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Interview with a Philosopher: On Tennis and Life - What the Racket is All About

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What do philosophers have to say about life that's relevant to your interests? Can modern thinkers help us better understand our experience in the world?

In addition to my own musings on life here, I'm going to be doing from time to time a series of interviews with interesting philosophers on their current ideas and work. I'm pleased to launch this new format today by talking with Dave Baggett, whose recently edited book Tennis and Philosophy: What the Racket is All About has just been published by the University Press of Kentucky. Dave is a winning philosopher, and is the student of a former student of mine, which makes him an intellectual grandson of sorts. This is his fifth book, with more to come.

Tom: Dave, back in college I played a lot of tennis. I'd often hit for many hours a day. So did my first philosophy professor, Paul Ziff. When I became a professor, the department at Notre Dame was full of tennis players. What made you want to do a book on tennis and philosophy?

Dave: Well, first, it's great to chat with you, Tom, and thanks for the opportunity. The book was a chance to bring together two great loves of my life. I've pursued philosophy since college, but played tennis since I was just a boy, so it seemed a natural fit to explore some great Greeks like Plato, Aristotle, and Sampras. Seriously, any human endeavor that offers a chance at achieving excellence, demonstrating sportsmanship, exercising discipline, and sometimes feeling like a loser gives us ample fodder for philosophical reflection.

Tom: Good points. The opening chapter of the book is by the late David Foster Wallace. Please explain, for anyone who doesn't know, who he was and how he was connected to philosophy.

Dave: Wallace was a brilliant writer. The son of a prominent philosopher, he initially intended to study philosophy himself, gaining entrance to Harvard for his doctorate in philosophy with a focus on logic. But he dropped out to pursue a creative writing degree and went on to write some great books, like Infinite Jest. He had also been a ranked junior tennis player, and his writing weaves together themes of tennis and philosophy, so he was a perfect fit.

The piece for our book is on the almost religious nature of watching Roger Federer play tennis. Not unlike Plato, who thought that instances of beauty in this world could evoke a sense of the highest Beauty, Wallace wrote that something similar can happen when we see an athlete move with such dignity and grace. It can, he suggests, almost reconcile us with having a body, despite the vulnerabilities having a body introduces.

Tom: What chapters did you contribute to the book? Your first rate editorial work is surpassed only by your philosophical insightfulness.

Dave: Well, thanks! I wrote two of them, one on whether Federer is the all-time best tennis player, a question not just interesting for tennis fans, but rife with philosophical significance. The question raises issues like what, if any, the criteria are for determining the best, whether there's such a thing as the best, how we can compare players from different eras using different equipment playing different opponents, and quite a bit more. Ultimately I argue there's a kind of vagueness involved that makes it hard if not impossible to say for sure who's the best, even though I think someone or other is indeed the best. It would have been fun to explore who the all-time best woman player was, too, but we ran out of time.

The other chapter was co-written with Neil Delaney, Jr., the son of an old colleague of yours at Notre Dame. We explored friendship among tennis rivals, like Navratilova and Evert or Sampras and Agassi, who recently have been less than friendly with one another. We ended up concluding that Jimmy Connors was perhaps the best example of the sort of friend Nietzsche encouraged, one who pushes those around him to their best, enabling excellence not otherwise achievable.

Tom: You dedicated the book to the great Arthur Ashe. I always admired him and once saw him play, close-up. Tell us about the decision to dedicate the book to him.

Dave: Ashe is a hero of mine; his memoir Days of Grace is well worth reading, and he lived an amazing life. He was a man of integrity and a scholar. He grew up in Richmond Virginia, where today on Memorial Avenue is a statue of him, with a tennis racket in one hand and books in the other, and the books are held higher. We have a whole chapter in the book dedicated to him in which Jeanine Weekes Schroer explores some of his ideas in the context of discussing what it means to be part of a "race."

Tom: What are some of the other chapters and the main ideas you take on in the book?

Dave: We canvass topics ranging from excellence to sportsmanship, and from the nature of competition to the ideal of beauty to the ethics of rage. We discuss the distinction between appearance and reality and the temptation to assign primacy to image over substance. We interview Brad Gilbert (who coached both Agassi and Andy Roddick to #1 rankings in the world) on "excuse-making" in the game; we even explore whether a great tennis movie will ever be made. And we devote a chapter to the famous Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King battle of the sexes and discuss both the social import of that moment and why the fight for sexual equality is similar to but also importantly different from the battle for racial equality.

Tom: Sounds great! If you could say one more thing about tennis and life and philosophy, what it would be?

Dave: Just this great quotation from the recent Agassi autobiography: "It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it's all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It's our choice."

Tom: Will I find this new book in my local Barnes and Noble?

Dave: Unfortunately not. Despite its popular appeal, it's coming out from a university press that doesn't often get its books into Borders or Barnes, but they can special order it, and it's readily available online, like at amazon.com. You can get it in just a little more time than it takes to play a really great match.

Tom: Thanks Dave, and I wish you all the best with it.

Dave: Thank you, Tom! And since you're my intellectual grandfather and all, let's go fishing!

Tom: That sounds like another book may already be on the hook - The Philosophical Angler.