Winning Is Not Uncomplicated

From Public Books:

Louisa Thomas is a singular sportswriter. In her wide-ranging coverage of tennis, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and more, statistics and scores are incidental. Instead, Thomas shows that the real sports stories are to be found elsewhere: in the intense psychological battles and interpersonal drama of tennis, the sociopolitical implications of underfunding women’s sports, the aesthetic pleasures of watching basketball players move through air, and the general joy of being triumphant.

Thomas never seems to take for granted that sports are intrinsically valuable, or even worthy of our attention. Somewhat paradoxically, it is this conscientious skepticism, evident in all her writing, that reveals how much there is to gain from immersing yourself in sports, whether as player or spectator. In a piece about how Simone Biles is the greatest athlete of all time, Thomas wrote, “There are certain irresolvable tensions within the ideals of sportsmanship: winning is the ultimate goal, but it isn’t everything; it’s all fun and games, but you better take your job seriously; be proud, but don’t show it. These unwritten rules have always been less kind to women than to men, who are typically given some leeway when it comes to embracing their greatness and making their names.”

To read Thomas is to join her on a quest to understand these irresolvable tensions and unwritten rules. She finds what remains ambiguous and complex and invites us to consider existential questions. Why do we watch sports? Why do we care so much about them? Should we? What, ultimately, are sports for? Her searching, elegant writing intimates that sports are not only important and beautiful, but also, more boldly, that they may be important because they are beautiful.

. . . .

Tara Menon (TM): Something that you do better than anybody, not just as a sportswriter but as a writer in general, is capture bodies in motion. The way you write about how Kim Clijsters moves on a tennis court is exemplary:

[She] would sprint for a ball in the corner, extend her leading leg as she began her backswing, and then slide. Her trailing leg would extend in the other direction, bringing her into a deep, sliding split. As she swept her right arm forward to make contact with the ball, her racquet following a simple, efficient path, her left hand would drop for balance. And then, after the shot, she would recover like a cat, using her tremendous strength and flexibility to pull her feet beneath her and accelerate toward the center of the court in one quick motion.

Another one that stands out for me is your description of Jamal Murray’s shot in game four of the NBA Western Conference finals in 2020: “As Murray went up to the rim, [LeBron] James leapt, right arm extended, a rising wall. And, midair, Murray shifted the ball to his left and then swung it under and behind James, finishing the layup with his right hand as he fell. It was a carbon copy of one of Michael Jordan’s most iconic shots—and it seemed to catch James’s attention.” Reading those sentences, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion replay with stellar commentary.

Louisa Thomas (LT): I appreciate your saying that, because I actually think that while there are certain things I do well, I don’t think that’s one of them. Partly because I’m not actually that good at describing things. If you tell me to describe the walls in here, I’d struggle to come up with something besides “pale green.” Those are sections that I spend a silly amount of time on. One reason why I think they might be effective is that I try not to overdo them. Sometimes a single sentence of action can sustain a whole piece.

TM: I know you were an English major as an undergraduate. How has that background influenced your writing?

LT: Oh, I certainly learned from poetry.

TM: Any particular poets?

LT: Wallace Stevens is a pretty good touchstone, partly because he taught me about pacing and the power of stripping away, as well as building up. He is very good at putting pressure on individual images. Think of some of his most famous poems: “Anecdote of the Jar,” or “The Snow Man,” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” He’s able to distill an object or an idea into something essential without exhausting it. Every word, every beat, matters. I’m not, generally speaking, a maximalist when I write. I want my words to count, and I care a lot about the way things sound. I think I care much more about rhythm than your average writer, and I got that from poetry.

I’m almost more of an auditory writer than a visual writer. I often write in my head when I’m running, or when I’m walking, before I put something on the page. I’m speaking to myself in my head, and so my words are in my ear. Maybe I learned that from Stevens, too: he famously composed his poems while walking to work.

TM: You talking about putting pressure on a single image lets me naturally segue into my favorite moments in your pieces, which is when you compare athletes to animals—whether that’s Nikola Jokic as “more giant squid than great white shark,” or Kevin Durant as a “fawn.”

LT: That’s my favorite thing to do. You want to give the reader permission to have fun—and give yourself permission to have fun. It’s harder if you’re writing about a dark topic, like domestic violence, for example. But if you’re writing about Jokic and Durant, you want to have fun. Durant has these long, spindly legs and a blank gaze: hence, a fawn. And the introduction of animals is a signal that we’re going to get a little ridiculous, because sports are ridiculous, too. One of the things I like about sports is that they have an element of the absurd. This is a way of engaging in that aspect.

TM: I now feel unable to look at Kevin Durant as anything except a fawn. You also have other, nonanimal mini descriptions of people: Zion Williamson as “a linebacker crossed with Baryshnikov,” or Daniil Medvedev as “a character from Dostoevsky.”

My absolute favorite is tennis star Andy Murray as “a walking existential crisis.” [Laughter] When I read that, I thought, that’s exactly the feeling Murray evokes every time I see him. And you captured it in a single phrase. That line also captures what I find so compelling about tennis, which is that it seems so psychological. Does that appeal to you as a tennis writer?

LT: Yes, but it can also be a danger for me. I can be too ready to read facial expressions, and other sports are less impacted by psychology than tennis. In tennis, there’s such a mind-body connection. You can actually see when someone tightens. Their feet are not moving in the same way, or their racket is dropping on their serve because they’re literally tight. You also can see it on their face, and that I find really, really compelling. Regardless of the sport, I’m always only writing about humans.

Link to the rest at Public Books

1 thought on “Winning Is Not Uncomplicated”

  1. “Writing’s poetry…”
    Boom.
    Reading Dickey’s actual novel of Delvierance for me was a masterclass of poetic prose. I read it only once, and yet almost a half century later the pages sang to me. (I only learned he was a poet first recently)

    For me as a genre fiction writer, the ‘boom boom boom’ of plot/character/story arc interplay makes me the bucks. But every once in a while I so enjoy diving into a scene thinking of Dickey as I…try, try to craft something deeper than a sugar rush of the brain. And those paragraphs or pages are pretty damn rewarding to work on. Schedule be damned.

    I wonder who else is out there that are as good as Dickey.
    Great piece.

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