The first U.S. National Championship tennis tournament took place in 1881 on grass in Newport, Rhode Island. Dick Sears, a Harvard student who had picked up the game two years before, won the singles title. By 1968, the tournament was played on clay courts in Queens, New York, and the competition was a bit stiffer.
In the 1968 men’s singles semifinals, a 25-year-old white professional, Clark Graebner, met a 25-year-old black amateur, Arthur Ashe. Ashe would go on to win the championship, the only amateur to do that in the open era (until 1967, only amateurs could compete) – but that may not be the most important part of the tennis match.
Watching it live that day on CBS was John McPhee, the New Yorker magazine writer. It was a seesawing drama – at one point in the third set, 186 points had been played and each man had won 93. These two men had been playing tennis for half their lives and playing each other almost as long. They knew each other’s games inside out. McPhee asked CBS for a recording of the broadcast.
The result, after McPhee watched and re-watched it and interviewed Ashe and Graebner, was “Levels of the Game,” which ran in several parts in The New Yorker in 1969. McPhee tried to show what went through two top players’ heads – because he asked them – as each competed for high stakes against someone he knew. No one had done that before. It was a tour de force of sportswriting, and of reporting, period.
Jump forward 49 years, to when a video is posted on YouTube, “Border collie enthusiastically watches herself win agility competition on TV.” This is Kirk, a female who won the Small Dog Agility competition at the 2017 Purina Incredible Dog Challenge Western Regionals. What you’re seeing is the lass in front of a TV, watching a recording of herself doing it. She’s leaping up and down in obvious excitement at ... what? Seeing herself compete? Seeing a dog do something fun? Does Kirk know that’s her? (Does she even know what she looks like?)
What we want to know is what McPhee wanted to know: What is going through this competitor’s mind?
Our best guess is that Kirk is doing something like playing Wii tennis. It’s metaphorical and quite real.
We only say that because we know a border collie, Charlie, who plays a little tennis.
When he was a pup, Charlie hung around tennis courts while we played, and raced around outside the fence, following the ball from end to end as though he were the ball, or whomever we were playing. When we served, he lined up behind the receiver, trying to read the play. He liked it well enough (he adored it) but he longed to be the player, we assumed. So we started taking him to play.
Several years later, we still play tennis with Charlie. Until just lately, we took him to public courts in the afternoon, savoring the last outdoor-playing days of the year. We serve 10 balls, which he intercepts if they’re in the box; he is a stickler for the rules. He lines them up, a little wetter with spit for wear, along the baseline, then switches sides – and we start again. What is he thinking?
Dogs, like tennis players, live in a nearly eternal present, where microseconds count more than days. Kirk knows what she knows: She is the course and the dog. Charlie knows he is playing a game, although he could not tell you how fun is different from work. He knows his role because he’s made it, and so he is always correct: He is that dog and he is the ball.
It is something to see.