I'm honored to be interviewing Rowan Ricardo Phillips today. Rowan is a poet, author, screenwriter, translator, and journalist. He has won many prestigious literary prizes and written four books, When Blackness Rhythms with Blackness, The Ground, Heaven, which just won the Nicolás Guillén Outstanding Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association, and his most recent, The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey. He has written about sports for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. An English professor, he has taught at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Princeton, and Stony Brook. He graduated from Swarthmore College and received his PhD from Brown University. He currently lives in New York and Barcelona.
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I'm really excited to be here today Rowan Ricardo Phillips, who’s the author of The Circuit. We've already been chitchatting for a while. I feel like we could talk forever. Welcome, Rowan.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Hi, Zibby.
Zibby: Tell us what The Circuit is about and what give you the idea to write it.
Rowan: The Circuit is a book, just published last year -- so weird to say last year -- 2018, in November by my publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. It’s a book about tennis and life. It’s set to one year, the 2017 season from the start, January 1st, through the end, in end of November. It becomes a chronicle of a year in the life of tennis and the way in which that year marks a really incredible way that we saw two players that we thought were maybe done for come back more triumphant than ever, talking of course about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It’s not a book about Federer and Nadal. It’s a book about the year, the grind on the circuit. It focuses on the men’s tour though. It also mentioned the women's tour when the two intersect at places like Indian Wells -- which I know you like to go to, I do too -- and some of the majors. It’s a year in the life. 2017 was a unique year on the court and off. I've often found myself wondering whether life seeps into the world of tennis or whether tennis keeps it out. It seemed like a wonderful year to test that and explore it. Andre Agassi, who’s a player I've always loved, he has that wonderful autobiography Open.
Zibby: He was on the podcast.
Rowan: I know. Hi, Andre, if you're listening. He talked about how he was explaining to his trainer Gil about the circuit, the grind, the tour, and how to play was chasing the sun, such an elegant way to think about it. For me, it became a control among so many variables in tennis and in life. Who are you? Where are you? Where have I come from? What am I doing here? You see, in tennis players, a lot of that going through their head while you're watching them. That's part of what I love about it. They're really exposed. No helmets. No teammates to pass to. It’s really the kinetics of problem solving. You're watching it either live or on television. You don't know what's going to happen, but you feel involved and implicated. I think that's why people become such devout fans of players. That's what it’s about. It’s a book that lives and breathes tennis, but as way to understanding how we live and what it means to think about a year in life.
Zibby: You described it so beautifully in the beginning of your book when you were saying how 2017 came with it, a lot of geopolitical, national controversy and issues and all the rest. In the book, you were debating maybe this is an escape. Is watching tennis an escape from it all? You wrote, “The world feels slippery, dense, super charged with social and political change. And yet for a few hours, here was tennis, literally a light in the sleepy darkness of my apartment. It’s moments like this, these odd hours with the game on when it’s metronome and angles take the form of therapy. I listen to the world take a deep breath.” It’s so beautiful. You can tell this is a poet writing a book. It’s true. There are different ways people escape. Tennis gives such a great way to do that.
Rowan: It becomes a useful escape in two ways. One is for the individual. It’s January. I've been up way too early today because I've been watching the Australian Open. When you live on this side of the world, when the tennis year starts and the year starts, if you're catching matches live, it’s this kind of commitment. You know how so many people in January have these New Year’s resolutions? If you're an early bird, you look out your window and you see all these people running the first week of January. Then you see fewer the second week, fewer the third week. With tennis, it’s not a resolution. It’s just it’s that time to get up early and watch tennis rejuvenate itself again.
It’s also an escape in an unexpected way in that it builds community. You don't know who else is up until maybe you catch up with a friend. You're out at work. You're like, “How you doin’?” “I'm all right, but I've been up since four because Roger Federer was playing. I really wanted to see that match.” “Oh, you too?” There are ways in which these private joys that you have can become communal and bring us together. I also like to think of tennis as being an escape that rather paradoxically build bridges. It’s not an escape to shut yourself off. It’s rather an escape from the paint by numbers life that we live if we’re not careful. When you follow tennis, when you follow a player you love, you're in Melbourne one moment. Then you are in Miami the next moment. Then you're in Monte Carlo the next moment. It almost becomes like a caper or a chase. I like that.
Zibby: It’s really crazy how much travel is involved. Before I married Kyle, who was in the professional tennis world and is such an addict that we watch every tournament all the time --
Rowan: -- I already like that guy.
Zibby: [laughs] I like him too. I couldn't believe how much travel. These guys were just in this part of the world. Now, two days later they're in another tournament. It’s crazy what your body has to go through. After I go to LA, I'm like, “I'm jet lagged.”
Rowan: Just got back from Key West myself. I'm like, “Ugh.”
Zibby: Right? To have to travel that much and then perform at such a high level, it’s such a big ask of these players.
Rowan: That's part of the reason why I wanted to set the book to a year. I wanted to see the way in which characters appear and reappear. I started to think about players who, if you're not a top-thirty player, say, and you lose in the first round of a tournament, you're getting on a plane and finding the next tournament.
Zibby: And it’s hard to really make a living if you're not in the top.
Rowan: Absolutely. The grind is real. Spoiler alert -- the circuit begins in Brisbane. Everybody's warming up for the Australian Open. You see players showing up. They're fresh. The Australian Open’s great because you see players fresh. The new line of whatever brand they wear is fresh. We’re not tired of it yet. Then you when see them in September at the Australian Open, not so fresh. In that way, the book, it’s a tennis odyssey. The title is The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey. It’s really also kind of like an Iliad as well. There are a lot of people in it. There's a lot of injury. There's a lot of trial and tribulation. Some folks you see in the beginning don't make it to the end. Some folks who are down for the count in the beginning pick themselves up in the end.
It’s a grind. It’s a beautiful grind. I don't know how they do it and sustain it. I love to spend time with them in that way. It’s a game that I think is deceiving, Zibby, because it seems like it’s about swinging the racket, but it’s about your feet. It’s about your mind. The strokes, you get those hardwired into you by the time you're eleven or twelve. You make some tweaks going forward. You have to have your strokes by then. The rest is how you think and how your feet think. You love Roger Federer. Because I've spent most of my adult life watching him, I watch his feet now more than anything else. You should try to watch his feet.
Zibby: The thing about Federer is that what you were saying about no helmets and that you get to see the players, I feel like Roger Federer is so stoic. He's so good about not showing his emotion that I feel like I'm gypped sometimes. His tennis beautiful. It’s like watching art. I can talk about this for a bit. Someone like Juan Martin del Potro is so expressive. You see it. I connect more sometimes with players who are more like open books.
Rowan: Oh, that's right. You're more del Potro, not Federer.
Zibby: No, that’s okay. Kyle likes del Porto. You don't have to memorize all this stuff. [laughs]
Rowan: That's fascinating because you say Federer’s so stoic, but Federer’s biggest meltdown on a court was against del Potro, 2009 US Open final. Del Potro wants to challenge a call. He takes his time. Del Potro takes his time with most things. There's an amount of time you have before you can challenge. The chair ump allows it. Federer’s irate. It was during changeover, Federer started going off on the chair umpire. The chair umpire says to Federer, “I allowed it. You can calm down.” Federer went off on him. “Don't tell me what to do. I’ll talk whatever I want to talk.” I love that relationship between those two. I'm going to split the difference between the two of you. I like those two as a pair. I love Federer/del Potro matches so much.
Zibby: When you were saying Federer yelling at the umpire, I was thinking, “That sounds interesting. I wouldn’t mind going back and seeing that.” You have a whole thing about bad boys in the book like Nick Kyrgios. This wasn’t something I was thinking about ahead of time, but what do you think about tennis really sparks that bad boy instinct or makes people even just come out with it more than maybe in other sports? Or maybe not. I don't know.
Rowan: You are, in tennis, hypercontrolled until you're not. So many pros, their first coach was their folks. Many times, their coach still is their parents or their parents on are on the tour with them, obviously not all of them. You have a weird relationship with a coach if the coach is not your parent in that you pay them, but they're supposed to be bossing you. You know that since you carry the purse strings. There are very limited ways for tennis players to sort out their stresses. The enfant terrible comes out from that. You don't have venues to pop. One of the things that was so amazing about Open is how open Andre was about all of that. He was a guy who had all the accoutrements of a bad boy that he would get a discard. He would turn on Celine Dion or what have you. That’s actually who he was. A lot of tennis players, to survive, they build up a big, metaphorical callus. They're like an artichoke. It’s hard to peel back the layers. When you do, you find an idiosyncratic, complicated human being. I like that. What I don't like about the whole bad boy thing, often, and what I write about in the book regarding Nick, is that we've seen it. You know what I mean?
Zibby: Yup. Been there, done that.
Rowan: Every bad boy thinks they're inventing the wheel. “I don't like tennis. I'm going to do what I want to do.” Everybody has to go through their process. You have kids. I have kids. I trust the process. I find myself realizing as I get older that even if you've seen stuff before, sometimes people feel like they're discovering things. It’s important for them to have that discovery. Nick is somebody who seems like he's realized he needs some help off the court. He's starting to embrace that. He had a really bad result in this Australian Open already. Hopefully, now he's going to start to be a trust-the-process person. He's got the talent to win multiple majors. You got to go through seven matches. You're not always going to be playing Federer or Djokovic or Nadal to get that adrenaline running. Sometimes you're going to be playing the 270th player in the world. You got to want that too.
Zibby: Speaking of process, tell me a little more about how you wrote this book. When did you write it? Did you write it while you were watching the matches? Did you take notes all year and then go back? How did this book’s process differ, if at all, from how you wrote your other books?
Rowan: What a question. I didn't in January 1st say, “I'm going to write a book about the year in tennis.” I knew I was going to start writing. I was already writing some sports pieces for The Paris Review and The New Yorker. I'd basically write when it moved me. I tore my Achilles tendon in the summer of 2016. It left me bedridden and at home. I was watching a lot of tennis hopped up on a lot of oxycodone, which I stopped taking as soon as I could stop taking it, which you should do because it’s very potent. I was watching so much tennis. I had so many questions about what was next. What was next after we saw Federer take that basically pratfall in center court at Wimbledon? What was next for del Potro, who had disappeared with the injuries and surgeries on his wrist? What was next for Nadal? What was next for Serena? What the hell happened to Djokovic? Who was coming next? It didn't look like anyone was really ready. I had so many questions. I felt like 2016 was a cliff hanger.
I wanted to start writing. The Paris Review has always been really good for me and good to me. I've repaid them by giving them, I think, pieces that they're really proud of. I started by writing on the Australian Open. Before you knew it, we had a final of Venus and Serena and also Roger and Rafa. The day of the final between Federer and Nadal was also the day of the executive order and the airport protests and everything. I really started to think about how some people were up to watch this match because they thought, “Holy cow. It’s a grand slam final between Federer and Nadal. I don't know when this is going to happen again.” When that match was over, they went to the airports. They congregated. They protested and started thinking about the ways in which tennis is part of the world implicitly, explicitly, whatever way it might be.
I was writing essays. As I was writing on these matches, the pull of a story and of a book formed. Those essays grew into a larger project which became the book. I'm not a notetaker when I watch matches. Actually, I think I can answer both of your questions regarding the process and other books at the same time. I do a lot of my work in my head. I like the risk of forgetting things. Yes, I have a notebook. Yes, I'm an avid notetaker. I do that not in the white heat of ideas. I like to think that if an idea is good, if an idea’s memorable, you'll remember it. It’s even better if you don't remember syllable by syllable what you said at that time. It becomes rather this atmosphere or this move that you have to put back together. The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott in his address in Stockholm, he’d said something to the effect of, “Take a broken vase. Piece it back together. The love you'll find in those seams is greater than the beauty of an uncracked vase.” I like to think about that when I think about how I approach writing in general. I let what's important bubble up.
Rafa, once again in 2017, like in 2018, put everybody to the sword at the French Open. What's memorable to me about those tournaments then is not necessarily that. You can click on any type of match report and see that Nadal completely annihilated someone, just the [indiscernible] snap and they turned into dust. I love sometimes the great matches on court eighteen. I love sometimes when you're at a tournament and there's stuff going on on the main court or whatever. All of a sudden, there's this buzz and people start filling up this court. You're like, “Why’s everyone going to court fourteen? What's going on over there?” That's what it’s all about. I let my passions and my sense of things bring me through whatever matches seemed really alive and worth dipping in amber, worth remembering. That’s more than the match report or the final score or what have you. For instance, Nadal, in 2017 in that final, just destroyed Stan Wawrinka. I think Stan played a really good match. Stan played really well. There's sometimes only so much you can do.
Zibby: Your memory is insane. You can recall it.
Rowan: I think it’s a job requirement. That's what I also love about tennis though. If Kyle and I played and Kyle whooped me, I hope I would have a sense of how he whooped me. I could try something different. Maybe it wouldn't work. You can't just keep walking into the same wall again and again and again and again. That's part of what was also fun about the book. Sometimes you have, John and Larry played in Indian Wells in March. Now, here they are in Shanghai. What's different? Maybe that's also from not always just writing things down. I remember things. I'm compelled by things.
Hopefully when I write a book, what I remember and what I want to tell you as a reader, you also think, “You know what? I remember that. Yeah, that was awesome,” or “I didn't remember that. I'm really glad to be diving back into that.” That's the work of being human. You write these books, all these wonderful authors that you have on, on your wonderful podcast, it’s the work of being human and humane. Even with technology, whether it’s these wonderful rackets and strings that now have -- I was just in Key West. You'll see some septuagenarians who are just wailing on the ball, if they can get to it. They don't have the same coverage that they used it. If they catch it in the swing path, holy cow.
Zibby: My dad is such a good tennis player. He’s seventy plus. They can do whatever.
Rowan: I hope when I'm in my seventies I can play with Kyle or play with people I hit with now or play with my girls. They can play with each other. It’s a sport that's not a lot of damage to a lot of people. It’s a beautiful, bridge-building, expressive sport that at its best also absorbs the environment that it’s in. We were talking about that wonderful court in Monte Carlo. Tennis becomes part of the environment that it is. At any type of club you go to, the people who are there also become part of the lived history of the region. Tennis courts become beautiful nexuses for people like the morning people -- I love a morning hit -- the people who will hit in the middle of the day -- bless them, I don't know how they do it -- and then the night birds. You learn a lot about yourself through tennis. I've certainly learned a lot about myself.
Zibby: Absolutely, totally agree. The way you also describe all the different players, how the guys on the tour become just the characters in the story that you tell. You write about it in such a great way. Even when you're talking about Djokovic -- we were watching, and I'm like, “He looks so skinny, doesn't he?” Meanwhile, you write it beautifully. You're like, “Djokovic, for his part, was looking as gaunt as he ever had, not slender or slim, but approaching skeletal as though his body were defending on itself from bottom to top culminating in a sucked-out space on each side of his face where his cheeks used to be flush with life and two dark vacancies where his eyes should be.” That's a beautiful way to comment on his physique and then also to intrigue the reader. What was going on with Djokovic? We don't know, right? Do we?
Rowan: Must be the gluten.
Zibby: Must be the gluten. Exactly. [laughs] Even when you talk about Alexandr Dolgopolov, “His game is like the band you think no one has heard of, the one with too many or too few people in it, your guilty pleasure.” That was so great. This is my last one to quote from about Nadal.
Rowan: Please don't stop.
Zibby: “Still there was something singular about Nadal. A lesser physical specimen would look like a walking creamsicle in what he was wearing, but he had somehow managed to spend a lifetime making outfits no one should be able to look serious in seem full of intent.”
Rowan: Isn't it true, though?
Zibby: It is true.
Rowan: He's such a singular, awe-inspiring physical presence. He makes stuff look good. You shouldn't be able to wear that stuff. He rocks it like the champ he is. I've got a lot of admiration for that. Another one, they don't have the same body type, but Stan Wawrinka when he won the French Open, I don't know if you remember but he was wearing some checkered shorts that looked basically like golf pants that were cut off. Hey man, hats off to you if you can win the French Open wearing that.
Zibby: Your writing style, your background in poetry and everything, how is it different for you when you write prose versus poetry? Does it just seem so natural to you, it’s based on the material you're writing about?
Rowan: They're different faucets, different taps. I definitely don't have a moment where I go, “Now, I'm writing poetry. Now, I'm writing prose.” Both are about a relationship with time and space. When you write poetry, if you're writing it down, you have a page. If you're composing in your head, there's still space working out. You have a different sense of how you're occupying that space. “She sang beyond the genius of the sea. The water never formed to mind or voice like a body. Wholly body, fluttering its empty sleeves.” That's not me. That's Wallace Stevens. Poems can start from completely out of nowhere in a way that prose really can't. I try to be attentive to what my relationship to what I want to say is. Poetry’s how I understand the world even if I'm writing in prose. When I write in prose, I'm trying to establish a different type of relationship. I'm more interested in you knowing the who, what, where, how, why, and when of what we’re talking about. With poetry, it’s the conversation from the sensorium of all these things you can't name inside of you and this conversation you're having with the past like classical music and jazz, rock and roll even too. This conversation with the greats of the past as well, you're trying to wrestle them into your type of song.
I'm really fortunate I have an editor who's so good to me at FSG. Jonathan Galassi, he looked at the book and what I was doing. He was like, “This is great. Don't put any poetry in it because the poetry comes out of you anyway.” What you see in my writing style is if I don't think about poetry, the poetry leaks out. If I think about poetry when I'm writing prose, it’s going to be kind of like, “I wander lonely as a cloud.” Nobody's going to be very interested in that. It’s being aware of what my goals as a writer are at a given time.
I told this story in a recent interview. It’s not a story, don't worry. I’ll keep it short. Poetry and tennis mix in all types of unexpected ways. I was minding my own business once. My dad called me. He was like, “Turn on the TV. Turn on Wimbledon.” I was like, “Matches aren’t going on.” He was like, “Turn it on.” Jon Wertheim was reciting a tennis poem that he'd written about Wimbledon on the air. My folks have always been really supportive. I never had that moment where my folks were like, “You want to do what?” They were always supportive of me. It was also nice to see that I don't have to be the poet when it comes to these things. I didn't write this thinking I'm a poet writing this book.”
I thought of John McPhee and his great [indiscernible] with the game, and Jon Werthheim, who’s great strokes are genius, and Elizabeth Wilson’s love game that I love so much, and Steve Tignor’s great book on Borg and McEnroe, and Louisa Thomas’s great, great writing for The New Yorker. The book’s dedicated to her because she's as good as there is. She's carrying on the conversation. There’ve been so many wonderful tennis writers. I'm happy to be among them. Hopefully, I'm paying what they’ve given me forward. You do that line by line the best way that you can. This book was the best way that I can. I don't know if I have a Circuit Two in me.
Zibby: I was going to ask, what's comin’ next?
Rowan: Right now, I'm working on a screenplay, a biopic. It’s a lot of fun. I’m just finishing a new book of poems. I've got another new, fun project that's popping up. What I love about this book has been the response. It’s been really great and heartening. I like the fact that people want more. I really wanted to write about the WTA and ATP Tour together. Actually, I should've told you this at the beginning when you asked me about writing this book. At first, I was trying to do that. It’s what I wanted to do. It was a task that's greater than me. The two tours are such different species sadly, not just the rules, but the locations and everything like that. By the time the US Open is over, WTA’s basically in Asia the rest of the time. Something I come back to a lot, I grew up loving women's tennis. I was fortunate to have folks who really, really, really loved watching Martina and Chrissie.
Zibby: I had a girl crush on Chrissie Evert. She was my hero growing up.
Rowan: Even Althea Gibson when you go back. Even now, I've got a real soft spot for the women with the one-handers on the tour, Carla Suarez Navarro, Tatjana Maria, Margarita Gasparyan. I love the expressiveness of the women's game. I still maintain the Seles/Capriati semifinal in ’91 was maybe the most influential match of the past thirty-five years. It brought the future that we didn't know was coming to tennis. That of course was followed up by the Williams sisters and everything that came after. That match I still think of like The Game of Thrones of tennis matches, great match. To see those kids not just hitting the ball that hard, but being that competitive through three sets. It was great. Sadly, this is part of the complicated part of tennis. Capriati and Seles, when you think about what happened to both of them down the road, you didn't see any of that coming. It reminds you how life throws all types of topspin and underspin and sidespin at you. They're both now thriving in different ways as well, like Andre. I could not say enough about Andre Agassi. I love seeing tennis players who find things after tennis too. It’s heartening. It’s really heartening.
Zibby: I know we have to wrap up soon. For aspiring poets or prose writers or tennis reporters, anyone, do you have pieces of advice for them based on your experience?
Rowan: Based on my experience with poetry, I'd say read everything and live. I'm fortunate enough to travel, a lot to read and talk about my work. You get the expected question of “Who should I read? Who are your heroes?” and those types of things. I always say I have a nonhierarchical mind. Your heroes will let you down. They're supposed to. There are writers you don't think much of who might have a sentence or a poem or a short story that grabs you. That's what it’s also all about, the surprise of it. Read everything. Live intensely.
For people who are aspiring to be part of writing on tennis, there's so many other people with better advice out there to give. I do find there's a world out there in terms of writing on sports in general that you can maybe fit into, but it’s not best for you in the long game. I've been on the ground at a number of events with credentials. You see the grind that it is, the slog that it is. Match reports get written before the matches are over. Press boxes are crowded. People can barely see. People are hustling down to ask a question of a tennis player or whatever athlete [indiscernible] because the editor asked them to ask that question or they know that that's the only thing that's going to get filed so they need to take that angle. You can quite easily lose the quicksilver necessary idiosyncrasy of yourself. I don't know what to say to anybody regarding that other than that the long game in sports and in art, it’s not only the most important thing, it’s the only thing. The long game is the only game. I mentioned John McPhee earlier. John McPhee, if you look at his career and what he chose to do, he pops in and out when he wants to and how he wants to. In the end, what you leave is what you leave. I don't think that people are going to be reading match reports of a semi-final match or somebody's interview of a young tennis player who's trying to park her car thirty years from now. That doesn't necessarily need to be the goal of anyone. Everybody has their own objectives in writing.
Information now, technology, what I love about this podcast and what you're doing is it’s a labor of love. We’re coming together. We’re talking unfiltered from the heart. That's the way in which technology and sports can bring us, hopefully, to new plateaus. There's a way in which if you're not careful you can get perks that seem useful. “I get to see the matches. I get to expense my meals. Isn't this great?” Then seven years later, you're still doing the same thing. It’s a grind. I would say that. Believe in good sentences. Believe that your experience is a singular experience and that it matters. Understand that access at this point in game is not a charade, but it’s a type of dance where I don't know how much the reporter is needed. David Halberstam, another great hero of mine, he stuck around with the Portland Trail Blazers in the late seventies. He wrote a book about it. It was on the beat for the year. Athletes don't need us in that way anymore. They have Instagram. They have PR firms and everything like that. They don't need you. They know that. They put stipulations on you for access. Access is the carrot that's dangled in front of you. Then it becomes a lot about leveraged relationships. Fortunately, that's not the case for me. I feel very blessed in that sense. It’s easy to be swallowed up in the maelstrom of all of that.
Be an individual. Write well. Whatever gift you have, try to pay it forward. That's why I love what you're doing. This is about paying things forward. Zibby, the sweetest thing I've heard in response to this book is, “I read this book, and now I want to go play,” or “I read this book. I used to watch a lot of tennis, but now I'm going to watch a lot of tennis. That, for me, is what it’s all about. It’s paying it forward.
Zibby: Thank you so much. It’s been truly, truly a pleasure to chat with you. Thank you for coming.
Rowan: The pleasure’s been mine. Thank you.