Unlike John McPhee’s Levels of the Game or, more recently, L. Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius, both of which chronicle individual matches to plumb the depths of professional tennis, Phillips takes a broader perspective to explore a pivotal year in men’s tennis ... Phillips reveals his love of tennis on every page. There is a generosity of spirit toward the reader as he explains the tournament calendar, how the A.T.P. ranking system works and how important seedings are in Grand Slam draws. He even includes a comprehensive glossary of tennis terms ... [Phillips'] description of the contrasting styles of Federer and Nadal is incisive, lucid and inspired ... [Phillips'] prose becomes lyrical as he transmits the shot-by-shot drama of the match. It’s what makes The Circuit such a joy to read: a poet’s love song to the game of tennis.
Phillips keeps the pages turning with an easy yet exacting style and keen observations. Tennis nerds in particular will enjoy his parsing of Federer’s retooled backhand ... Furthermore, Phillips’s wit suffuses this text. I laughed out loud when he likened Murray’s on-court demeanor to that of 'a beekeeper about to enter a hive,' and when he brought up Cédric Mourier, the retiring chair umpire who everyone loved to hate until Carlos Ramos came along and tripped up Serena Williams at this year’s U.S. Open ... For those who worry about getting these inside jokes or understanding the relentless action that sets them up, fear not: Phillips opens The Circuit with a lengthy glossary on scoring and jargon ... But the thing that Phillips really nails is the specific dedication it takes to follow the sport, which spends the year chasing the sun like a dog tracking, well, a tennis ball ... What The Circuit offers instead is an insider-y view from the spectator’s seat, which is not an easy trick to pull. But Phillips manages the job with alacrity.
[Phillips’] sports writing arises from close attention to the layers of nuance involved in the mechanics of play ... Phillips’ lyrical impulses ignite his compressed, efficient, accurate, lively and always liquid prose ... The Circuit does not mix tennis writing with local or international politics, global economic, or ecological matters. Rather, Phillips follows the model of a friend, 'a distinguished historian, who goes out of his way to keep his comments on current events to the bare minimum.' Avoiding hot takes on the political zeitgeist or the meanings of specific matches, Phillips wields his prose like an elegant, one-handed backhand, fending off florid metaphors and deflecting the canards about sports, to present the tour’s basic process: the sport is a distraction ... Even though Phillips has leaned away from making explicit political commentary, it’s hard not thinking through the book’s external contexts and internal gestures.
Written in lyrical prose with occasional references to visual arts... Phillips’ account is refreshingly analytical and observant of various nuances and tactics of the game, which he sees as a contest of “deception and surprise ... Seasoned tennis players and avid fans will enjoy reliving this year in the sport from the perspective of an astute observer.
The Circuit is a tennis romance, and unique. Phillips knows the love. He is a sportswriter and poet, and remarkably, because tennis love isn’t easy to explain, he has found the right supple, sometimes tactile, and tender language for it ... As if writing a mystery, Phillips keeps his tour story suspenseful. He develops each player as a character in the greater game—that is, their lives—and, through the narrative, also tracks their hopes, travails, luck, failures, their tennis magic. He knows and assesses the players very well, gleaning, to my mind, their tennis souls ... You may never have played tennis or watched it, but Phillips beautifully describes the experience of loving it. His exegesis might stand in for any fan’s love of any sport.
Mr. Phillips writes about the top-ranked men, like Mr. Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But he seems to have more pleasure—and fine phrases with more flair and sting—when discussing the less successful players, ones who have never won a major title ... Suffice to say, I’d love to sit down and watch tennis with Mr. Phillips. But his book has one big problem: It’s thin on reporting ... Mr. Phillips has writing skills comparable to [John] McPhee’s, which is high praise ... Maybe Mr. Phillips and [Andy] Murray have spent time together. I can’t tell, and that made me enjoy the book a little bit less.
[The book's] narrative is compelling throughout, but it is a funny little book. It opens with a 21-page glossary of tennis terms that is so basic it includes 'Ad court' ('The left side of the court') and 'Backswing' ('The action of drawing back the racket to hit the ball'), suggesting this is a tennis tome for people who know next to nothing about tennis. Just a handful of pages later, however, Phillips calls big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, the 2016 Wimbledon finalist, 'the Clark Graebner we didn't ask for but deserve.' Do you know who Clark Graebner is? If so, you don't need a 21-page glossary of tennis terms. Maybe the glossary is tongue-in-check. It's not clear ... We can hope that Rowan Ricardo Phillips will be watching [the 2019 Australian Open] and will offer up his insights in 'The Circuit II.'
For award-winning poet Phillips, tennis became a 'private joy' even after he stopped playing. That sense of joy imbues his vivid recounting of one historic, emotionally roiling year ... Despite a short explanation about scoring and a 20-page glossary of terms, readers who don’t know a bagel from a breadstick may be challenged to follow some descriptions of particular matches and the variables involved in players’ rankings ... Nevertheless, Phillips conveys the relentless tension of a game ... A treat for avid tennis fans.
Phillips energetically illustrates the fascination 'to watch someone lose something that no one among the thousands or millions could see but all could feel' and the tactics players use. Phillips’s enthusiastic recollection of the 2017 season will enthrall tennis fans.