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David Kersh

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Harpo Marx and Roger Federer: An Awesome Match-Up

Posted: 02/27/2012 12:04 pm

Watching them in action, in their respective playing fields, Harpo Marx and Roger Federer take one to a higher place that feels much the same, at least to this humble spectator: a state of pure joy.

Some weeks back, while my wife and the kids were asleep, I found myself watching a Federer semi-final match on one channel and the Marx Brothers Night at Casablanca on another. Unable to decide which one to watch, I kept switching back and forth and something happened: Harpo and Federer were suddenly matched-up, side by side, and linked in a dual image. Harpo was decked out in an old-fashioned padded football outfit, engaged in a silly sword duel, where he masterfully and playfully exhausts and frustrates his opponent with comic grace. Federer, neatly suited in his Swiss gray and red Nike attire, a few strands of hair dangling over his signature headband, looking graceful, calm and collected, following through with his balletic one-handed backhand as he outplays his opponent with athletic grace.

There was another thing that led me to consider the possibility of a Harpo-Federer nexus to a higher force. Shortly after I wrote a piece called "Harpo's Holy Harp," I recalled David Foster Wallace's wonderful essay, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." And it got me thinking: maybe there was something here, a way to approach a "religious experience" via the bodily movements of a clown and a tennis player.

In his essay, Foster Wallace refers to "Federer Moments." Those are moments of ecstasy witnessing shots that are impossible to make and yet are carried out with skill and beauty. "These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K." His essay is an impressive and instructive tennis lesson, an effort to approach the mystery of Federer and the brilliance of his beautiful game. In doing so, he places Federer in the context of a modern tennis game made up principally of a baseline power game -- a tennis transformed from quickness and finesse to brute power fostered by technology, condition and training. With top-notch sentences he delves into how Federer's game, based on touch, subtlety, precision, speed, virtuosity, has prevailed among powerful hitters with heavy topspin, aggressive baseline angles, pace and raw power.

Foster Wallace touches upon the term "kinetic beauty," which is related to a human being's reconciliation with having a body and what this means, for good and ill. Like certain athletes, Federer seems exempt from certain physical laws -- he possesses phenomenal reflexes, speed and athletic intelligence. "There is also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and prophetical vision and kinesthetic range instead of rote race..." As we inch closer to the mystery of Federer, we are in the realm of metaphysics and the recognition that Federer presents us with something enigmatic and larger than ESPN: a religious experience.

But what about Harpo, with his anarchic elegance and gentle wildness? How does he fit into this picture? It is well-known he was a croquet fanatic, and not a tennis player. And though the stuffy world of tennis, the pomp, tradition and pre-Agassi white attire, would seem prime material for the Marx Brothers to stain with their fun and mayhem, there was no Marx Brothers at Wimbledon movie that I know off.

Like Federer moments, there are Harpo moments. And lots of them, moments of such comic delight I am temped to modify Foster Wallace's sentence: "These are times, as you watch Harpo play around, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K." Harpo too "misdirects and disguises." He disguises himself to manipulate his opponents and claim victory. And what stands out above all -- as Harpo runs around chasing women, goofing around, blowing bubbles, cutting everything with scissors, honking horns, dropping silverware, pulling horns, lighters, knifes or fishes out of his pocket of tricks -- is the way his body destabilizes others and pushes the limits with a contagious lunacy that spills from the screen onto our side of the world and fills us with doses of delight.

In Harpo's comic court of chaos there are no white lines, no baseline to stay within, no net to block the speedy flight of a ball. So deliciously out of line, he aims for boundless space, while Federer's mastery resides in spotting inches of empty space on a grass, clay or hard court. They are, however, joined in their fancy footwork or better yet, as in Harpo's case, fancy legwork, with his most famous act: the lightning speed "Leg Up," where one suddenly finds oneself holding Harpo's leg in mid-air. Like Federer's many moves, it seems to defy physical laws. Armed with more than a racket and single tennis ball in a pocket, Harpo surprises us with what he pulls out from his infinite pocketful of tricks. And, if we want to keep this game going, this unlikely rally going back and forth, we might also point out how they look for love from different angles.

So alike at home, with their stable conventional family lives, and yet otherworldly figures in their playing fields. Like Federer's kinetic beauty there is comedic beauty, and Harpo is at the front, leading the way, honking his horn in Federer's face as the tennis player sits down in between points, barely breaking out in a sweat.