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.