Full disclosure: I have a tennis bias. I played as a young boy, keep close tabs on the professional circuit, and have had the good fortune of covering the sport for The Atlantic and other outlets. Right above the home-office desk from where I’m writing now hangs a picture of a grimacing Jimmy Connors lunging for a ball at the net, keeping me honest. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I could snooker a book publisher into paying me to binge-watch tennis for a year, something that I basically do already. When The Circuit landed on my doorstep a few weeks ago, I could only kick myself and curse Rowan Ricardo Phillips—the estimable poet and Paris Review sports contributor who, alas, has beaten me to the punch.
The Circuit, the first of Phillips’s books dedicated solely to sports, is a diary of the 2017 tennis season in the main and the men’s pro tour. At a glance, 2017 doesn’t look all that different from the years that came before—which is to say it was thoroughly dominated by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the undisputed G.O.A.T.s of the men’s game. But Phillips goes further. He accounts for the faintest ripples in the butterfly effect.
The author starts with last January’s Qatar Open final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, a clash that seemed to portend the coming of a new Big 2. But after a long, hard-fought three-setter that Djokovic won in the end, the Serb fell into the worst slump of his gilded career. Murray, who began the year as the world’s top-ranked player, was hobbled by a hip injury that would require surgery and sideline him for much of the season. Meanwhile, the handful of upstarts who might have stepped into the breach were still too weak for tennis’s reigning kings. “And just like that,” Phillips writes, “what Doha was vanished. No one ever spoke of it again.”