Saville’s serve. Of course. Saville crushes an unreturnable serve to win the second set.
The DEUCE GAME: Kirchheimer and Saville exchange holds to begin the third. Both players are now fully in rhythm, after a scratchy first set from Saville and an underwhelming set from Kirchheimer in the second. Of course, the weather gods decide to end that rhythm, as it begins to rain heavily.
Nielsen, the lunatic, is not bothered at all by the rain delay. He wanders around the deserted bleachers, whispering to himself, asking the heavens for answers. The answers will not come for Nielsen. The answers don’t come for any of us, really, but that doesn’t give us the right to waste people’s time with dumb articles.
Nielsen is 5-foot-9 with average word choice and solid sentence structure. If he hadn’t been polluted by the virus of nonsensical sportswriting, he’d make a fine beat writer. He is now back in the main building where we are waiting out the rainstorm, making hot sports takes.
“I’m telling you, Karl Malone was the best basketball player of his era...metaphorically. His struggle was relevant to our lives in a way that Michael Jordan could never reach.”
“But Nielsen, Michael Jordan was better.”
“I don’t understand your point. My definition of “most valuable” is whomever has the greatest affect on the intellectual continuum. Malone’s abilities were far better in context.”
“Whatever, my 3,000 word post-post-postmodern story about this match between Strong Kirchheimer and Luke Saville is coming along very, very well. It’s almost as good as Animal Collective’s first two albums, but definitely better than the early poetry of W.H. Auden. What’s your opinion on W.H. Auden, Tristan?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, Nielsen. What is your first name, anyway?”
Before he could answer the question, they announced that play was resuming. Eager to get away, I rushed out of the building before Nielsen could answer the question.
Kirchheimer had dug himself into a love-30 hold before the rain came, and I worried he could give away a break. After another five-minute warmup, Kirchheimer hits a blistering forehand and forces an error from Saville, but the Australian turns the screws on the next point and suddenly Kirchheimer is facing two break points. Saville gets a second serve from Kirchheimer, but he misses the return completely. Another excellent serve brings the game to deuce.
“Deuce, what a concept!” Nielsen remarks. “There’s something to the duality of deuce that speaks to the human condition. If you save two break points and make it to deuce, it is a haven from the troubles of the world, the last safe place in a tennis game where you can fight back. If you lose back-to-back points and fall to deuce, it is a tremendous burden, a stony necklace of disappointment and pressure that can only be alleviated by focus. To me, the world is split between experiences related to deuce games. A job is lost: you have blown a 40-0 lead. The woman you’ve wanted to ask out for three months accepts your invitation to an Italian restaurant, preferably Campagnola, and you have come back from 15-40. Deuce is the essence of life, it is the balanced, razor-thin edge of the present that cannot hold forever, but will always remain as a refuge.”
While Nielsen has gone on this rant, Kirchheimer has escaped the game two excellent points. The first point illustrates Kirchheimer’s strengths. His serve is lasered into the corner, and he deals with the return with a highly technical slice backhand that forces Saville into a corner. The return shot sets up an easy overhead. Kirchheimer backs up the point with an excellent serve down the T that forces another Saville error. Game on.
After the changeover and a few more minutes of tennis, Saville find himself at deuce. The Australian finds a way to hold despite loads of pressure from Kirchheimer. However, it is clear that Saville’s experience and high-quality shots are starting to take their toll on the Northwestern player. Both players exchange quick holds to 3-3, but Kirchheimer struggles through another service game, needing two deuces to make it out of the seventh game. But he’s still up 4-3, only for Saville to hold to love and put Kirchheimer right back on the defensive.
Thankfully, Strong keeps up his end of the bargain. Suddenly, it’s 5-4, and Saville has to hold to stay in the match. Up to this point, both players have very similar stats.
What that doesn’t show you is that bother players are struggling to get over 50 percent on first serves. It’s not great tennis, but it’s effective. Saville goes up 30-15. Kirchheimer hammers the return back at Saville, but the Australian barely keeps the point alive. He does this repeatedly as Kirchheimer continues to smash the ball into different areas to force an error. It doesn’t happen, but Kirchheimer gets a slow, near-moonball that bounces right in his hitting zone. If he makes it, it’s 30-all and he has a chance to set up match point. Kirchheimer hits the ball with all his might...and it goes a foot long. Saville holds with yet another body serve that Kirchheimer cannot return.
Before the next game, Kirchheimer stretches out his leg. He looks tired. He first serve lands five feet past the service line, but the second serve is dumped straight into the net by Saville. But Luke gets another chance at a second serve, and this time he hits an excellent backhand before sweeping into the net, catching Kirchheimer off guard. Then, on another second serve, Saville misses wildly, leaving Kirchheimer ready to take the game to a tiebreak, and possibly his first pro win of 2017.
But then, things go completely awry. Kirchheimer misses another first serve and Saville actually does reach for a solid return this time. Using his superior movement, Kirchheimer rushes to the net and prepares to hit one of his usual forehands. However, his legs are tired, he hits the ball tentatively, and Saville curls a backhand into the open court. 30-30. Strong desperately needs a first serve, and he gets one. Saville, who has played awful defensive tennis for the entire match, becomes David Goffin for one point and suddenly can’t miss.
He’s barely getting the balls back though. Kirchheimer is trying to hit through Saville, but at 5-5 in the third, the slight dropoff in power allows Saville to block the shots back. A topspin forehand into the corner falls back into play. Kirchheimer goes cross-court next, but Saville blocks it back. It’s a pop-up that leaves Kirchheimer plenty of time to hit the ball, but he chooses to fire a forehand right back at the left corner where he hit the topspin forehand. Saville is waiting, and he blocks it back. Perfect hitting position, forehand, now Kirch goes to the right and fires one down the line, but he’s made another bad decision as Saville is still there. The ball is blocked back yet again, and it hangs in the air. Will it go out? It must go out, right? But this is Northwestern sports. It bounces on the line, Kirchheimer is forced to hit a weak cross-court forehand that Saville pounces on with a huge backhand. This time, Kirchheimer is able to make an impressive play and get the ball back, but Saville awkwardly rushes to the net to hit a forehand volley to bring up break point.
“TOWEL, TOWEL!” Saville screams.
Kirchheimer’s movement, groundstrokes, and serve are all impressive, but the mental fortitude might not be there just yet. Facing break point, he barely misses a huge first serve. But the second serve is way too conservative—it’s almost a practice ball for Saville, who hits an easy backhand return deep into the court. That shot sets up a blistering forehand that bounces off the line. Kirchheimer has less than a second to locate the ball, realize that Saville has come into the net in order to seal off any options, and hit a forehand. Kirchheimer’s effort is ultimately respectable, but it give Saville another easy forehand volley. It’s essentially a match point, and everyone knows it. Kirchheimer puts a strong fight in the next game and gets it to deuce, but Saville hits a forehand winner to put the match to bed. 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Of course, this shapes up to be another stereotypical Northwestern sporting event. In the traditional narrative, Northwestern plays well, even looks like the better squad at times, but chokes away any chance at a huge win at the end.
“They were never good enough,” some might say.
But Kirchheimer was good enough to win this match. He got unlucky, he got tentative, and he did what literally every tennis player has done at some point in their lives—not performed in the clutch. It’s fine. He’s just finished college. He’ll be at the Cary Challenger later this summer.
Nielsen breathes heavily after the match ends. He slowly gets up from his chair and wanders off. As I walk past to head to the bathroom, I spy the rough draft for his article on this match. It’s blank. He hasn’t written anything in his blue, college ruled notebook that he’s carried around this entire time. In fact, his desk is completely empty.
I look up at the sign on the back of the tennis court.
“Nielsen Pro Tennis Championships,” the sign reads.
I suddenly realize that the article in my Chorus tab has over 3,500 words and that it scarcely resembles a real sports story. I feel a hot wind blow across the court, Kirchheimer and Saville are walking off, but I am not there, I am surely not present, I am at home and the windows are open and it’s 92 degrees. Nielsen is somewhere, he is surely somewhere, but it is too late.
Of course it is too late, it is break point, the breaking point for the sportswriting world as I realize that it’s not me, the Medill Man—it is the alternative version of me that now writes in this chair, the blue notebook is mine, Nielsen is everywhere, everything is Nielsen.
I hear a shout behind me.
Oh god, what does that mean? Has the experience become human, only to retreat, leaving me in babble? Who am I? Where am I? What’s the score? I check my phone, I scroll through the articles on SB Nation...
Jacques Derrida and Jack Sock, a comparison
Why baseball should spread its games out to 14 days, just to show up cricket
Kevin Durant, and the dragons that haunt all caverns within the existence of mankind
So I’m Nielsen.
But what’s the score?