John Mcphee Levels of the Game

ISBN 13: 9780374185688

Levels of the Game

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9780374185688: Levels of the Game

This account of a tennis match played by Arthur Ashe against Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in 1968 begins with the ball rising into the air for the initial serve and ends with the final point. McPhee provides a brilliant, stroke-by-stroke description while examining the backgrounds and attitudes which have molded the players' games.

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About the Author:

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Levels of the Game
LEVELS OF THE GAME Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe's words, "make a parabola and drop to the grass three feet in front of the baseline." He has practiced tossing a tennis ball just so thousands of times. But he is going to hit this one. His feet draw together. His body straightens and tilts forward far beyond the point of balance. He is falling. The force of gravity and a muscular momentum from legs to arm compound as he whips his racquet up and over the ball. He weighs a hundred and fifty-five pounds; heis six feet tall, and right-handed. His build is barely full enough not to be describable as frail, but his co-ördination is so extraordinary that the ball comes off his racquet at furious speed. With a step forward that stops his fall, he moves to follow. On the other side of the net, the serve hits the grass and, taking off in a fast skid, is intercepted by the backhand of Clark Graebner. Graebner has a plan for this match. He does not intend to "hit out" much. Even if he sees the moon, he may decide not to shoot it. He will, in his words, "play the ball in the court and make Arthur play it, because Arthur blows his percentages by always trying a difficult or acute shot. Arthur sometimes tends to miss easy shots more often than he makes hard shots. The only way to get his confidence down is to get every shot into the court and let him make mistakes." Graebner, standing straight up, pulls his racquet across and then away from the ball as if he had touched something hot, and with this gesture he blocks back Ashe's serve. Ashe has crossed no man's land and is already astride the line between the service boxes, waiting to volley. Only an extraordinarily fast human being could make a move of that distance so quickly. Graebner's return is a good one. It comes low over the net and descends toward Ashe's backhand. Ashe will not be able to hit the ball with power from downthere. Having no choice, he hits it up, and weakly--but deep--to Graebner's backhand. Graebner is mindful of his strategy: Just hit the ball in the court, Clark. Just hit the ball in the court. But Graebner happens to be as powerful as anyone who plays tennis. He is six feet two inches tall; he weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds. The firmly structured muscles of his legs stand out in symmetrical perfection. His frame is large, but his reactions are instant and there is nothing sluggish about him. He is right-handed, and his right forearm is more than a foot in circumference. His game is built on power. His backswing is short, his strokes are compact; nonetheless, the result is explosive. There have to be exceptions to any general strategy. Surely this particular shot is a setup, a sitter, hanging there soft and helpless in the air. With a vicious backhand drive, Graebner tries to blow the ball crosscourt, past Ashe. But it goes into the net. Fifteen-love. Graebner is nervous. He looks down at his feet sombrely. This is Forest Hills, and this is one of the semifinal matches in the first United States Open Championships. Graebner and Ashe are both Americans. The other semifinalists are a Dutchman and an Australian. It has been thirteen years since an American won the men's-singles final at Forest Hills, and this match will determine whether Ashe or Graebneris to have a chance to be the first American since Tony Trabert to win it all. Ashe and Graebner are still amateurs, and it was imagined that in this tournament, playing against professionals, they wouldn't have much of a chance. But they are here, close to the finish, playing each other. For Graebner to look across a net and see Ashe--and the reverse--is not in itself unusual. They were both born in 1943, they have known each other since they were thirteen, and they have played tournaments and exhibitions and have practiced together in so many countries and seasons that details blur. They are members of the United States Davis Cup Team and, as such, travel together throughout the year, playing for the United States--and also entering general tournaments less as individuals than en bloc, with the team. A person's tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too. A tight, close match unmarred by error and representative of each player's game at its highest level will be primarily a psychological struggle, particularly when the players are so familiar with each other that there can be no technical surprises. There is nothing about Ashe's game that Graebner does notknow, and Ashe says that he knows Graebner's game "like a favorite tune." Ashe feels that Graebner plays the way he does because he is a middle-class white conservative. Graebner feels that Ashe plays the way he does because he is black. Ashe, at this moment, is nervous. He is famous for what journalists have called his "majestic cool," his "towering calm," his "icy elegance." But he is scared stiff, and other tennis players who know him well can see this, because it is literally true. His legs are stiff. Now, like a mechanical soldier, he walks into position to serve again. He lifts the ball, and hits it down the middle. Ashe's principal problem in tennis has been consistency. He has brilliance to squander, but steadiness has not been characteristic of him. He shows this, woodenly hitting three volleys into the net in this first game, letting Graebner almost break him, then shooting his way out of trouble with two serves hit so hard that Graebner cannot touch them. Ashe wins the first game. Graebner shrugs and tells himself, "He really snuck out of that one." Ashe and Graebner walk to the umpire's chair to towel off and wipe their glasses before exchanging ends of the court. Both wear untinted, black-rimmed, shatterproof glasses, and neither uses any kind of strap to hold them on. "They just stay on," Ashe willsay, shoving them with his forefinger back to the bridge of his nose. Graebner's glasses have extra-long temples that curl around his ears like ram's horns. The sun is really fierce. The temperature is in the eighties. Fourteen thousand people are in the stadium. Graebner is mumbling. One of Ashe's winning serves came as a result of confusion among the officials, who delayed the action while discussing some recondite point, and, because of the delay, awarded Ashe, in accordance with the rules of the game, an extra first serve. Ashe, who seldom says much to Graebner during visits to the umpire's chair, does use the occasion now to tell Graebner that he believes the officials' decision was fair and correct. Graebner glares but says nothing. Graebner's memory for lost points and adverse calls is nothing short of perfect, and months later he will still be talking about that extra serve that turned into an ace, for he can't help thinking what an advantage he might have had if he had been able to crack Ashe open in the very first game, as he almost did anyway. Ashe, for his part, believes that it is a law of sport that everything that happens affects everything that happens thereafter, and that Graebner can simply have no idea what patterns might have followed if he had won the debated point. Having so indicated, Ashe returns to the court. It is now Graebner's turn to serve. To the question Who has a bigger serve than Arthur Ashe?, the answer is Clark Graebner. The word most frequently used by tennis players describing Graebner's serve is "crunch": "He just tosses the ball up and crunches it." Graebner's big frame rocks backward over his right leg, then rocks forward over his left as he lifts the ball for his first serve of the match. Crunch. Ace. Right down the middle at a hundred and thirty miles an hour. Ashe is ten feet from the ball when it crosses the baseline. His racquet is only about halfway back when the ball hits the wall behind him. His face showing no expression, Ashe marches to the opposite side of the court and turns to receive the next serve. At any given moment of action, some thoughts that cross the mind of an athlete are quite conscious and others are just there, beneath the surface. Ashe will remember later on that at this particular moment in this match he is thinking, "Jesus, Graebner really hits the hell out of that first serve. He starts fast. He served nine aces in the first set against Stolle at Wimbledon, and it was over in no time." Graebner serves again--crunch, ace, right down the middle. Graebner is buoyant with sudden confidence. Ashe marches stiff-legged back across the court. The second game is Graebner's quickly. Games are one--all, first set. Ashe lifts the ball and leans in to serve. Graebnersways and crouches as he waits. It must have cost at least two hundred thousand dollars to produce this scene--to develop the two young men and to give them the equipment, the travel, and the experience necessary for a rise to this level. The expense has been shared by parents, sponsors, tournament committees, the Davis Cup Team, and the United States Lawn Tennis Association, and by resort hotels, sporting-goods companies, Coca-Cola, and other interested commercial supporters. The players themselves paid their way to Forest Hills for this match, though--twenty cents apiece, on the subway. Graebner lives in an apartment on East Eighty-sixth Street with his wife, Carole; their one-year-old daughter, Cameron; and their infant son, Clark. Graebner spends much of his time selling high-grade printing papers, as assistant to the president of the Hobson Miller division of Saxon Industries, and he is in love with his work. He knows the exact height and tensile strength of the corporate ladder. His boss likes tennis very much, so Graebner's present rung is the handle of a racquet. Ashe is an Army lieutenant, working in the office of the adjutant general at the United...

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